Trans Soul Rebels: Songs About Transgenderism

by Jess Grant

From Caitlyn Jenner coming out on the cover of Vanity Fair, to Eddie Redmayne starring in the Lili Elbe biopic The Danish Girl, to Miley Cyrus describing herself as "gender fluid" in Paper, 2015 was undoubtedly a seminal year for the trans community. But while we're only recently seeing it go "mainstream," trans culture has played an important role in music for decades. Starting in 1967, here we take a closer look at 10 songs that have contributed to the transgenderism narrative over the years – both for the better (Lou Reed, The Replacements, Morrissey, Against Me!), and for the worse (Aerosmith).
1) "Arnold Layne" by Pink Floyd

Arnold Layne, had a strange... Hobby!

And so begins one of the earliest accounts of cross-dressing in contemporary music (although not necessarily the first – previous flirtations include "I'm a Boy" by The Who and "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" by The Kinks). Released in April 1967, Pink Floyd's debut single was penned by tragic frontman Syd Barrett about a gentleman who pilfered women's undergarments from "moonshine washing lines" in his bookish hometown of Cambridge, England. Said Roger Waters:

"Both my mother and Syd's had students as lodgers because there was a girls' college up the road, so there were constantly great lines of bras and knickers on our washing lines. Arnold, or whoever he was, took bits and pieces off the washing lines."

Such conduct is certainly reprehensible, but Barrett's lyrics hint at a more widespread intolerance faced by cross-dressers at the time, with Layne's proclivity – which he's forced to indulge in by the light of the moon, out of sight of prying eyes – leading to his arrest and incarceration in the second half of the song:

They gave him time
Doors bang
Chain gang
He hates it!

Unsurprisingly, Barrett and co.'s inaugural effort proved too controversial for many stations, most notably Radio London, which banned it on the absurd grounds that Layne's behavior was "too far removed from normal society." Nevertheless, the song succeeded in infiltrating the British Top 20, indicating the public didn't share the media's aversion to the subject matter. Indeed, when questioned on the ban by Melody Maker, Barrett – who reportedly cross-dressed himself – offered a characteristically pithy response: "Arnold Layne just happens to dig dressing up in women's clothing. A lot of people do – so let's face up to reality."

2) "Lola" by The Kinks

The dawn of the '70s saw an influx of songs about transgenderism, beginning in June 1970 with arguably the most exemplary of them all: "Lola" by The Kinks.

For many years, rumors circulated that Ray Davies wrote the lyrics about a date he went on with transgender actress Candy Darling (the same Candy Darling who Andy Warhol dubbed a "superstar" and who Lou Reed immortalized in "Walk on the Wild Side" – see below). Davies later stated this story was false, however, telling Jon Savage – author of The Kinks: The Official Biography – that "Lola" was in fact inspired by an inebriated encounter the band's manager Robert Wace had with a trans woman at a party in Paris:

"In his apartment, Robert had been dancing with this black woman, and he said, 'I'm really onto a thing here.' And it was okay until we left at six in the morning and then I said, 'Have you seen the stubble?' He said 'Yeah,' but he was too pissed to care, I think."

Regardless of origins, the song is commended among the trans community for its positive – revolutionary, even – depiction of a relationship with a transsexual person. Lola's gender is never questioned by the narrator – she's perceived as a woman as she wants to be perceived. This doesn't diminish her attractiveness or sexual agency – if anything, it serves to heighten it:

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It's a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola

Despite its deliberate syntactic ambiguity, many radio stations faded "Lola" out before the titular character's birth-assigned gender was revealed at the end of the song:

Well I'm not the world's most masculine man
But I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man
And so is Lola

The BBC, meanwhile, banned "Lola" for an altogether different reason: the endorsement of Coca-Cola in the original recording's lyric, "I met her in a club down in old Soho, where you drink champagne and it tastes just like Cola-Cola." As a result, Davies was forced to fly from New York to London – interrupting the band's North American tour – to re-record it to "cherry cola" for the single release.

3) "Walk on the Wild Side" by Lou Reed

She said, Hey babe
Take a walk on the wild side

Lou Reed first became acquainted with the trans community in the mid-'60s when The Velvet Underground served as the house band for The Factory – their manager Andy Warhol's infamous New York City studio. The clique of transgender actresses who hung out at the industrial loft space in Midtown Manhattan - dubbed "Warhol superstars" – soon started to feature in Reed's lyrics ("Sister Ray," "Candy Says," "Lady Godiva's Operation"), although his most elaborate of odes wouldn't emerge until November 1972, once he'd parted ways with both the Velvets and Warhol.

The "Warhol superstars" immortalized in the David Bowie-produced "Walk on the Wild Side" include Holly Woodlawn ("Holly"), Candy Darling ("Candy") and Jackie Curtis ("Jackie"). Joe Dallesandro ("Little Joe") and Joe Campbell ("Sugar Plum Fairy"), actors who were part of the Factory coterie, also feature. The lyrics describe their individual journeys to the Big Apple in search of fame and fortune:

Holly came from Miami FLA
Hitch-hiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she

In 2008, Woodlawn revealed to The Guardian she hadn't met Lou Reed prior to the song's release:

"One day a friend called me and said, 'Turn on the radio!' They were playing 'Walk on the Wild Side.' The funny thing is that, while I knew The Velvet Underground's music, I'd never met Lou Reed. I called him up and said, 'How do you know this stuff about me?' He said, 'Holly, you have the biggest mouth in town.' We met and we've been friends ever since."

Having been forced by his parents to undergo electroshock therapy to discourage attraction to other men as a teenager, Reed more than empathized with the hardships faced by transgender people at the time. Indeed, in 1972, homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Reed defied this discrimination on "Walk on the Wild Side." Like "Lola," it was a vibrant celebration of transgenderism and diversity – an "outright gay song," as Reed described it to Disc and Music Echo. Moreover, with widespread radio play propelling it to #16 on the US chart, "Walk on the Wild Side" was pivotal to opening doors for other artists to question their gender roles – artists such as Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, who spoke to 4 News about the importance of Lou Reed to the trans community after his death in 2013:

"His song about Candy Darling was one of the first times I'd heard someone sing about a trans person, and romanticize it too. Any time a trans person is mentioned culturally, and isn't the butt of a joke, it's a good thing. Just having it there in the public consciousness is a good thing."

4) "Rebel Rebel" by David Bowie

If there's one genre synonymous with gender ambiguity, it's glam rock. Erupting in the early '70s, the largely British phenomenon was characterized by outrageous and overtly theatrical frontmen who wore heavy makeup, platform shoes and flamboyant clothing. One of the pioneering figures of this movement was David Bowie, whose representations of androgyny as his bisexual extraterrestrial alter ego Ziggy Stardust remain among the most iconic challenges to the gender binary to this day.
"We like dancing and we look divine"

This line in "Rebel Rebel" is a shout-out to Divine, who starred in the movies Hairspray and Pink Flamingos.
But it didn't cease at style. For Bowie, music and lyrics were also vehicles for sexual and gender exploration, culminating in February 1974 with the indelible "Rebel Rebel." Penned a year prior for a mooted Ziggy Stardust musical and featured on his eighth album Diamond Dogs, the song is generally regarded as Bowie's adieu to glam rock before entering his plastic soul period on Young Americans.

The lyrics tell the story of a boy who rebels against his parents and society as a whole by dressing and behaving as a woman:

You've got your mother in a whirl
She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl

Despite some problematic language, said transgender protagonist is ultimately depicted as a positively liberated figure in the face of adversity, and the song's narrator – whose gender is never revealed – loves them for it:

Rebel Rebel, you've torn your dress
Rebel Rebel, your face is a mess
Rebel Rebel, how could they know?
Hot tramp, I love you so!

Catapulted by a lithe, scuzz-laden and irrefutably Stones-esque riff, "Rebel Rebel" landed at #5 on the British chart, bringing transgenderism to the forefront of popular culture with it. For the first time, questions were being posed about sexual and gender identities that had previously been repressed and even ignored – and lives were changing because of it. Indeed, to quote British journalist Jon Savage in The Face in 1980: "David Bowie invented the language to express gender confusion. It still hasn't been superseded."

5) "Androgynous" by The Replacements

With the arrival of queercore, punk rock became an increasingly important platform for the LGBT community in the mid-'80s. Of all the trans anthems to emerge during this period, perhaps the most timeless was "Androgynous" by Minneapolis outcasts The Replacements. Featured on their October 1984 album Let it Be, the disarmingly beautiful piano ballad tells the story of Dick and Jane, two transgender people who meet and fall in love:

Here comes Dick, he's wearing a skirt
Here comes Jane, y'know she's sporting a chain

An eloquent subversion of gender norms, the song was very much ahead of its time, with the lyrics even going on to prophesy that one day:

Kewpie dolls and urine stalls
Will be laughed at
The way you're laughed at now

"Androgynous" has found relevance in subsequent years owing to popular covers by Crash Test Dummies (1991) and Joan Jett (2006). Perhaps the most touching rendition of all came in May 2015, however, when Jett joined forces with Miley Cyrus and the aforementioned trans woman Laura Jane Grace to cover the song for The Happy Hippie Foundation – a charity founded by Cyrus "to fight injustice facing homeless youth, LGBT youth and other vulnerable populations."

6) "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" by Aerosmith

In the '80s, even the most testosterone-fueled rock bands found themselves questioning their sexual and gender identities through their music. This included the hyper-hetero Aerosmith, who after almost a decade of obscurity, returned to the scene in September 1987 with the divisive "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)."

Originally called "Cruisin' for the Ladies," the song was written by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry alongside Desmond Child. Child had previously penned hit singles for KISS ("I Was Made for Lovin' You") and Bon Jovi ("You Give Love a Bad Name," "Livin' on a Prayer") and was brought in by A&R executive John Kalodner to help Aerosmith achieve the same chart success. Speaking with Songfacts in June 2012, Child recalled:

"They had never written with an outside writer, and they were not happy to see me. They were going along with it to please John Kalodner, but they were not that happy about it.

Steven (Tyler) was much more friendly, as he is, and was very generous, really, and showed me a song that they had started called 'Cruisin' for the Ladies.' I listened to that lyric, and I said, 'You know what, that's a very boring title.' And they looked at me like, 'How dare you?' And then Steven volunteered, sheepishly, and said that when he first wrote the melody he was singing 'Dude looks like a lady.' It was kind of a tongue twister that sounded more like scatting. He got the idea because they had gone to a bar and had seen a girl at the end of the bar with ginormous blonde rock hair, and the girl turned around and it ended up being Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe. So then they started making fun of him and started saying, 'That dude looks like a lady, dude looks like a lady, dude looks like a lady.' So that's how that was born. That's the true story of how that was born. So I grabbed onto that and I said, 'No, that's the title of the song.'"

While intended as a dig at the effeminate Vince Neil, Child revealed Tyler and Perry didn't want "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" to offend a wider audience:

"Joe (Perry) stepped in and said, 'I don't want to insult the gay community.' I said, 'Okay, I'm gay, and I'm not insulted. Let's write this song.' So I talked them into the whole scenario of a guy that walks into a strip joint and falls in love with the stripper on stage, goes backstage and finds out it's a guy. But besides that, he's gonna go with it. He says, 'My funky lady, I like it, like it, like it like that.' And so he doesn't run out of there, he stays.

If you think about how far back that was, it was a very daring song to sing, and everyone went with it. It's not like the polarized society we have now, because that was before gay people really started fighting for their rights and nobody cared about it and everyone thought that they could make fun of us. So they accepted the lyric, and not only that, went for it. (Laughs) I don't know if anyone has looked deep enough into the song, but it's a very accepting song, and it has a moral that says never judge a book by its cover, or who you're going to love by your lover."

The Marty Callner-directed music video advanced the theme of gender ambiguity, with Steven Tyler at one point appearing adorned in women's clothing (not a stretch, considering his usual wardrobe of scarves and other elaborate, flowing garments). The aforementioned John Kalodner also cameos dressed as a bride. Heavy rotation of the clip on MTV helped to propel the song to #14 on the US chart in December 1987, with a second wave of popularity coming in 1993 when the garish blues chugger was immortalized in the Robin Williams movie Mrs. Doubtfire.

Such timeless popularity has come at a price for transgender people, however, against whom "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" has been frequently wielded as an insult. In August 2013, for example, Fox News came under fire for playing the song over a segment on trans woman Chelsea Manning, and in January 2015, a Ohio officer was disciplined for putting it on while questioning transgender theft suspect Robin Adelmann. Speaking to Cleveland Scene after the incident, Adelmann discussed her disdain for the song – a sentiment echoed across the trans community:

"('Dude (Looks Like a Lady)') is like the bane of our existence. I've been in bars when guys have seen me and gone up to the jukebox and played that f--king song. I hear that kind of stuff on the street every single day, no matter what. So when I heard it from a professional police officer who is supposed to protect us, it was just too much."

7) "Laid" by James

In 1993 – long before it became synonymous with the American Pie franchise – you couldn't tune into college radio without hearing "Laid" by Manchester anomalies James. Produced by Brian Eno, the song was a massive hit among students owing to its effervescent acoustic guitars and irresistible sing-a-long melody combined with its provocative lyrics about a destructive, albeit intoxicating relationship.

What many people failed to realize, however, is that "Laid" is also an exploration of gender ambiguity:

Dressed me up in women's clothes
Messed around with gender roles
Line my eyes and call me pretty

Frontman Tim Booth advanced the idea by singing "Laid" in a distinct effeminate falsetto, and by later appearing in the song's accompanying video in a dress along with the rest of James.

8) "King for a Day" by Green Day

For a band who made their name writing frenetic punk rock, "King for a Day" came as a curveball from Green Day in October 1997. Trading fifth chords for horn sections, the Nimrod cut signaled a severe departure from the power trio dynamic. Penned from the perspective of a cross-dresser recounting his earliest experience of trying on women's clothing, "King for a Day" explored even more dramatic territory lyrically.

Not that this was the first time frontman Billie Joe Armstrong had questioned his sexual and gender identity through his music. Dookie, the album which catapulted Green Day to stardom in 1994, featured a song about Armstrong coming to terms with his attraction to other men, while in 1995, he told The Advocate he'd "always been bisexual."

"King for a Day" shifted the narrative to transgenderism, however, and although overtly comical in nature, it ultimately stands as one of the more positive challenges to the gender binary:

Sugar and spice and everything nice
Wasn't made for only girls

9) "Earth Is the Loneliest Planet" by Morrissey

Ever since the days of The Smiths, Morrissey's sexual identity has come under much scrutiny. Contrasting public declarations of celibacy with coy hints of homosexuality in his lyrics ("This Charming Man," "Hand in Glove"), the Mancunian's orientation is nothing short of ambiguous. Seldom as discussed, however, is Morrissey's fascination with transgenderism, from his early affection for androgynous glam rockers The New York Dolls, to the gender ambiguity of "Vicar in a Tutu," to the featuring of aforementioned trans woman Candy Darling on the cover of "Sheila Take a Bow."

Indeed, in a 1991 interview with Len Brown, the troubled troubadour revealed: "I've always felt closer to transsexuality than anything else." Never has this been more evident than on "Earth Is the Loneliest Planet." Featured on Morrissey's tenth solo album World Peace Is None of Your Business, the Latin-flavored lament is penned from the perspective of someone suffering from gender dysphoria. Said protagonist dreams of living as the gender they believe themselves to be, but fearing ridicule, remains trapped inside their biological sex:

Day after day you say one day, one day
But you're in the wrong place
And you've got the wrong face
And humans are not really very humane

Accompanied by a video starring unlikely Morrissey fan Pamela Anderson, "Earth Is the Loneliest Planet" received a great deal of press upon its release in June 2014, further driving transgenderism into the public consciousness.

10) "Transgender Dysphoria Blues"/"True Trans Soul Rebel" by Against Me!

In May 2012, the music and the trans community were united once more when Tom Gabel, founder of punk rock band Against Me!, revealed he planned to medically transition to living as a woman. Gabel told Rolling Stone he'd be taking the name Laura Jane Grace, having suffered with gender dysphoria his entire life. The momentous announcement was met by an outpouring of support from fans, with many praising Grace for increasing public awareness and acceptance of transgender people.

Grace's coming out served as the inspiration for much of Against Me!'s sixth album Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Described by one critic as "the thematic offspring of Lou Reed," it was received to both public and critical acclaim in January 2014.
One of the first musicians to come out as transgender was David Palmer, British composer, arranger and keyboardist for Jethro Tull. Palmer – who performed on classic Tull hits including "Thick as a Brick," "Aqualung" and "Locomotive Breath" before going on to have a successful career in film scoring – was born intersex and assigned female at birth, although later had corrective surgery to become male. Following the death of his beloved wife Maggie in 1995, however, Palmer decided to begin the transition to living as a woman. After undergoing successful sex reassignment surgery in 2004 at the age of 67, David officially became Dee, bringing a lifetime of gender dysphoria to a conclusion. "I had to decide how I was going to live the rest of my life," she told Out. "And here I am. My passport says 'Miss. Dee Palmer, female.' And I'm very happy."
Ripping open the album is "Transgender Dysphoria Blues," an unrelenting chugger Grace told NME "is about when someone is reading you in a negative way for not fitting into their idea of gender, and looking at you like you're f--king disgusting." Penned (and even performed) prior to her transition, the song is very much a culmination of the rage felt by Grace after years of suppressing her true gender:

You want them to see you
Like they see every other girl
They just see a faggot

This theme continues into the anthemic "True Trans Soul Rebel," a song Grace wrote about going out dressed as a woman for the first time. As she explained to Rolling Stone, "you become more brave about presenting femme, but you're still closeted, so you have nowhere to go. You end up in a weird motel in the middle of nowhere, wandering down halls, hoping nobody sees you."

Featuring some of the album's most poignant lyrics, "True Trans Soul Rebel" went mainstream in May 2015 when, like the aforementioned "Androgynous," Grace performed it alongside Miley Cyrus for The Happy Hippie Foundation.

You should've been a mother
You should've been a wife
You should've been gone from here years ago
You should be living a different life

In the short time since it was released, Transgender Dysphoria Blues has become an integral part of the contemporary trangender community. The same can be said for Grace, who alongside her music, continues to campaign for transgender rights through social media. Indeed, since going public with her transition, the Against Me! frontwoman has transformed into nothing short of a modern-day trans icon – or as Grace would no doubt prefer you call her, a true trans soul rebel.

December 10, 2015
More Song Writing

Comments: 8

  • Yakacm from GlasgowAlways thought cherry cola was a better lyric than coca cola anyway. I'm a Boy, Lola and especially Arnold Layne all have a certain Britishness to them too and are of their time, when I say a Britishness I mean the way we looked transgender, gay and lesbian subject matter at the time . It wasn't until I was older that I realised that Arnold Layne and folk like that, weren't some kind of weird perverts, it was just that cross dressing, as it was called back then anyway, or transgender was a subject that couldn't be addressed as I guess they couldn't just go in to shops and buy clothes IDK, it's just something that you don't hear of anymore but used to be a thing back in the day, nicking ladies underwear off washing lines I mean.
  • Jack from ThailandMiddle of the road,the talk of all the USA.
  • Stuart Atkins from England Get back by the bettles u listened to the lyric
  • Robert from Los Angeles You forgot Goodbye Horses by Q Lazzarus
  • Chris Mcnamara from Ann ArborWonderful and insightful list. Thanks for putting this together so succinctly.
  • Anna from UkNice article Jess! Ever heard a song on the album Kings of Oblivion by the Pink Faries called I Wish I was Girl? I latched onto it in my teens in the 80s listening to similar groups associated with the 70's Ladbroke Grove scene (Hawkwind, Motörhead etc). There's no irony or double meaning in it; it just sounds like an honest plea, Still love Bowie's Rebel Rebel but hated the Aerosmith song and still do! Have played True Trans Soul Rebel to death this year after catching BBC's Glastonbury coverage of Against Me!
  • Jess from LondonThanks for your comment K.c.. When writing this piece, I referred to The Transgender Umbrella, under which cross-dressing falls. Furthermore, GLAAD define cross-dressing as “a form of gender expression.” Regardless, who's to say Arnold Layne didn't identify as female? It's an ambiguous song that I felt deserved a place, although I'm still learning about and educating myself in this topic, so I appreciate your feedback.
  • K.c. from Nh"Arnold Layne" shouldn't be on this list. Cross-dressing is not even remotely connected with transgenderism or gender at all. A lot of men who cross-dress are hetero, who just like the feel of ladies' clothes.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Waiting For The Break of Day: Three Classic Songs About All-Nighters

Waiting For The Break of Day: Three Classic Songs About All-NightersSong Writing

These Three famous songs actually describe how they were written - late into the evening.

George Harrison

George HarrisonFact or Fiction

Did Eric Clapton really steal George's wife? What's the George Harrison-Monty Python connection? Set the record straight with our Fact or Fiction quiz.

Jackie DeShannon - "Put a Little Love in Your Heart"

Jackie DeShannon - "Put a Little Love in Your Heart"They're Playing My Song

It wasn't her biggest hit as a songwriter (that would be "Bette Davis Eyes"), but "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" had a family connection for Jackie.

Strange Magnetics

Strange MagneticsSong Writing

How Bing Crosby, Les Paul, a US Army Signal Corps Officer, and the Nazis helped shape rock and Roll.

La La Brooks of The Crystals

La La Brooks of The CrystalsSong Writing

The lead singer on "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me," La La explains how and why Phil Spector replaced The Crystals with Darlene Love on "He's A Rebel."

Joe Ely

Joe ElySongwriter Interviews

The renown Texas songwriter has been at it for 40 years, with tales to tell about The Flatlanders and The Clash - that's Joe's Tex-Mex on "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"