Here’s Why Lou Reed’s Queer Anthem Isn’t “Transphobic”


What’s the matter with kids today? Some might say it’s an oversupply of misguided rage. Take for example, the recent brouhaha over Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” On any respectable list of the most important LGBTQ anthems, there’s a spot reserved for this great song somewhere near Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out.” More than just a celebration of queer outliers, who all became Andy Warhol “superstars,” living their own authenticity, Reed’s song is also one of the kick-ass defining records in all of rock music. Yet a student organization at University of Guelph in Canada played the issued an apology to a transgender group who had the misfortune to overhear the song during a campus event.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know the lyrics and are humming along with “the colored girls” going “Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.” Presumably it’s the chorus adapted from late entertainer Holly Woodlawn that inspired the outrage/apology. For the uninitiated they go:

Holly came from Miami F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side,
Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side.

Actor Joe Dallesandro, who inspired the hustler character “Little Joe” in Reed’s lyrics described the controversy as “insanity” on his Facebook page. Two of the other characters in the song (Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis) died decades ago. What would Holly think of the tempest in a teapot? We asked filmmaker Mike Stabile, a long-time friend of Woodlawn who passed away in 2015, and is currently directing a documentary about her colorful life. He admitted that the iconic performer had a complicated relationship to the song.

“I think she’d be flummoxed by the outrage,” Stabile tells Flagrant. “Early on in our relationship, I asked her what pronoun she felt most comfortable with me calling her, and she said ‘she, he or it — honey, just so long as you call me!’”

Stabile reveals that Woodlawn’s primary identification didn’t seem to be about gender as much as it was about being an artist. “How would she react to the controversy over the song? I imagine she’d say “but that’s what it was!”

As for the artist himself, Reed, who died in 2013, was anything but transphobic. His recording was meant to be a celebration of his friends, many of whom were gender-nonconforming. For his part, he had a romance with a trans woman named Rachel during the 1970s — several songs on his landmark 1976 album Coney Island Baby document their affair – some (including Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij) have touted him as the first out songwriter of the rock era and his reputation as one of the first androgynous rock stars can’t be disputed. As a teen, Reed’s parents forced him to undergo undergo electroconvulsive therapy, which he described in his song “Kill Your Sons.”

The UoG group deleted its original apology from its Facebook page after internet blowback but posted a note May 24 to clarify its intent: “We recognize Lou Reed’s involvement in and contributions to the LGBTQ+ community, and regret that our post was perceived by some to mean otherwise. We appreciate Lou Reed as an artist, and did not speak to his character in our post. Our sole intent was to acknowledge that the lyrics, in current day, are now being consumed in a different societal context.”

The temperatures may be heating up around the globe, but there will always be snowflakes among us, who should study history and preserve their energy to battle their real enemies.

Take your own “Walk” with Reed and Holly below.

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