We commonly differentiate ‘sex’ as biological identity, from ‘gender,’ which is the cultural, social, and psychological differences between males and females. Gender then refers to the patterns we associate with men and women in a cultural context. The relationship between sex and gender often seen as direct or compulsory, but is socially constructed. As I’ve previously posted, the Gender Unicorn illustrates the difference between gender identity, gender expression, sex assigned at birth, physical attraction, and emotional attraction.
Recently, Germany has recognized a third gender for intersex people. As I’ve previously posted, intersex people “do not fit the typical definition of male or female… biological characteristics.” Theorist Judith Butler argues gender is performative in that it “produces a series of effects” that “consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman.” We are not born as men and women, but that it is in social interaction that gender identities are reproduced.
Other terms that have entered the general vernacular around gender include ‘cisgender’ and ‘transgender’ people. Cisgender people are those whose sex assigned at birth does correspond with their gender identity. Transgender people are those whose sex assigned at birth does not correspond with their gender identity. Because transgender people encounter intolerance and violence, gender performance can be complex.
It is becoming more common for young people to identify as gender ‘non binary,’ meaning they do not identify as male or female, or ‘non conforming,’ meaning their gender expression does not correspond with the cultural expectations of their respective gender. A study recently found that 27% of teenagers in California are gender nonconforming. In Oregon and California, residents can legally identify as non binary on drivers licenses and state documents. In 2017, a baby in Canada became the first to have the gender status of ‘unassigned’ or ‘undetermined’ on their health records. Some celebrities, such as musician Sam Smith and actress Amandla Stenberg, have also come out as gender non binary.
Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side” was recently put under the microscope after being called “transphobic” by a student group. The original song was released on Lou Reed’s Transformer in 1972.
Lyrics from Genus.com:
Holly came from Miami F L A
Hitchhiked her way across the U S A
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side,”
Said “Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side.”
Candy came from out on the Island
In the backroom she was just everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, “Hey baby, take a walk on the wild side”
Said, “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side”
And the colored girls go
Doo doo doo…
Little Joe never once gave it away
Everybody had to pay and pay
A hustle here and a hustle there
New York City is the place where they said
“Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side”
I said “Hey Joe, take a walk on the wild side”
Sugar Plum Fairy came and hit the streets
Looking for soul food and a place to eat
Went to the Apollo
You should have seen him go go go
They said “Hey sugar, take a walk on the wild side”
I said “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side” alright, huh
Jackie, she is just speeding away
Thought she was James Dean for a day
Then you know that she had to crash on
Valium would have helped that dash
She said “Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side”
I said, “Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side”
And the colored girls say
Doo doo doo…
Students at University of Guelph, Ontario issued an apology on their website for playing the song at a function, stating “We now know the lyrics to this song are hurtful to our friends in the trans community and we’d like to unreservedly apologize for this error in judgment.” What is considered objectionable was the “problematic” suggestion that transgender people are “wild” and the phrasing “he was a she.” Note, no mention was made of the use of the word “colored.”
While today the song would probably be phrased differently, contextualized it was very socially advanced for its time. The Stonewall riots were in 1969, homosexuality wasn’t removed by the American Psychiatric Association from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual until 1973. Just mentioning transgender people, oral sex, and drugs in a song was controversial. Lou Reed himself dated a transgender woman for years and was subject to electroshock treatment as a teenager to “cure” his homosexuality.
Most seem to think that the students were overreacting and projecting modern sensibilities. The song still has a lot of power for many young people. I had one student do a class project about the song just last semester. Though they might not be representative, most queer and trans people I know thought the censorship was ridiculous and potentially harmful for trans and queer communities. Friends in bands have pointed out that when they cover the song they just change the lyrics to “she was a she” and “the girls sing.”
Most importantly, Holly Woodlawn, the subject of the first stanza, was interviewed about the song. When saying the lyrics out loud she says “… was a she” skipping over the “he” in the original, but otherwise enjoying the lyrics. She said she loves the song because it has given her immortality.
The topic of hipster racism has been talked about in the past but now seems particularly appropriate to revisit. Hipster racism is when “hipsters” think making racist comments is ironic, edgy, or a way to semantically diffuse weighty terminology. Despite whatever cultural context or obfuscation, the statements/actions/objects are still racist.
image from Vice
In 1979, Lester Bangs wrote “The White Noise Supremacists,” confronting racism in counterculture, as well as his own use of the n word. Colorlines revisited the piece in 2012, pointing to the continuing problem in hipster culture.
Five years later, there is now a newly labeled hipster neo-nazi subculture, the “alt right.” Even the use of “alt” or alternative is a buzzword in subcultural circles. Like larger hipster culture there is associated clothing, language, and haircuts. Recently, Fred Perry felt the need to distance himself from the alt right because his polo shirts are quite popular with neo nazi groups like the Proud Boys.
To end on a happier note…
The documentary Paris is Burning is a particularly important record of LGTQ people of color in New York in the 1980s. More specifically, the film is about the ballroom subculture, made up primarily of young, disenfranchised LGTQ POC gathering to “walk” and dance (where “voguing” comes from) in costume. The film has had a lasting impact on current vernacular, such as “shade,” “kiki,” and “realness.”
There was controversy after the documentary around compensation and how the project was represented by Jennie Livingston. The subjects of the documentary lived difficult lives in poverty and the film ended with the murder of Venus Xtravaganza. The resulting question is for documentary film makers as it is for ethnographers – When your career is based in the lives of your subjects, what do you owe them? How might you change their lives by making them famous while they still live in poverty?
The discord around the film reoccured around the 2015 Celebrate Brooklyn screening of Paris is Burning, which was to be accompanied by Jennie Livingston and DJ’ed by JD Samson, both of whom are white queer people. No people of color or representatives from the continuing ballroom scene were invited. Attention was quickly drawn to the silencing of people of color around their own stories and parallels to ongoing gentrification in Brooklyn. A change.org petition declaring “#ParisIsBurnt” was started calling for canceling the event. Ultimately Samson dropped out and ballroom participants who appeared in the documentary were invited to participate.
This year the documentary Kiki was released and has drawn parallels to Paris is Burning, though the director seems to have taken a more collaborative approach and learned from Livingston’s mistakes. It looks at the contemporary ballroom subculture, the importance of DIY, and activism.
In an article originally titled “Female-named hurricanes kill more than male hurricanes because people don’t respect them, study finds,” later changed to “Female-named hurricanes probably do NOT kill more people than male hurricanes,” a Washington Post journalist cited a 2014 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that has since been critiqued and rebutted.
Image from NASA.
Now in the Oxford English Dictionary, Godwin’s Law is “[t]he theory that as an online discussion progresses, it becomes inevitable that someone or something will eventually be compared to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis, regardless of the original topic.” To invoke a nazi comparison is then to both lose and end an argument, similar to Leo Strauss’s ‘reductio ad Hitlerum.’ The term, originally unscientific and playful, is being taken more seriously in the current climate. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was criticized when he attempted to move the goalpost while discussing Syria. Godwin himself has commented on the Trump comparisons, stating if made, they should be informed, “thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history.”