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Who will sing the black “Lola”?

This weekend I was talking with a bisexual friend, and I described Janet Mock’s vision of a world where trans women will no longer be killed because everyone will see them as women. My friend didn’t even let me finish before she put her finger on one huge problem with Mock’s idea: it only applies to a small subset of potential victims.

Vince Neil, the dude in question.
Vince Neil, the dude in question.
As we’ve seen, this exact same scenario – boy meets girl, boy decides that girl is “a man,” boy is afraid someone will call him “gay,” boy attacks girl – doesn’t just happen with “trans women.” It happens to people like B. Scott, including when he identified as a gay man, and it happens to people like Bimbo Winehouse, who identifies as a man but wants to be seen as a woman part of the time. It happens to people who aren’t even presenting as a woman. It even happens to guys who aren’t gay at all but simply are mistaken for gay, like Ever Orozco, who was killed earlier this week. It’s pretty clear what the problem is: men lose status if someone thinks they’re gay, they’re afraid of that, so they try to prove they’re not by attacking the person they were attracted to.

What my friend objected to was that Mock’s vision doesn’t do anything about the underlying problem. It doesn’t make it any easier for potential targets who really are gay or straight men and don’t wear women’s clothes. It doesn’t make it easier for people who identify as cross-dressing men. With its relentless hammering on the “trans women are women” dogma, it doesn’t even help people who are viewed and accepted as woman but are reluctant to claim that category for political reasons. It just attempts to draw a charmed circle around people who are willing to claim the status of “woman,” and those who are attracted to them. And of course it doesn’t protect any of us from the violence that is regularly directed at women.

Now I want to look at another vision of a better world. There was a fascinating article by Sue Kerr about the story behind the Aerosmith song “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).” I remember when that song came out. I wasn’t an Aerosmith fan, and i didn’t listen to the lyrics. The refrain sounded like a distress call, the video was boring, and I didn’t want to be a dude that looked like a lady. I wanted to be a lady, or at least a girl. I changed the channel whenever it came on MTV.

The backstory is interesting, though: songwriter Desmond Child told SongFacts about a conversation with Steve Tyler: “He got the idea because they had gone to a bar and had seen a girl at the end of the bar with ginormous blonde rock hair, and the girl turned around and it ended up being Vince Neil from Motley Crue.” Tyler came up with the line, “Dude looks like a lady” and eventually shared it with Child, an out gay man who had been hired by their record label to improve their songwriting. Child liked the line so much he made it the title of the song. Here’s the kicker:

And then Joe (Perry) stepped in and said, “I don’t want to insult the gay community.” I said, “Okay, I’m gay, and I’m not insulted. Let’s write this song.” So I talked them into the whole scenario of a guy that walks into a strip joint and falls in love with the stripper on stage, goes backstage and finds out it’s a guy. But besides that, he’s gonna go with it. He says, “My funky lady, I like it, like it, like it like that.” And so he doesn’t run out of there, he stays.

Note that the narrator is attracted enough to go to bed with her, even though he continues to classify the stripper as a “dude,” and says “Ooh, he was a lady.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Child based it on a friend or acquaintance.

Both the real and fictionalized stories bear some resemblance to the Kinks’ 1970 hit “Lola,” which I heard a lot on the radio. It’s never been my favorite Kinks song, but I did listen to the lyrics. The narrator is ambivalent about how to categorize Lola – there’s the famous line “I’m a man, I’m a man, and so is Lola,” but he uses “she” pronouns throughout.

The backstory to “Lola” is just as interesting. Dave Davies recalled that he was inspired by a party at the home of band manager Robert Wace. “In his apartment, Robert had been dancing with this black woman, and he said, ‘I’m really onto a thing here.’ And it was okay until we left at six in the morning and then I said, ‘Have you seen the stubble?’ He said ‘Yeah,’ but he was too pissed [intoxicated] to care, I think.”

Contrast “Lola” and “Dude Looks Like a Lady” with another song from the eighties, Tone L&#333c’s “Funky Cold Medina.” In the third verse the narrator gives the eponymous aphrodisiac to sexy Sheena, but to his surprise, “Sheena was a man!”

So I threw him out, I don’t fool around with no Oscar Mayer wiener.
You must be sure that your girl is pure for the Funky Cold Medina.
Know what I’m sayin’? Ain’t no playin’ with a man.
This is the eighties, and L&#333c is down with the ladies, no joke.

(As I was putting this post together I came across another post by Andrea James that also mentions “Funky Cold Medina.” James hits on some good points, but I want to go in a slightly different direction.)

“Lola” explores the ambiguity of gender and ends by categorizing Lola as a man, but the final message emphasizes her humanity and the narrator’s affection for her, implicitly concluding that there’s nothing wrong or unmanly with being attracted to a “man,” especially if you’re really plastered. “Dude Looks Like a Lady” echoes the alarm over the stripper’s unexpected dudeness, but ends by affirming her ladyhood and sexiness. In “Funky Cold Medina,” thought, Tone L&#333c responds to Sheena’s manhood with callous rejection (but not violence).

“Lola” and “Funky Cold Medina” both explore the question of what it means to be attracted to a “man.” The narrator of “Lola” is naive and inexperienced, and Lola in fact offers to “make you a man,” by giving him his first sexual experience. Whether or not this happens is left to the listener’s imagination, but the narrator eventually concludes that he can be a man even if Lola is too. Tone L&#333c makes it a point to reassure everyone that he’s “down with the ladies.”

It’s hard not to notice that African Americans are vastly overrepresented in any list of trans people murdered in this country. Correlation is not causation, and it’s important not to discount factors like poverty, discrimination and civic neglect, but I think everyone agrees that American black culture is more intolerant of homosexuality and transgender actions than white culture.

What if a few male black cultural leaders – singers and rappers, but maybe also athletes, politicians and religious leaders – followed the lead of white guys like Dave Davies and Steven Tyler, and black women like Tyra Banks? What if a famous, respected black man spent some of his cultural capital to tell the world that he thinks trans people are sexy, and he’s not afraid of anyone finding out?

I know how this might sound to some people, but I’m not saying “do this because white people do it.” I’m saying give it a try because it might be working for us, just like the Kinks and Aerosmith saw that the music developed by African Americans was more fun and expressive than their own and gave it a try. It’s got more evidence of success than Janet Mock’s magic circle of fiat womanhood.

I think DJ Mister Cee and his boss Ebro Darden have shown enormous courage and humanity, and I think people will respond to that. I’m looking forward to the first black “Lola” to top the charts. The guy who makes that will be gold. After all, Steven Tyler and Dave Davies enjoyed years of success after these songs, and are regarded today as elder statesmen of rock. Tone L&#333c? Well, what’s he done since 1991?

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