The PC idiocy of calling Lou Reed transphobic

The Guelph Central Student Association, at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, has made a public apology for the inclusion of Lou Reed’s famous song, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, in a playlist for a university event. The student group described the song as ‘transphobic’, and apologised for the ‘ignorance’ of the executive who included the song, adding: ‘The person making the list did not know or understand the lyrics.’

The student group also released a statement (published on Facebook and then deleted) condemning the lyrics as ‘problematic’. Apparently, by describing his experiences in the company of trans women as ‘walking on the wild side’, Reed was espousing ‘dangerous rhetoric’ that wrongly portrayed the lives of these women as odd or unconventional.

Some people have, indeed, deeply misunderstood the lyrics to Reed’s song – those who are calling it transphobic. ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ describes the characters Reed mixed with in 1970s New York – people on the fringes of society. The song is set in the context of taboo themes like drug use, prostitution and casual sex. What this student group has failed to realise is that the people Reed described in his song not only acknowledged the unconventional nature of their lifestyles, they revelled in it. ‘Lou was open about his complete acceptance of all creatures of the night’, remarked Reed’s friend and back-up dancer Jenni Muldaur. ‘Everyone doing their thing, taking a walk on the wild side… the album was called Transformer. What do they think it’s about?’

Despite Reed being one of the first artists in history to sing, sympathetically and affectionately, about transgender women, he is still vilified for not following a modern PC script. Holly Woodward, the transgender actress who inspired a portion of the lyrics, was delighted by her role as Reed’s muse. ‘Lou Reed made me immortal’, she said.

The funny thing is that the people who used to be shocked by Reed’s lyrics were those living in the polite circles of suburbia. Now, it is young, trendy students who find themselves offended by Reed’s portrayal of trans women. The attempt to censor a piece of music for not meeting a certain moral standard is deeply conservative, and would be more suited to a church meeting than a university event.

The freedom of musicians to take an unflinching look at the world around them and write about it as they see fit must be protected. We should be alarmed at the willingness of this student group to condemn yesterday’s art for not pandering to today’s You Can’t Say That culture. Labelling brilliant pieces of art and culture (like ‘Walk on the Wild Side’) as ‘problematic’ is idiotic. Furthermore, the erasure of such songs or artworks from popular culture would be a huge loss to us all.

Milja Kljajic is a writer based in London.

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