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The Wild Side: Why Doesn’t Guelph Get It?

No one ever told me that I wasn't respecting their switchiness.

Sandra Mendez Rosenbaum

In May, 2017, the Guelph Central Student Association at the University of Guelph in Ontario, included Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side” on a playlist at a campus event. In the song, Reed celebrates cross-dressing friends Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn.

In an apology published to Facebook and subsequently removed, the group said: “We now know the lyrics to this song are hurtful to our friends in the trans community and we’d like to unreservedly apologize for this error in judgement.” The student group promised to be “more mindful in our music selection during any events we hold” and added: “If there are students or members of the campus community who overheard the song in our playlist and were hurt by its inclusion and you’d like to talk with us about it and how we can do better, we welcome that.”

I'd like to throw caution to the wind and call those protesting students spoiled ingrates to the ones who paved the way for them. Or I should say, ways? Maybe this song isn’t, and won't ever be, about this segment of our community, there are too many avenues of expression that make us happy. Why pressure people who really do love to cross dress into feeling inadequate because they aren't in need of hormones and top and bottom surgery?

I remember being 18-20 and going into clubs with the gay guys in Palm Springs, CA that I met through my first couple of jobs. On Wednesdays it would be beer bust and country western music. My friends would dress up in jeans and cowboy shirts, boots and hats. We'd go to the mall and stop off at Western Wear to get boot cut jeans and cowboy hats for them. But then we’d hit Claire's Boutique for cheap bangles and glittery party stuff, and make up, because Friday night was drag night.

Saturday night’s theme was “Construction”, which meant hard hats! Every outfit made people happy, and I liked helping and spending time while they dressed up. It was 1991, and they let me listen to David Bowie as much as I wanted with no judgement. Then I started performing with House of Deva, a performance group of four to five transvestites, some dressed male by day but went full passable female by night, and they were all dancers. Spice was in drag 24/7, as was Nessa Shanté, and she was the best hair dresser. Brittney Bryant was a former Whitney Houston back up dancer, and she and Nessa could do backflips in platforms. They were all black, and they included everyone with talent who wanted to perform no matter which part of the rainbow spectrum they were on.

Everyone had lots of jobs and money and acceptance was hard won, but they all knew the older guys had made it possible to have all this fun, and a lot...most of those guys were dying and some who were dying had already lost their long time partners.

They always treated me like I was young, gifted and full of future. No one ever told me that I wasn't respecting their switchiness, or their total transgender needs. And as Lou Reed sang, the colored girls did go "do-do-do-do-do-do". The black girls that made themselves girls, the pink, purple and green painted ones and the muscle smooth boys with eyeliner and feather boas bestowed upon them for the night by one of the Devas too. I was the straight girl with the guitar who sang like anyone I wanted to imitate for talent show nights.

We walked on the wild side, and we weren't afraid to use either toilet so long as we were having fun.

Sandra Mendez Rosenbaum is currently writing her first book, Beyond Bowie's Orwell: The Spanish Civil War from John Cornford to Bob Smillie, inspired by John Rowlands' photograph, The Archer. Graphics from Andy Warhol's "Ladies and Gentlemen" series of prints.

Copyright © Sandra Mendez Rosenbaum. All rights reserved.