Always The Topic, Rarely The Voice

When rock stars promote transphobia, trans people are everywhere in the news—we’re just never real in the stories told

Music Features Transphobia in Music
Always The Topic, Rarely The Voice

I am for the circulation of useless information, words and phrases strung together with absurdities that arm us with knowledge but carry no true value. Like knowing “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” is about a guy who jumped Dan Rather because he thought the newsman had been beaming thoughts into his brain, or that the bass guitar Kim Gordon plays in the music video for “100%” (directed by Spike Jonze, starring then-pro skater and future actor Jason Lee) was loaned to her by Dogstar bassist Keanu Reeves. These are useless ideas that generate conversation and stimulate the mind, they are facts that can be traded like currency to others who see their value. They don’t enrich our lives, but they leave us no poorer.

There are many facts I am tired of learning. On Wednesday, Stereogum published an interview with Alice Cooper, the rock star and 75-year-old, Republican golf enthusiast. It’s broadly a career retrospective that spans the impressive pedigree of a man who has maintained a strong hand on his popularity over the years. He’s the guy in Wayne’s World, a useless fact that nonetheless holds value.

At the end of the interview, a 1974 interview where he discussed sexuality and how makeup is theatrical and not a gendered thing is addressed. Some of Alice’s peers in the vaudevillian-rock genre, like Paul Stanley and Dee Snider, have spoken out about their views on trans people, trans health care and trans youth. They, largely unsurprisingly, are against the idea of the whole trans thing. And so the interview ends with Alice Cooper being asked his feelings on their thoughts.

I have interviewed enough people in my life to be able to read when someone is feeling inspired to run their mouth faster than their mind can follow, and he follows a meandering hallway of debunked conspiracy theories and wild accusations. He conjures the popular boogeyman of the trans woman faking it to access women’s washrooms. He—a man who defended Marilyn Manson after he was accused of multiple accounts of sexual assault—is worried that someone might get raped.

He says nothing of substance, but he says so much of it that you can be tricked into thinking there’s something of value hidden in the heap of his words.

You can see in the interview where the writer tries to push back gently on Cooper’s insinuations, but he is having none of it. He has his thoughts and feelings on the matter set in stone—in the same way he has his opinions on Marilyn Manson and his bandmate Johnny Depp set in stone. The interviewer, not a trans person herself, isn’t armed with enough knowledge, nor is she properly prepared to get into this fight, and the interview ends on a baffling note.

When Stereogum published the interview, for their “I’ve Got a File On You” series, they highlighted this section in their social media marketing. The big takeaway from the career retrospective of Alice Cooper is that he doesn’t like the whole “woke transgender thing”.

All the other major music outlets hoarded these pull quotes, turned quick news hits around about the transphobia of Alice Cooper and trust me that I have counted the number of these stories written by trans people and walked away with a zero sum. We are the subject of this story, as we are the subject of many of these stories, but are invisible within it.

So often in these stories, trans people are the idea of something potentially real, often potentially harmful. We are trickster gods, barbed and poisonous, waiting to rip the seams of the tender fabric of this gentle world. But we are never the interviewer, never the storyteller, rarely the writer and seldom real.

We are always the topic, rarely the voice.

These outlets see the value in a story like this because they know the keywords that attract clicks like rats to an intoxicating flute: “trans” and “gender” and “woke” and “thing”. The whole woke trans thing. There is always someone out there who doesn’t like the whole transgender thing, and it’s an easy mark for web traffic. Nevermind that most of the outlets that post these things, virtuous notions of the transphobia of these formerly noble men, don’t tend to hire or work with many trans people. There are very few trans writers on staff at any major magazine in North America, and fewer still in cultural spaces.

The quotes from people like Cooper are presented plainly, light and general facts about trans people are sometimes presented in a neat paragraph to follow, and news travels out on the wires of an angry internet. Clicks are driven, blue checkmarks on X dot com argue that they are finally seeing someone push back on the whole woke trans thing despite it being an almost daily occurrence everywhere you dare look.

The day the Alice Cooper news made the rounds there were two separate pieces in The New York Times that were heavy on words and light on facts that work to stir a lot of pots about trans people, trans youth and trans healthcare especially. We are not writing these stories either, we are just the sinister idea hiding within them.

This is a thing we see all the time. I am a trans woman and a culture writer and I exist on the internet, and every day this is something to manage and dance around. The non-stop posting about being sick of all the transgenders in the news, counting the lack of actual transgenders with bylines or speaking roles. The octogenarian who doesn’t like this whole woke trans thing. The feigned surprise that a man who wears makeup might be transphobic.

People will say that a man plays with gender because he wears makeup on stage, or is shocking in presentation and it isn’t playing with gender to do those things without challenging the idea of them in your heart and in your life. Performers like Bowie or Prince challenged gender because they were asking questions of themselves and their position in this world. Their relationship to performance and identity and sex and gender was playful and fluid, an idea that changed and shifted as they did. And they were not always right or perfect, because none of us are. Cobain wore dresses and silk and lace because he was asking questions without vocalizing them, he spoke about women’s issues and saw causes to align with and challenged the idea of masculinity publicly. If you want to look at who was challenging gender, look to the battlegrounds not the amphitheater.

Paul Stanley and Alice Cooper and Dee Snider wore makeup on stage because it was an act, a ploy. They are vaudeville and drama in corpse paint and high heels and those things are not glove slaps across the bow of gender, they are marketing. And we need to stop being surprised when the marketing doesn’t match the idea.

After the run of Cooper news, it was announced that legendary guitar player and songwriter Carlos Santana went on a baffling on-stage tirade about trans people. This wasn’t the result of a poorly planned question, by all accounts this was unprompted. When I saw the news first, it was in Billboard, and it was in their “Pride” section.

I ask you, what “Pride” do we take away from this knowledge? There is no value gained here certainly, and I am not surprised that Santana doesn’t like trans people because I am rarely surprised by such facts anymore. There is no easier path to a headline than making baseless comments about trans people into whatever microphone will have you.

So now we know that Carlos Santana is transphobic.

But nothing has changed from it. We are no better or worse off armed with this knowledge, and there is nothing to trade it for. People are posting that they will now feel weird singing “Smooth” by Santana featuring Rob Thomas at karaoke and I am sorry that a man who insinuated that women like me are rapists waiting for their moment to strike will make you feel uncomfortable singing karaoke at places I tend to not go to because I’m worried about being attacked in them.

The material reality of trans people doesn’t change with knowing these things. If news breaks today that whatever madlib of an elder rockstar is transphobic, the material reality of trans lives will not improve or be made better. We will continue to simply be the topic that all of the conversation revolves around. People will fret and post and worry that they can no longer enjoy their earthly pleasures because someone is transphobic and there is a difference, I believe, between JK Rowling spending the last few years burning every bridge she has ever known in the name of her fight against trans people and Alice Cooper being led to water on a conversation about trans people he, by all accounts, never intended to have.

Santana is a little different. No one asked his opinion but he gave it all the same. That’s free speech, or so we are told, and, while I hope it bites him in the ass, I don’t foresee Santana’s life being made different with the consequences of his decisions—and the lives of trans people will similarly be made no better by the discourse and news cycle. We will continue to be the idea of people that are never real or present in these stories. We rarely, if ever, even make the byline.

Will people even remember any of this in the coming weeks? Do people remember the actions of men when they do or say things like this, or are all these actions superseded by people’s desire to watch Wayne’s World or sing “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas?

I wonder when this will change—when the idea that someone being transphobic isn’t treated as news, when we stop writing headlines about the casual transphobia of people who we never counted as allies to begin with. When will learning and gathering this knowledge change the lives of trans people for the better, and when will we stop putting transphobic news in the Pride section of a publication? There is nothing prideful here, it is just a shameful and hard reminder that there are many who see only as far as the value in clicks on the idea of a trans life—but there are few who see the same in the reality of our lives and our desires to see them improved.

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Autostraddle, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.

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