Until very recently, songs that referenced transgender lives have been horrendous and dehumanizing as a rule. “Dude Looks Like a Lady”, “Lola,” and “Sex Changes” all rank higher than “Wagon Wheel” on my list of songs I never want to hear again. Like most films about trans characters created by cis people, these songs are sources of dysphoria and shame rather than confidence and validity.
So, in the grand LGBT+ tradition, we look for ourselves in subtext. Like previous generations searching for queer-coded characters in film before same-sex relationships could be portrayed positively, trans people appropriate messages of empowerment for our own survival and self-validation. I know several popular examples for trans women. The ones that stood out in my younger days were “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” by Shania Twain and “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World. These were anthemic, the soundtrack to acceptance and encouragement. I imagine the generation before me had similar uses for “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” by Eurythmics or Whitney’s cover of “I’m Every Woman.”
There’s another genre of recontextualization though, less ego-boost and more dialectical. The transgender self-love song isn’t necessarily about pride or expressing our ideal selves. When adult transitioners in particular move toward acceptance of our needs and identity, we don’t always know what to do with our past or how to talk about this old self that was both fictional and real. We can experience the dissonance like a dialogue.
It’s our self, this person of the past, but also alien. We grew from the experience, though we might also wish we’d been spared it. We love all the good things, the friends and adventures we had. We even occasionally long for the safety and comfort that living with cis privilege provides, despite knowing what a reverse course would do to us.
A similar dialogue can arise pre-transition. The future we envision speaks to us, offering reassurance and possibility. This new self, this person we’re growing into, is like our true love. They promise excitement, new adventures, and a joy and satisfaction deeper than anything we’d ever known.
As I came to understand myself, I noticed how many of my favorite love songs (and break-up songs) I’d actually been singing to myself. Whether directed to the woman breaking free or to the sad artificial boy who had been so scared to go, the love song speaks sympathy. It creates unity amid the dissonance of the closet. What follow are a few of my personal examples.
FADE INTO YOU — MAZZY STAR
I want to hold the hand inside you
I want to take the breath that’s true
I look to you and I see nothing
I look to you to see the truth
You live your life, you go in shadows
You’ll come apart and you’ll go black
Some kind of night into your darkness
Colors your eyes with what’s not there
Fade into you
Strange you never knew
Read as a transgender love song, the one-sided relationship in Hope Sandoval’s lyrics becomes a message from the self-sacrificing truth to the broken, closeted past. It took the right hormone treatment for me to recognize how my earlier mental life had traces of that nothingness. It’s easy to skate by, when presenting as male, being emotionally vacant, but others did occasionally call me out on it. With that chemical imbalance repaired, I suddenly understood how much I once embodied this distant, manipulative character from “Fade Into You.”
Those sparks of recognition are strange. Without understanding why, I had the common transgender experience of hating being photographed and the scrutiny it placed on my ill-fitting body. Now when I see old pictures, I feel sad for that person, who couldn’t quite smile long enough for the camera. My past might have felt comfortable in its colorless numbness, but it went in shadow, aloof, never as full of joy as it should have been. Seeing those photographs, I now wish I could hold the hand inside her.
Far from erasure, this song promises that transition means finding precisely what had been missing. My inner life is more vibrant, powerful now. Fear and anger can be overwhelming in ways I’d never experienced before, but so are all the good things. In the end, it also wasn’t the abrupt shift that caused me anxiety for so long — but a slow fade into me.
I TRY — MACY GRAY
I may appear to be free
But I’m just a prisoner of your love
And I may seem alright and smile when you leave
But my smiles are just a front
Just a front
I play it off, but I’m dreaming of you
And I’ll try to keep my cool, but I’m fiendin’
I try to say goodbye and I choke
Try to walk away and I stumble
Though I try to hide it, it’s clear
My world crumbles when you are not here
Sung in the opposite direction, “I Try” becomes a transgender love song about the closeted years as they look forward. Before I understood how essential transition was to my mental health, there was a period where my internal dialectic treated my identity as acceptance of my “feminine side.” At other times I rejected gender entirely in an attempt to outthink my emotions. I’m a bit ashamed now to admit how gullible I was, to buy into the denial. The outlets of expression I allowed myself never worked, nor did my intellectualizing, and my dysphoria was ever-present. I felt like a prisoner.
Now I can see one source of my social anxiety. I was always Elizabeth at home. Stepping out into public meant walking away from “her.” I could be tempted so long as there were adequate distractions, but my world crumbled the longer I was away. When living situations forced me to keep my mask on indefinitely, I always grew increasingly irritable and frustrated. I didn’t recognize that pattern until much later, but even steeped in denial, I knew I couldn’t ever rid myself of this one part of my identity. Not because it was impossible, that took time to accept, but because I loved “her” so much.
SOLSBURY HILL — PETER GABRIEL
To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Though my life was in a rut
’Til I thought of what I’ll say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom, boom, boom
Hey”, he said, “grab your things, I’ve come to take you home”
This one feels like cheating, a little too on the nose, as it’s not truly a romantic break-up song. The big life change facing Peter Gabriel when he penned these words was leaving behind his band of the past decade, Genesis. But the lyrics focus on the spiritual awakening that followed the decision, that lead toward confidence and reassurance. I imagine many people have turned to it in times of crisis as I did the morning I posted my coming out letter and changed the names on my social media accounts.
“Solsbury Hill” is about leaving confusion and doubt behind, about the decision to stake the path you know to be right despite what anyone might say. How you only feel your own strength and bravery in the moments after.
I couldn’t stop myself from listening to it repeatedly while I watched the notifications pile up that morning. I think the final lines meant most to me.
You can keep my things.
They’ve come to take me home.
The night before coming out, I barely slept. For several hours I found myself hugging a pillow on my loveseat with a single image playing in my head. It wasn’t worry about how anyone would react. My closest friends knew, and they had absolutely reassured me in their words and actions. The image was of me, in childhood, in an empty house, wearing my mother’s shoes. I remembered how everything had to be put away so neatly so no one would ever know. That little girl knew instinctively that what she wanted fit too perfectly to be bad, but she couldn’t share it either. I wished I could send a message to her. To let her know that breaking apart from the scenery would be easier than she dreamed. To let her know she wouldn’t have to cut connections with anyone she loved. Her home wouldn’t be empty forever. One day she would open the door and let people in.
BABES NEVER DIE — HONEYBLOOD
Thought I’d go up in flames, is that alright?
Strike the match and set me alight.
You can watch my fire burn bright
’Cause babes never die, babes never die.
Keep the bait for another hook-line.
I’m not going to be cut this time.
When I go I’ll be the one who decides
’Cause babes never die, babes never die.
Watch if I float. Damned if I don’t.
This was my bop the winter that it came out. Like the rest of these songs, I connected emotionally before I figured out why, but the transition was quicker with “Babes Never Die.” I was in need of a fiery breakup song when this album dropped. More than that, I knew exactly who I was and what I had to do. I just didn’t yet know how, and that would take time. For the next two years, this song would help me through anxiety-inducing situations like driving to work or getting ready to go out for the evening.
At first, it didn’t seem to matter how long I took to find a therapist, see a doctor for hormones, come out to friends. Any time I felt a set back, I wouldn’t let it get to me. “Babes never die,” I may as well have said. Or as the very first entry in my current diary explains it…
Settling would be death I’m not comfortable writing that, but it’s the truth that’s pushing me forward. Costumes are great for the stage. But each day I’m so happy to soon be through with this masculine getup. I’m ready to be me, but now I see that I need to be me, wholly, in order to live.
YOU ARE THE EVERYTHING — R.E.M.
Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing
I’m very scared for this world, I’m very scared for me
Eviscerate your memory
Here’s a scene
You’re in the backseat laying down, the windows wrap around
To sound of the travel and the engine
All you hear is time stand still in travel
And feel such peace and absolute
The stillness still that doesn’t end
But slowly drifts into sleep
The stars are the greatest thing you’ve ever seen
And they’re there for you
For you alone, you are the everything
I’ve already written on how inseparable my teenage self was from her headphones. R.E.M.’s Green was a pretty common choice in those years. The references to travel amplify my memories of listening to this on family vacations. I picture myself literally in the backseat with the stars standing still as the family van soars down the highway. In those quiet moments, when I was free from social roles, fear, shame, disguises — suddenly I could be at peace. I sought isolation a lot pre-transition. Today I know now how to find that unity whenever I want without resorting to shutting out the human world. For me, this love song isn’t sung from one side of my internal dialogue. It’s the feeling of acceptance itself.
A popular misconception, one I used to share, is that this song is about an elderly couple. I think the peaceful, unconditional love being expressed might add to that reading more than the line about teeth in another verse. Stipes’s lyrics are remarkable for that, actually. The song is about love and acceptance, but it’s not the least bit anthemic. Nor is it anticlimactic. It’s a mellow, mature song, but it’s a highlight of the album. This peak is built upon letting go of fear and accepting your situation, whatever that may mean to the narrator or to you, the listener.
For me, my peace came with the end of that dialectic between my past and my yearning for a different future than the one I was assigned. I’m ever more aware of all the things I wish to accomplish in my life, now that I’m free to have a future. I’m literally able to write these essays because I know what name I want to put on them: mine. The only name I have. Yet time is also standing still for me now. The conflict that drove so much of my reasoning and personality and fears and decisions… that conflict is over. I’m healing at last.
It’s remarkable that we walk away empowered while Stipe lulls us with the terrifying notion that gives the song its title.
“For you alone, you are the everything.