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Trans anthems: Why aren’t they more popular? And does it really matter?

Joseph P. O’Brien

Joseph P. O’Brien

Joseph P. O’Brien is a writer, musician, public librarian, and trans person. They won the 2021 “Innovative Program” Award from the New Jersey Library Association for producing a series of “Musical Storytime” videos about gender diversity. Joseph is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University.

The rights of trans people have been a hot topic lately. Yet while music played a significant role in the civil rights movements of women, gays, and Black Americans, there haven’t exactly been any songs about the struggles of trans people that have captured hearts or climbed the charts. There’s no simple answer as to why that’s the case. But what’s more important is that trans musicians continue to be seen and heard, regardless of the messages in their songs.
 

You want them to notice

the ragged ends of your summer dress

You want them to see you…

– Laura Jane Grace (1)

Can you hear me now?
Wait, can you–
Wait, wait, can you hear me now?

-Ezra Furman (2)

For transgender Americans, it’s an exhilarating and exasperating time to be alive. Over the past several years we’ve been receiving levels of respect and support from mainstream society that, until recently, we were never sure we’d live to see. This has allowed many of us to feel more comfortable making ourselves visible, and this increased visibility has allowed many of us to finally experience the kind of happiness that we never imagined was possible.

And yet, this has inspired many other people to make their scorn for us more visible as well. So far, hundreds of bills proposing laws to limit the rights of trans people have been introduced to U.S. state legislatures in 2021, far surpassing the number of such bills in previous years (2).

In times past, fights for civil rights in America often used music to fuel their causes. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “freedom songs are the soul of the movement […] the songs add hope to our determination […] the songs bind us together, give us courage together, help us to march together” (3). Dr. King was referring to gospel-rooted songs like We Shall Overcome and Go Tell it on the Mountain, but his words could just as easily apply to secular songs such as Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam or Kendrick Lamar’s Alright.

Feminists got their share of inspirational songs too, from Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me and Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman, to Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl and Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women. Even if these anthems didn’t necessarily arise from the same spiritual origins as the freedom songs Dr. King spoke of, they were arguably just as valuable to rallying troops in the crusade for women’s liberation.

You could also make a pretty fierce playlist of tunes that helped energize crowds at Pride Parades and other gatherings of gay rights activism, and it would surely include jams like Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), Diana Ross’ I’m Coming Out, Queen’s I Want to Break Free, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. True, not all the songs on that playlist would be by gay musicians, or are even explicitly about gayness, but that wouldn’t make such songs any less meaningful or effective.

Yet when it comes to the movement of trans rights & visibility, our soundtrack doesn’t quite measure up to any of the previous movements. That’s not to say there’s a shortage of songs by trans musicians about their experiences and struggles, because there isn’t. It’s just that none of those songs have captured hearts or lit up the charts to anywhere near the same degree as the dozen songs I’ve mentioned so far.

Google “trans musicians”, and the first face you’ll see belongs to Laura Jane Grace, the singer/songwriter/guitarist of the punk band Against Me! Personally, I dig Laura’s music, and she has unquestionably written numerous songs that qualify as trans anthems. Most of those songs appear on Against Me!’s album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which peaked at #23 on the Billboard 200. Of course, as high as that album may have charted, none of its tracks ever caught America’s attention nearly as much as trans issues in general have in recent years.

The most well-known song about transness might be The Kinks’ 1970 hit Lola. It’s sung from the perspective of a guy who becomes smitten with a woman he meets in a club, has a brief moment of panic when he realizes she’s transgender, but ultimately comes to accept her identity and his attraction to her. Today’s pronoun police might pick nits with the ways that the character of Lola is represented at various points throughout the song, but there’s no doubt that The Kinks’ singer/songwriter Ray Davies feels sincerely affectionate and sympathetic toward her. If that weren’t obvious enough from the song’s lyrics, Davies himself has confirmed as much in interviews. “It doesn’t really matter what sex Lola is,” Davies has said. “I think she’s alright” (4).

I’d say Lola makes for a solid trans anthem in 2021, let alone over 50 years ago when it was first recorded (I’m especially surprised that, while it definitely generated some controversy in its time, it still managed to hit the top 10 in a dozen countries). But while I’ll love and appreciate Lola for as long as I live, it’s still rather unfortunate that the most prominent trans anthem I can think of is old enough to join the AARP and didn’t come from an openly trans musician.

Certainly, there are other iconic songs we could classify as trans anthems: David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel, The Replacements’ Adrogynous, Blur’s Girls & Boys, to name a few. But despite Bowie’s history of gender-bending, neither he, nor any of the other artists behind those songs, could be classified as trans either.

Is that because, at less than 1% of the US population, there are far fewer of us than there are Black Americans, or women, or people in the broader LGBT community? Maybe – but that hasn’t prevented openly trans celebrities from making waves in mainstream film, TV, or politics, like Elliot Page, Laverne Cox, or Caitlyn Jenner (notwithstanding, that is, music stars who have publicly identified as non-binary although not as trans per se, such as Miley Cyrus, Sam Smith, and Demi Lovato).

So why aren’t there more popular trans musicians and/or trans anthems? Frankly, I don’t know. It’s probably for a whole host of reasons I can’t even begin to untangle right here and now. What I can say is: at this point in time, I doubt it matters all that much.

I’m not trying to be defeatist here. I’m actually very optimistic that the rights and acceptance of trans people will continue to grow across America and the rest of the world. All I’m saying is that music, as great and powerful as it is, doesn’t need to play as much of a role in the trans movement as it has for other movements in the past.

For one thing, the trans movement didn’t really begin to pick up steam until the social media era, i.e., a vastly different time than the 20th Century that birthed the likes of MLK, Gloria Steinem, and Harvey Milk. While songs helped bond and embolden Civil Rights Activists in the 1960s, social media has largely served that purpose for trans people over the past decade or so.

For another thing, how much do we need trans anthems if trans people and our allies seem to be making good enough progress without them? At this point, how much would a hit trans anthem actually affect anyone who’s not already inclined to support our cause? Can songs about social issues really change people’s minds all that much anymore? Maybe in the ‘60s, some folks heard Bob Dylan sing The Times They Are a-Changin’ and it made them think: “Gee, I guess my beliefs are a bit obsolete, aren’t they?, but is that something we’re actually capable of in 2021? When we listen to music about social issues now, don’t we just, for the most part, want to crank tunes that make us feel righteous, and that reinforce what we already believe?

My all-time favorite band for the past 20 years has been The Clash, and making music about social issues was kind of their thing, but the reason I love The Clash is precisely because they used punk rock to express things I was already thinking and feeling, like how the corporate world is just a shinier kind of prison, or how hyper-capitalist greed is bad for society. And after all, The Clash’s Joe Strummer himself said that he harbored no illusions about changing the world; all he wanted to do was try (5).

On the flip side, I do love a lot of music with lyrics that do not reflect my worldview at all. For example, I don’t know how seriously I’m supposed to take the attitudes toward women on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, but I do know that musically it’s awesome and I’ll still listen to it roughly once a year. I also know that no matter how many times I listen to it, it’s never going to make me sincerely think that women are nothing but hoes and tricks.

Furthermore, let’s be real: most musicians who set out to change the world through social issue anthems do not succeed remotely as well as The Clash or Kendrick Lamar or Nina Simone or Bob Dylan. In fact, if you’re not half as talented as those artists, the harder you try to change the world with your music, the more likely your attempt will merely sound like what The Minutemen called “iron-fisted philosophy” (6).

Indeed, music has raised my awareness about certain issues. System of a Down, for instance, taught me much about the prison industrial complex, and the Armenian genocide of World War I. There is, however, a big difference between changing someone’s mind and raising their awareness. It’s not that I ever would’ve been in favor of things like mass incarceration or murdering Armenians; I simply needed System of a Down to inform me about those things as they rocked my socks off with their insanely mind-melting prog-metal.

Which is why I think that if there’s anything music can do for trans people in lieu of a playlist full of hit-worthy protest songs, it can simply help raise more awareness that we’re here, we’re everywhere, even where you think we’re not. In other words, trans musicians can just focus on making good music, without caring so much whether that music is anthemic enough.

Let me elaborate by going back to 2015, a very important year in trans visibility. That was the year Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympian formerly known as Bruce, came out as a trans woman. Regardless of what you or I may think about Caitlyn Jenner as a reality TV personality, as a political figure, or as an individual in general, her coming out helped normalize and humanize transness in a tremendous way, which eventually helped thousands, if not millions, of people like me feel more secure making ourselves visible too.

Not long after Caitlyn Jenner came out, I was watching Later…With Jools Holland, the British series where six or seven musical acts take turns performing in each episode. In the middle of the episode I was watching, Jools introduced a musician I’d never seen or heard before called Ezra Furman. Ezra started playing a song called Lousy Connection that I immediately fell in love with. It was a wry, postmodern blend of doo-wop and punkish indie rock, accompanied by some of the most brilliant and resonant lyrics I’d heard in a long time.
 

[Ezra’s performance on the Jools Holland show isn’t available online, but it was very similar to the one linked above.]

Lousy Connection gave voice to a soul who had so much they wanted and needed to tell the world, but for various reasons they couldn’t. It’s the song of someone who’s often misunderstood, almost like they’re speaking the same language as everyone around them, but in a far different dialect. Someone who feels like they’re always playing a game of telephone with the universe and the signal keeps cutting out. And on top of all that, there’s so much that this person simply can’t communicate, even if they were speaking the correct language over the most crystal-clear connection, because they’re absolutely terrified of the responses they’d get.

It’s late at night, it’s time to tell you my secrets”, begins the first verse. “My personality’s cut up into pieces.” The last verse ends, “I got the world’s ear, I’m all fucking mumbles; I guess I’m just another link in the chain” (2).

In addition to the music and lyrics of Lousy Connection, Ezra’s appearance seized my attention: short, sloppy hair; eyeliner surrounding big, bright, tired, Billie Joe Armstrong-esque eyes; two-day stubble surrounding bold red lipstick; pearl necklace hanging over a thrift-store dress. In short, the look of femininity trying to break free from a biologically masculine body.

It was a look that resonated with me just as profoundly as Ezra’s lyrics. I started cross-dressing in private almost a dozen years before 2015, and at that time I had told practically nobody. I tried telling my wife once, back when she was my new girlfriend, but it didn’t quite get across the way I thought it did. As Ezra might’ve put it, the message was scrambled (2).

So for me, seeing Ezra Furman on the Jools Holland show in 2015 was even more inspirational than Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out. That’s because Caitlyn was much further along in her journey than I was; I was still tucked way back in the corner of the closet. Ezra was ahead of me too, but was at least way closer to me than Caitlyn. At that time, Ezra still had short hair and stubble. Ezra still identified as gender-fluid, not trans, and still used he/him pronouns. Caitlyn made me think: maybe the world is finally ready to start taking trans people more seriously. But it was Ezra who made me think: maybe I’m finally ready to let people see me in makeup and dresses. And who knows how much longer it would have taken me to arrive at that place if I hadn’t witnessed Ezra sing that brilliant and super-resonant little tune called Lousy Connection.

I suppose you could classify Lousy Connection as a trans anthem if you chose to hear it as one, especially when you consider the lyric that mentions blue lipstick. But the reason that song resonated and inspired me as much as it did is because it’s so much more than just a trans anthem. It’s a song that can resonate with anyone who has felt they couldn’t, for whatever reason, sing their truth and be understood. Ezra Furman has written a bunch of songs that are most definitely meant to be trans anthems, and many of them are also pretty good, but I don’t know if any of them will ever have the same special place in my heart as Lousy Connection.

Granted, it took me several more years after I first heard that song to truly come out as myself. If you didn’t already know, fully embracing and implementing such a radical change to your identity is the kind of thing that usually has to happen gradually. That’s why we tend to refer to the process as a transition rather than a transformation. Ezra Furman only officially announced herself as a trans woman this past April.

My first step in 2015 was having a series of very explicit conversations with my wife, to ensure there would no longer be any lousy connections between us on the subject. Then for a few months, I allowed myself to cross-dress more often at home. In 2016, I stopped cutting my hair and started allowing myself to cross-dress in public, but only in the guise of art and comedy; I would regularly perform at a literary reading series impersonating famous writers like Dorothy Parker and Emily Dickinson. By the end of 2017 I began seeing a therapist who specialized in gender identity issues, and I would occasionally attend sessions in full girl mode. In early 2018, I finally wore a dress and makeup to one of those literary readings, but this time as myself instead of a dead poet. In June 2019, I went to the New York City Pride Parade in makeup and a dress, and posted a photo of myself on Instagram for all my followers to see. In 2020, I started dressing like myself at work, and a few months later, I officially came out as trans through a blog post I shared on Facebook.

In the days after I shared that post, I received dozens of supportive messages from friends and family, many of whom didn’t know I officially identified as trans. Some of those messages came from people who proudly support Donald Trump and the Republican Party, and who would consider themselves conservative. Some messages came from people who think Donald Trump and the Republican Party are the epitome of intolerance, and who would unquestionably situate themselves on the more progressive end of the socio-political spectrum. And among that second group of people, some admitted that until very recently, they had a much less enlightened opinion about trans people. A couple of those people even acknowledged that my coming out specifically was making them think more sympathetically toward people like me.

That last paragraph might come as a surprise to some people, but it shouldn’t. Polls show that people who identify as Republicans claim to support trans people and oppose anti-trans legislation just as much as self-described Democrats do. The disheartening difference in this instance is that Republicans are the ones who have allowed their party to be hijacked by a minority that does support anti-trans legislation. So to the Republican readers out there: take better control of your party, and hold it accountable to the principles you claim to value. And to those readers who fancy themselves Democrats: I hope you’re not the type to think the voters on your team are by and large more open-minded than the ones on the other team; only your politicians are.

My point is, visibility, awareness, and contact are what will continue to secure trans people a place in society’s heart, and by extension, secure our civil rights. If my anecdotal evidence isn’t convincing enough, a 2017 study concluded that “contact with transgender people positively influences attitudes about transgender people and transgender rights” (7).

So, while it would be cool if more great trans anthems by openly trans musicians took pop culture by storm, what’s more important is that trans people continue to make themselves seen and heard. Because then at some point, all the people who want to deny us our rights will come to understand that at least one person they care about is trans. Obviously, there will always be some people who just want to hate. And sure, some people are so miserable that they’ll never care about enough people to know a trans person they care about. But at least that minority will finally be small enough that they’ll no longer have the power to decide our fate.

As for all the trans musicians out there, I just hope you’ll try to write the best songs you can. I hope you won’t worry too much about how righteous your messages are, and I definitely hope you won’t try too hard to make albums full of trans anthems if you don’t exactly have the knack for that kind of thing. I hope you’ll sing your truth, and I hope that truth will resonate with someone the way Ezra Furman singing Lousy Connection resonated with me. And I hope that song of yours will inspire that person to sing their truth too. Because I’m pretty sure it’s all that truth-singing that’ll change the world more than any so-called anthems ever could.

 

Joseph O’Brien

 

References:

  1.  “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” 2016.
  2.  Furman, E., “Lousy Connection,” 2015.
  3. King, Jr., M.L., “Why We Can’t Wait,” 1964.
  4.  Jovanovic, R., “God Save The Kinks: A Biography,” 2014.
  5. Coon, C., “1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion,” 1977.
  6. The Minutemen, “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing,” 1984.
  7. Tadlock B.L., et al. “Testing Contact Theory and Attitudes on Transgender Rights,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 2017.
Received: 28.05.21, Ready: 15.06.21. Editors: Celeste Varisco, Robert Ganley

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