The criticism of Lou Reed’s classic hit “Walk on the Wild Side” as “transphobic” at an Ontario university has reignited the long-simmering debate around the impact of cultural sensitivity on campuses and whether there’s a chill on freedom of speech and topics that could offend.
In a now-deleted Facebook post, the University of Guelph Central Student Association apologized for playing Reed’s 1972 tune during a recent campus event.
“It’s come to our attention that the playlist we had on during bus pass distribution on Thursday contained a song with transphobic lyrics,” read a portion of the post.
“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 judgment.”
A portion of ”Walk on the Wild Side” was inspired by the late Holly Woodlawn, a transgender actress who appeared in Andy Warhol films.
“Holly came from Miami F.L.A., hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.,” the song begins.
“Plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she. She said, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.’”
The student union’s post was widely decried by admirers of the late rock icon.
“Lou was open about his complete acceptance of all creatures of the night,” Jenni Muldaur, a friend and occasional backup singer for Reed, told British newspaper the Guardian.
“That’s what that song’s about. Everyone doing their thing, taking a walk on the wild side. I can’t imagine how anyone could conceive of (the song being transphobic). The album was called ‘Transformer.’ What do they think it’s about?”
On Wednesday, the student association released a followup statement clarifying its intentions.
“We recognize Lou Reed’s involvement in and contributions to the LGBTQ+ community, and regret that our post was perceived by some to mean otherwise. We appreciate Lou Reed as an artist, and did not speak to his character in our post,” the group said. ”Our sole intent was to acknowledge that the lyrics, in current day, are now being consumed in a different societal context.”
The controversy surrounding the student union’s initial apology feeds into the larger debate about whether post-secondary institutions are growing overly risk averse in a bid to avoid rankling community members.
Several on-campus controversies have developed into national headlines.
University of Toronto Prof. Jordan Peterson became a lightning rod for the debate over freedom of speech and cultural sensitivity with his stated refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns for transgender students and colleagues. While he was cautioned by the school to respect human rights laws and some students protested his stance, he was ultimately allowed to keep his job.
Late last year at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., a campus cafe operator lost his licence after an ad seeking a new staff member jokingly referred to his search for a “slave.” An associate professor at the school, Byron Williston, wrote in an open letter that: “I suppose it’s a sign of the times, especially on university campuses whose student bodies — undergraduate and graduate — seem to have been taken over by the terminally thin-skinned and self-righteous.”
More recently, Andrew Potter stepped down from his post at McGill University after a controversial article he wrote for Maclean’s magazine about Quebec politics prompted intense backlash. He initially apologized for “errors and exaggerations in what I wrote” and added he was “very sorry for having caused significant offence.” Potter wrote in a subsequent Facebook post that his decision to resign came amid “ongoing negative reaction within the university community and the broader public.”
“I think just as good human beings, we want to defend others and make sure people aren’t feeling hurt and marginalized and isolated,” said Lukas Hashem, a medical student at the University of Ottawa who recently wrote an op-ed about how his school could be a free-speech trailblazer.
“But I question who gets to draw the line and who gets to decide on behalf of everyone what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable.”
He said his initial reaction to the song-lyric controversy in Guelph was that it was “a little bit much,” and that several friends within the LGBTQ community expressed views that the issue was overblown.
“My own transgender and transsexual friends who were on Facebook seeing this, most of them didn’t bat an eye or didn’t find it to be offensive at all,” said Hashem.
“Most of them realize that this song was taken from 40 years ago, and some of them actually knew about the singer and were actually advocating in his defence.