Six Songs You Love That Are Actually About Being Trans

“Every trans girl has one,” a Twitter mutual told me. “It’s standard t4t first date material.”

We were talking about the mental playlist we each keep — of songs that, while not technically about being trans, are, in fact, about being trans. Sometimes it’s a glib body humor joke, or sometimes a queer upending of a familiar classic (offered without explanation: “Bohemian Rhapsody”). But sometimes it’s so much more.

I’ve been especially keen on curating my list as a study in songcraft. Long before I was a woman, I was a songwriter. The first song I wrote about transness, “Farewell to my Man,” likened transitioning to the breakup of a romantic relationship. When I wanted to convey the fraughtness of familial relationships before and after coming out, I imagined my birth gender/pre-transition self to a twin brother.

I have cultivated a deep reverence for analogy. More than mere cleverness or evocation, a solid analogy has the ability to cast us into a metaphoric dreamworld, which not only resembles reality superficially, but can be manipulated and studied in intricate detail from all angles. We come back to this plane with a sense of having grasped the soul of a thing.

So to be perfectly clear, I’m not trying to win you over to my interpretation of the lyrics of any of these songs; but I am inviting you to explore the world within each of them. My short list of Songs That Are Actually About Being Trans highlights several tunes that have been my teachers about gender — which is to say about the world, and about myself.


“She” by Green Day

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Dookie came out just as I entered middle school, so this is the song on the list I have the oldest relationship to. With lines like “she’s figured out/ all her doubts were someone else’s point of view,” once I started looking at this with a trans lens, it became hard to imagine how it could possibly be about anything else. I’m struck by the juxtaposition between the chaotic “riot penetrating through her mind” and the intense calm of her “waiting for a sign to smash the silence with the brick of self-control.”

Trans people do so much of this. Biding our time, finger to the wind. Knowing that our confident expression of self-knowledge will be deliberately misconstrued as just the opposite. And then consider the speaker: “Scream at me until my ears bleed/ I’m taking heed/ just for you.” That rare person who sees us, who accepts our rage as the natural product of our disenfranchisement, who is ready to witness all of our experience.


“Daughter” by Loudon Wainwright III

Ever since I wrote “Twin,” a new neural pathway has existed in my brain to interpret songs about interpersonal familial relationships as in fact intrapersonal. I realized being trans often means both being a new baby and birthing/parenting yourself, and that’s both the most wondrous wonder and the worst, most impossible burden. That’s the strain I feel when I listen to “Daughter.”

Just as with regular parenting, we are bound to make mistakes when nurturing our tender trans genders: to be rigid or lenient at the wrong times, to teach the wrong lessons. Just as with regular children, even as they demand and rebel, our young genders desperately need us, and are taking every single thing we tell them to heart. When we’re at our best as parents, we know our kids can live better lives than us — carrying less pain, believing in their own goodness, not limiting their imaginations in ways we take for granted — and we exult at this. But even on our worst days, we can remember that we have chosen to feed and love a child that society would have left for dead.


“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana, Sung by Auli’i Cravalho

I happen to have experience parenting a literal human child as well as myself. So, you know, I’ve listened to the Moana soundtrack a lot over the years! There are volumes I could write about what this movie has to say about intergenerational trauma, collective healing, and attachment theory, but let’s just stick to gender for now. As with “She,” the protagonist here is poised to take a step they’ve been contemplating all their life, away from social order but towards personal truth.

When considering the symbolic water in both this and “Daughter,” I’m reminded of what Laura Jane Grace sings in Transgender Dysphoria Blues: “Rough surf on the coast/ I wish I could’ve spent the whole day alone/ with you.” We can revere our genders in all their vast, powerful, mysterious and dangerous depth and breadth. We won’t ever fully know (let alone control) them — but we don’t need that to revel in their majesty, or to traverse them to unimaginable places.


“County Line” by Cass McCombs

We have relationships not only to and with other people, but also places and things. In a blog post from August about my transition, I wrote that my birth gender “was like my hometown: I grew up here, there are things I love and things I hate about it, it’ll always have a place in my heart. But also, maybe I’ve kept living here all this time because it was hard to imagine living anywhere else — until I did?”

Cass McCombs’ portrait of his natal place is far less ambivalent than this: Here is a place that “never even tried to love” him. This one is dedicated to all the trans homies who aren’t able to be out full-time, especially with family; for whom there’s an unrelenting pressure to remain as one was, despite never having been truly accepted or cherished as such.


“Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell

Another one that makes you go, “Ah! Of course!” As trans people, we have regarded gender from more aspects than most; and yet we can only vaguely gesture at its true nature. And then that last verse: “Now old friends, they’re acting strange/ they shake their heads, they say I’ve changed/ Well, something’s lost, but something’s gained/ in living every day.”

Transition often entails great loss, even in the best of circumstances. For those of us who transition as adults, even as we take steps toward our wildest dreams, there is often still a mourning of the provisional ones. Transphobes will try to use any ambivalence on our part to invalidate our identities and experiences; I see the process of honoring these dreams — and then consciously letting them go — as a profound act of radical honesty and self-acceptance.


“A Thousand Kisses Deep” by Leonard Cohen (Ten New Songs Version)

There’s more than one way to look at this one, also. When Leonard whispers to us, “You live your life as if it’s real,” is he talking to about all these cis people just walking around every day acting like gender isn’t completely made up? Or is it our fear as trans people that the life we’ve fought so hard to live is at best a lark, at worst a delusion?

When he intones, “You ditch it all to stay alive,” is he talking about trans people who forsake societal acceptance, material security and familial love to live authentically? Or to those of us who kill part of ourselves to keep those things?


“I Was Born” by Billy Bragg, Wilco (But Actually Written by Woody Guthrie and Sung by Natalie Merchant)

If “Daughter” is about the wonder of parenting oneself, “I Was Born” is about the miracle of being a grown-ass little transsexual baby child. Forget second puberty: To be trans is to be born again and again, every year, every hour, every half hour, greener every time.


So there’s my top six Songs About Being Trans. If you want the deluxe edition, here’s a Spotify playlist!

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3BWTDLWJBSIQcpEuRQECSj?si=umjPOutGSrm_B0xIVxecUg

It has Bruce Springsteen, the Buzzcocks, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Elvis Perkins, The Smiths, and more. Let’s keep this transgender agenda rolling, y’all — if they were freaked out about us converting their kids, wait till they hear we’re coming for their pop songs!

Amina Shareef Ali is a punk folksinger and shit talker who lives in Oakland, California.

Amina has written 1 article for us.

24 Comments

  1. Little Mix – Change Your Life. What to on the nose?

    “They can rip you, bring you down, down to their size
    But they will never get to the heart you hold inside

    You’re not the only one so let them criticize
    You’re untouchable when you realize
    Ooh-oh-oh

    Change, change your life, take it all (take it all)
    We’re gonna stick together, know we’ll get through it all (I know we’ll get through it all)
    Change, change your life, take it all (yeah, take it all)
    You’re gonna use it to become what you’ve always known (become what you’ve always known)”

    It came up on shuffle and completely blindsided me maybe a few days after I came out – aside from the obvious title interpretation, so many of the lyrics are about enduring criticism and people not understanding you – but pushing on through to become who you always knew you were.

    Cheesy? Yes. Did it hit me hard emotionally? Also yes.

  2. I know I’m dating myself, but as a teen I fund a lot of comofrt in Tori Amos (especially songs like “Jupiter” or “Cornflake Girl”)

    When I first came out about a decade ago, I relistened to an old British post-punk band Hefner I liked as a teen and I found a lot to relate to my experience in the almbum The Fidelity Wars (which could be covered and just be this paean to emotional queer lady feelings). All the songs are great, but two of them always resonate for me as a queer trans women

    This whole chorus of I Took Her Love For Granted:
    “I feel beautiful when she says I am beautiful,
    But she is more beautiful.
    I feel heavenly when she says I am heavenly,
    But she is more heavenly.”

    Another song from the album, I Stole a Bride, has this chorus:

    “When
    She lies with me
    Will she forget I’m ugly
    Will she pretend I’m pretty
    Oh I’ve lived a lie
    I stole a pretty bride during the summertime”

    Which again for me captured a lot of my insecurities, especially after recently being out and re-navigating my relationships with myself and with other partners.

  3. “More than mere cleverness or evocation, a solid analogy has the ability to cast us into a metaphoric dreamworld, which not only resembles reality superficially, but can be manipulated and studied in intricate detail from all angles.” Love this!

  4. holy shit, this is 100% true and so beautifully written! i am copying down what you wrote about “daughter” into my notebook, because it’s something i often need to hear and remember. thank you for this and i so much hope to read more of your writing on here!

    also, “why can’t i touch it” is my favourite song of all time and i am desperately curious about your trans reading of it, if you would like to share!

  5. On the transmasc side of things:

    “I’m Still Here (Jim’s theme)” from the Treasure Planet soundtrack is VERY much about being a trans boy/trans masc

    “Hoodie On” by Matt and Kim is very trans masc, I mean, “Looking like a King with a hoodie on” is literally the chorus.

    I was going to find a line from “I’m Still Here” but when I looked up the lyrics the entire song was trans:

    “I am a question to the world
    Not an answer to be heard
    Or a moment that’s held in your arms
    And what do you think you’d ever say?
    I won’t listen anyway
    You don’t know me
    And I’ll never be what you want me to be

    [Verse 2]
    And what do you think you’d understand?
    I’m a boy—no, I’m a man
    You can’t take me and throw me away
    And how can you learn what’s never shown?
    Yeah, you stand here on your own
    They don’t know me ’cause I’m not here

    [Chorus]
    And I want a moment to be real
    Wanna touch things I don’t feel
    Wanna hold on and feel I belong
    And how can the world want me to change?
    They’re the ones that stay the same
    They don’t know me ’cause I’m not here

    [Verse 3]
    And you see the things they never see
    All you wanted, I could be
    Now you know me, and I’m not afraid
    And I want to tell you who I am
    Can you help me be a man?
    They can’t break me, as long as I know who I am

    [Chorus]
    And I want a moment to be real
    Wanna touch things I don’t feel
    Wanna hold on, and feel I belong
    And how can the world want me to change?
    They’re the ones that stay the same
    They can’t see me but I’m still here

    [Bridge]
    They can’t tell me who to be
    ‘Cause I’m not what they see
    Yeah, the world is still sleepin’
    While I keep on dreamin’ for me
    And their words are just whispers
    And lies that I’ll never believe

    [Chorus]
    And I want a moment to be real
    Want to touch things I don’t feel
    Wanna hold on, and feel I belong
    And how can you say I’ll never change?
    They’re the ones that stay the same
    I’m the one now ’cause I’m still here

    [Outro]
    I’m the one, ’cause I’m still here
    I’m still here
    I’m still here
    I’m still here”

  6. My big one for a long time while I was closeted was Goo Goo Dolls Iris

    “And I don’t want the world to see me
    Cuz I don’t think that they’d understand
    When everything’s made to be broken
    I just want you to know who I am”

  7. Growing up, I definitely remember getting distinct Gender Feels from Billie Myer’s forgotten and heavily underrated song Tell Me:

    Dreaming
    But I’m not sleeping
    Or have I died
    Died of life
    Swimming
    As I’m sinking
    I’m holding onto
    Letting go, yeah

    Oh, how does it feel
    Making love to me like you do

    Tell me
    Who would you be
    Would you be me
    The woman in me
    Would you like to be
    Under my skin
    I’ll let you in
    Yeah, yeah, yeah
    I want
    I wanna know
    What you’re feeling
    I wanna crawl under your skin
    I wanna know how you feel in me
    Yeah, yeah, yeah

    Naked
    Oh I like you naked
    And when I fake it
    You like me more

    Exploring
    The taste I’m touching
    You’re watching
    I’m watching you, yeah

    Tell me
    Who would you be
    Would you be me
    The woman in me
    Would you like to be
    Under my skin
    I’ll let you in
    Yeah, yeah, yeah
    I want
    I wanna know
    Would you feel it
    I wanna crawl under your skin
    I wanna know how you feel in me
    Yeah, yeah, yeah

  8. this piece is extremely up my alley…i really feel the metaphor of reading interpersonal narratives as intrapersonal!

    my two big ones from an AFAB nonbinary/transmasc perspective are dancing in the dark by bruce springsteen (“i wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face”) and “slide” by goo goo dolls (especially that second verse). also, i remember hearing “turn the page” by bob seger in my early twenties and feeling shocked/seen by this verse (even though it’s “actually” about being a longhaired hippie rocker):

    “Well you walk into a restaurant,
    strung out from the road
    And you feel the eyes upon you
    as you’re shakin’ off the cold
    You pretend it doesn’t bother you
    but you just want to explode
    Most times you can’t hear ’em talk,
    other times you can
    All the same old cliches,
    “Is that a woman or a man?”
    And you always seem outnumbered,
    you don’t dare make a stand”

    At the time I interpreted it as being about being trans since I was in my very early egg-cracking stage, styling myself androgynously, and people were constantly misreading my gender.

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