Take a Walk on the Right Track

Holly came from Miami, FLA
Hitchhiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says, “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.”
Said, “Hey, honey, take a walk on the wild side.” [1]

I first heard Lou Reed’s 1972 song, “Walk on the Wild Side,” when I was in college.  The song immediately caught my attention because of its haunting melody, hushed delivery and unambiguous lyrics. Holly is a reference to actress Holly Woodlawn, a biological male who hitchhiked to New York City at age sixteen and began living as a female.  The song implies that Holly practiced prostitution to support herself, existing outside of mainstream society and promoting herself as an illicit, almost subversive, sexual object.  The matter-of-fact tone of the song does not dispute or discourage Holly’s dangerous lifestyle, essentially accepting it as normal behavior for a transsexual youth.

The attitudes of many Americans towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth have changed considerably in the forty years since that song was written.  In late 2010, celebrities, political figures, and concerned citizens from across the country banded together under the tagline “It Gets Better” to convince LGBT youth that they are a firmly accepted part of mainstream society.  Columnist Dan Savage created the It Gets Better Project in September 2010 in response to several LGBT teenagers’ suicides.  The Project includes a website with thousands of supportive videos, a book, blog, and a helpline for distressed teens [2].  Its overall goal is to give hope and inspiration to LGBT teens who are struggling with depression, bullying and suicidal thoughts.

Logo for the It Gets Better Project. Photo Courtesy http://www.itgetsbetter.org/

The It Gets Better Project earned the endorsement of many prominent members of the LGBT community, including transgender author Jennifer Finney Boylan, who contributed an essay about her contemplation of suicide as a young adult.  Boylan’s participation is particularly significant because her 2003 autobiography, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, helped bring transgendered Americans into mainstream consciousness [3].  The participation of Boylan and other LGBT role models provides a necessary hook for the website.  While a teen may initially visit to view videos made by Adam Lambert or Ellen DeGeneres, the site provides easy access to the equally compelling videos made by ordinary people who have struggled with their sexual identity.

The It Gets Better Project has attracted national attention and support.  Dan Savage did what many cultural institutions would love to do: create a popular website that inspires thousands of people to add their own content, stories, and perspectives.  The participatory nature of the project, combined with its commitment to societal change and the searing social and historical content it is gathering, aligns it with the missions of many cultural institutions.  I would be interested to see the results of a partnership between Dan Savage and a nationally known museum to create a traveling exhibition that incorporated the Project’s content.

Although the It Gets Better Project has already influenced thousands of people, the website could better serve its audience by employing three additional tools.  The videos do not include transcripts that would make them accessible to hearing-impaired audience members.  Ideally, the site should include written testimonials as well as videos.  It is also difficult to search for specific content because the website does not allow contributors to tag their videos.  If I visited the site to learn about the experiences of lesbians in Boston, I could not sort out all the videos that fit that category.  Finally, the website does not put the modern experience of LGBT teens in a historical context.  That type of information would help the audience better interpret and relate to the experiences shared in the videos.

The need for the It Gets Better Project demonstrates that intolerance remains an important concern for the LGBT community, while also signifying the heightened social awareness of LGBT issues.  It is unlikely that a modern songwriter could characterize a transgendered person the way that Lou Reed did in “Walk on the Wild Side” without facing criticism.  Today’s attitudes are best expressed through the lyrics of Lady Gaga, whose February 2011 song “Born this Way” reflects the goals of the It Gets Better Project and banishes the notion of a subversive “wild side.”  Instead, Lady Gaga empowers the LGBT community with this legitimizing refrain:

I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track baby
I was born this way [4]

[1] Lou Reed, “Walk on The Wild Side,” Transformer, 1972.

[2] “It Gets Better Project,” http://www.itgetsbetter.org. Accessed 26 April 2011.

[3] Jennifer Finney Boylan, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, (New York: Broadway Books, 2003).

[4] Lady Gaga, “Born This Way,” Born This Way, 2011.

3 thoughts on “Take a Walk on the Right Track

  1. Lou Reed! That’s my man. Amazing tune. I love your comparison between the two songs and what they say about the life & times of each artist. You said it right when you call Lou’s lyrics “unambiguous.” I mean, he really lays it out there. So why does “Born This Way” feel so much more….forced? Gaga’s entire existence is so polished and affected and stylized that it’s harder for me to take her message seriously, I suppose. Normally I love her, but “BTW” does not do it for me on any level. Anyways, great post!

  2. Actually, I totally agree with you about “Born this Way.” Especially the way the video begins: “This is the manifesto of Mother Monster.” Pretentious much? Still, it is an empowering message if you can get past the gaga-ness of it.

    1. It is funny because I never thought of Born This Way as a gay anthem. I always thought of it as a song like Christina’s Beautiful. We are all beautiful and all born how we are. There is a blog called born gay born this way. Maybe that is where Gaga got it from. I think Born this Way really hasn’t been accepted by the community as an anthem. It is like mainstream culture is the only one that is talking about Born as a “gay” song. You hear Gaga at gay clubs just like you hear her in mainstream clubs. I do think she cares about the lbgt community and her work to get the message out is amazing, but now something dangerous is happening. Mainstream media is saying that Gaga represents gay culture. That is a slippery slope. It just further propels the stereotype that gays are flamboyant and crazy. Gaga is an important part of American culture, not just gay culture.

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