“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
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!
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!
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