“Closer to Fine:” Trans Femme Reflections on the Sacred Found in Lesbian Music Culture by Nathan Bakken


“I’m trying to tell you something about my life.” I joke with my friends that if the 1990’s weren’t so transphobic, I would have thrived as a trans lesbian. Citing my knowledge of the L Word, Pacific Northwest flannel sensibilities, and Spotify playlists as my reasoning; I embody a millennial genderqueer take on lesbian stereotypes. The only thing missing is an exclusive attraction to women which― I would argue―is the main factor holding me back from waving the lesbian pride flag high. Though I write with a particular levity, I cannot deny the role that lesbian singer songwriters and folk/rock singers have played in cultivating my sense of self and my sense of the Divine. The Holy, for me, is wrapped up in the the harmonies of the Indigo Girls, the raspy blues of Melissa Etheridge, the heart-breaking riffs of Tracy Chapman, and the tear-jerking truths of Brandi Carlile.  These women have gifted me Divine Imaginaries of what justice is, who God is, and how I fit in.

In full trans-parency (pun intended), I hold a small level of fear in writing this piece. As the rhetorics of Transgender Exclusive Radical Feminists (TERF) appear to be touching the mainstream, I am reminded that these rhetorics are deeply tied to lesbian music culture. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival holds itself as a historic cultural object created by the amazing and radical work of lesbians and feminists and lasted from 1976 – 2015. MichFest, as it was later known, also uplifted and validated the concept of “womyn-born-womyn” only spaces. A concept with the intention to center the experiences of cis women, and the impact of  discriminating against trans people.  I reference this not to tear at the scabs of these two communities as we continue healing. Rather, I am naming the irony that my anthems for my survival are also the songs that have historical ties to mindsets and movements that prohibited my community from experiencing them first hand.

But this piece isn’t about trans exclusive feminists. This piece is about the soundtrack of my survival, and the powerful women who’s wise words guide that experience. The following four songs are invitations into my survival.

Closer to Fine – Indigo Girls

“The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” Since I was 17, this lyric has echoed in my mind. I would drive around Seattle listening to this song on a mix CD, wondering if I would ever get close to fine. Masked in their flawless harmonies, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers words gave me comfort and language to articulate my experiences. They mixed joy and laughter with the harsh truth of growing older. They gave room for a multiplicity of perspective and called out institutions and dominant epistemologies as inefficient modes of knowledge gaining. I was gifted a queer critical lens, a slightly Gnostic view of God, and an acknowledgement that “[t]here’s more than one answer to these questions/ Pointing me in a crooked line.”

Silent Legacy- Melissa Etheridge

To say that Melissa Etheridge’s 1993 album “Yes I Am” is not one of the best albums―let alone queer albums―ever created is homophobic. I wish I could tell you I’m being facetious. I am not. While her singles “I’m the Only One” and “Come to My Window” remain as her most popular hits; the song “Silent Legacy” is a testimony to queer feminist survival. I encourage you to set aside some time to listen to this song as if it were a prayer. In five minutes, Etheridge manages to describe and enflesh the impact of spiritual trauma on the queered body. Each verse unpacking the silent internalization of misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. Each chorus echoing a prayer to heaven. Only to finish with Etheridge repeating the phrase “Oh my child,” building her emotions from tenderness to rage as if she, herself, embodies God calling us home to protect us.

Talkin’ Bout a Revolution – Tracy Chapman

I confess, my conversion to the Gospel of Tracy Chapman occurred later than I would prefer. Knowing her for her iconic lesbian anthem “Fast Car,” it wasn’t until I discovered her full discography about two years ago that I felt held in her words. With “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” as the first track on her first album, “Tracy Chapman.” Chapman sets a specific tone for the album. The album is a protest. She reveals a portrait of her experiences of the United States in 1988, one that does not shy away from harsh realities of racial injustice and domestic violence. And at the same time gives tender insights into how to love someone. Chapman’s wisdom grounds my survival in the hardest truths of our world. That if I am to survive, I must ensure others’ survival as well.

The Joke- Brandi Carlile

Brandi Carlile feels like home. As an out lesbian musician of my home state of Washington, Carlile’s music reaches the depths where few dare to dive.  I recognize the majority of this soundtrack dates to the late ‘80’s and early ‘90s, Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” is from her Grammy Award winning 2018 Album “By the Way I Forgive You.” Carlile is contemporary, current, and continuing the legacy paved before her. Her song―“The Joke”―echos like a ghost of queer future. Carlile’s voice is moving forwards while reaching back. She gives assurance, not that it gets better, rather that it gets different. Carlile invites the listener into the act of survival.

As a queer theologian, I tend to search for scripture in the most secular of places. These women have formed a gospel where the Divine Imaginary provided is an invitation to all people to the radical act of survival. As a trans femme person, I know, and these women testify, that one can survive and thrive simultaneously. Because “there’s more than one answer to these questions/ Pointing me in a crooked line/ And the less I seek my source for some definitive / The closer I am to fine.”

P.S. I believe that my fair, sincere, and soft mention of the “TERF/trans exclusion” conversation can spark strong push back from some of the readership of this blog. I am aware that we (cis and trans) who are in Feminist theological spaces need to continue engaging seriously in conversation around this topic and start working together to construct something from it. I would like for my post to be a part of starting that conversation. The heart of my post is that there is something profound in the liberative music created by these amazing and powerful women. Part of that profundity, is that I, a trans feminine queer person, heard an invitation into a legacy of liberation and justice. So I invite you, whoever you are, reading this to reread my piece. Reread it, knowing this is a small part of a larger conversation, and the heart of the conversation is a painful history of exclusion and transphobia and simultaneously a history of liberation and justice.

 

Nathan Bakken (they/them), originally from Seattle, WA, has found home in Boston, MA. Raised Roman Catholic, Nathan stands firm in the intersection of Christianity and Esoteric Spirituality. They earned their Master of Divinity, and Master Certificate in Religious Conflict Transformation, from Boston University School of Theology with particular focus in trans and queer theologies, queer spiritual practice, and the intersection of pop culture and theology.

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Categories: Divine Imaginary, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, LGBTQ, Popular Culture, Secular Culture, Spiritual Journey, Spirituality

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

15 replies

  1. How wonderful that a person can construct an identity and a religious manifesto from pop-song lyrics and feel called as a result to instruct lesbians to do feminism better. Refreshing!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “Life is of wonder and love is never wrong.” I am “closer to fine” after reading and listening. “I’m talking about a revolution.” “Let us spin!” The music video of Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” is one of the most transcendentally beautiful I’ve ever experienced. Thank you for sharing your gospels here, Nathan.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “TERF—trans-excluding radical feminist—might have started as a descriptive term but it has become something else altogether.” Starhawk

    Insofar as some feminists have insisted on the right to have separatist spaces, not all the time, but as Alice Walker said, “occasionally for health”; and to use terms such as breast-feeding and vagina, but have been de-platformed and threatened with and received violence for doing so, I agree with Starhawk.

    Here is the context of the quote from Starhawk:

    “But being traumatized is not an excuse for inflicting trauma on others. If we are going to make an alliance in the gender wars, we need to stop traumatizing one another. One thing I hear from all sides is “I don’t feel safe.” We’re not safe—in a world of patriarchy and its condoned violence—and we definitely should not amplify that violence against one another. That means:
    1. No Physical Violence

    It shouldn’t have to be said, but it does. Physically attacking people, no matter how strongly you disagree with them, is not okay.
    2. End the Verbal Violence and Name-Calling

    It’s time to put away the “I punch TERF” signs, the imagery of violence against women even when couched as ‘performance art’ as in the recent exhibit shown at the SF Library. We need trans folks and their allies to speak out against such things, just as we need to retire the ‘men in skirts’ meme and the imagery that dehumanizes trans folks.

    TERF—trans-excluding radical feminist—might have started as a descriptive term but it has become something else altogether. As for calling people ‘nazis’—hey, there are real, bona fide, Aryan-loving Nazis out there, despite how 1930’s that might seem—so let’s reserve that word for them! Terms that dehumanize people encourage and justify violence against women and all gender-nonconforming folks, and reinforce patriarchy.” https://starhawk.org/how-do-we-call-a-truce-in-the-gender-wars/

    Liked by 6 people

    • Hi Carol, Just wondering how this comment contributes to the conversation that Nathan’s essay is about– i.e lesbian music culture as gospel or sacred and liberating. It seems like your commentary isn’t really touching on anything about the heart (or central occupation) of this essay.

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      • Carol, thank you for addressing this topic – I found it rather manipulative for Nathan to bring up the whole issue of radical feminism, including using the term “TERF” – and then instruct us all not to respond to that.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Aw, friend, I’m sorry that Nathan’s P.S. came across as manipulative (the P.S. is what I assume you are referring to). It was me who actually requested that Nathan consider including a postscript of this nature. I know we have an a diverse community of engaged and committed feminist that span the spectrum of perspectives – and I know that posts that touch on transphobia have been a source of tension on our website – so I thought that it would be helpful for Nathan to encourage us all to read their post in the generosity of spirit in which it was intended. In all my behind-the-scenes interaction with Nathan, they were very open and invested in increasing dialogue and deepening understanding, so I thought it helpful for Nathan to (re)invite that kind of interaction/reading at the of the post – just to recall us to our best selves on a topic that often triggers strong reactions. I hope that comes across – I do believe that Nathan’s post illustrates the reality of the complexity of our humanity experience and how it necessarily crossed the identities, cultures, and categories we might create…

          I am still hopeful that this conversation will continue to increase our understanding across difference and increase our compassion toward one another – we have a wonderful community of awesome feminists and I’m grateful for you!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Carol, thank you for quoting Starhawk – Stopping the violence – both verbal and physical seems to me to be the first step to be taken here. In this culture of violence how do we go about doing this?
    “Difference” of any kind seems to engender more violence – or is it the excuse used to perpetuate more violence?

    And it seems to me that identity has obliterated community. Today it is differences that define how we navigate the world not commonalities.

    There is something really wrong if we cannot see through the veil of difference. All human beings and non human species are deserving of respect and kindness.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I am an initiated Dianic. I have learned that trans “women” who grew up as men and still apparently feel male privilege have harassed and tried to drive legitimate lesbians like Ruth Barrett, Max Dashu, and others into some dark shadows where people will never see or hear them while the trans “women” make all the noise they can. These trans “women” are the ones who killed the Michigan festival and are apparently trying to kill Pantheacon……at least until everyone listens to them and they can be the boss of everything. It sounds patriarchal to me.

    I agree with Sara and Starhawk and Max and Ruth and other women who are trying to stop the violence.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I think we also need to think about the violence that comes from not considering trans women to be women (i.e. using quotations as a qualifier). In the light of the fact that trans women and femmes face active physical violence and sexual/verbal harassment every single day of their lives (both in public and private spheres). This violence is much different than the “death” of the Michigan Festival or the Pantheacon– the death they experience is a literal one from physical violence, lack of access to medical care, etc. Similarly, not recognizing trans women as they are– as women– initiates a social death as well, an active dehumanization of trans women through the use of scare quotes. If we’re talking about violence, the conversations that are being held like this (ones that actively distance trans women from their womanhood) are contributing to violence on all sides (physical, emotional, social) of a trans woman’s experience. I think we need to be cautious when throwing around the term violence with regards to these conversations. While name calling can be considered an act of violence, the term TERF is not a violent term against women, but rather a signaling that people who are excluding trans people from their feminism (often in actively violent ways) need to reflect on their feminist ideals and see that they do not align with the anti-violent rhetoric that they are pushing forward.

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    • Brava. Physically erasing lesbian space is never the same as questioning sexism in any community – including trans communities.

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  6. Oh my dear friend! I love this. And the gentle invitation to do better. And the hope of building good news out of words meant for people who hate or misunderstand us. Listening to Brandi Carlile with you today, dreaming of the day when we’re all together and different and queer and dancing to this revolutionary gospel you unearthed for us!

    Like

  7. Nathan, this essay is a beautiful conversation on the places we queer people can find scripture and salvation outside of institutional religion. Your commentary on survival– particularly with regards to Chapman and Carlile– rings true and is so essential for so many queer people know we must band together to ensure our total survival, bringing into the circle those who have been forced to the edges; those who exist outside of the binary, those black and brown men, women, and non binary individuals, individuals with disabilities, individuals from all faiths are all essential for LGBTQ+ survival and vice versa. Together, Nathan, you and I will survive– and we will survive driving in a fast car screaming Dixie Chicks lyrics.

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  8. Brandi Carlile’s video is full of tenderness and inclusiveness. Do take a look if you have a moment. I don’t know if the images and music both date to the 80s. Maybe someone will make a video version that includes animals, birds, salmon, whales, rivers, seas, and mountains as well as diverse humans. As Sara Wright notes, “All human beings and non human species are deserving of respect and kindness.”

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Womyn centering our own experiences–biological, social, intellectual–and gathering together for empowerment is not allowed in patriarchal societies. Hence, in the 1960s, womyn who did so individually or in organized groups were called “man-haters”. In the 21st century, we are now being called “trans-haters”. There are few spaces in America where womyn can gather in safe, joyful spaces to share and celebrate and heal our experiences as womyn in this misogynistic culture, but there are still demographics that are hell-bent on destroying those spaces for us in the name of gender inclusion. I think that a tragic legacy of the current generation of feminists of all identities who support use of misogynistic, derogatory terminology, concepts and practices under the “terf” umbrella will be that they successfully eliminated venues that allowed women to reclaim what patriarchy has attempted to erase for millennia. What a legacy! Womyn gathering together is still threatening! “Feminists” who cheer that MichFest was dismantled, that even revised versions of Vagina Monologues has been run-off college campuses, and the word “women” is removed from some women’s health facilities in the country, and see these as acts of gender inclusion, may eventually realize destroying womyn-only venues is never going to help transwomen, much less help stop the systemic oppression that harms everyone. In the 1960s, people attacked womyn for gathering together, but men did not try to stop us as virulently and hatefully as the trans/new-wave feminists do now. We must stay strong in our commitment to centralizing our experiences as womyn-born in whatever manner we choose! Crashing our parties is pure arrogance and male privilege–we know that song already. But trying to label us as “exclusionary haters” is an uglier song from what we heard in the 1960s. I also strongly see this argument around generational lines and, hence, the “terf” label is an attack on 2nd Wave Foremothers/Elders by the younger generations….you want respect, when will you give it? I am here to support transpeople while I simultaneously and unapologetically support womyns’ right to gather and name ourselves Womyn.

    Liked by 4 people

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