When Were You Mine? Prince’s Legacy in the Context of Transgender History

This essay was prepared for the Purple Reign Conference at University of Salford.  Enjoy!

When Prince passed, for my friends there was one lyric that summed him up:

“I’m not a woman.  I’m not a man.  I am something you can never understand.”

PrinceRIP

My friends posted over and over again this meme: Prince in a pink flowered halter top, long hair spilling over his face.  This was the image by which my friends, particularly those who were transgender, wanted to remember him.  It is a lyric that is true about me, as a non-binary transgender person.  I identify as someone who is neither a woman nor a man.  I’ve certainly learned that many people can’t understand that.  The lyric represents what my trans friends wanted to be true of Prince.  It would seem to confirm the way that we have seen him: as androgynous, gender non-conforming, as femme, as one of us, a part of the vast, varied, and fantastic transgender community.  By transgender, I refer to anyone whose gender identity differs from the gender assigned at birth.  Transgender is an umbrella term that includes trans women and trans men as well as nonbinary, agender and genderqueer people.  Back to the matter at hand: of course, I do not need to tell any of you that “I Would Die 4 U” is in fact one of Prince’s many songs about Jesus.  On the surface, this lyric tells us nothing about Prince’s gender identity.  Nonetheless, Prince provided us with a vision of gender transgression as divine and the sacred as transgender.  Not a bad trade-off.  If my friends saw this distinction, they didn’t seem to care. There’s something about Prince that resonates with many transgender people, that demands that we claim him as one of us.  This is especially true for non-binary trans people like me.

Many writers, reviewers, funky feminists, and fans have claimed Prince as a queer icon.  They have celebrated him as a supporter of Black women and as the fulfillment of our desire for a love bizarre.  My favorite description of Prince as a queer icon comes from Black feminist and bad-ass bassist Dr. Francesca Royster.  In her brilliant book Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in a Post Soul Era, Dr. Royster writes:

…we soon learned to turn the volume down low, singing along to those images of sex as melting sugarcane and trembling butterflies, panting along with the unnamed “Sexy Dancer” when we were sure my mother wasn’t home. Prince’s appeal was tauntingly open-ended, whatever we wanted to dream up, it seemed…

….as Mark Anthony Neal, a black feminist theorist, points out, at a time when black culture saw the emergence of strict codes of masculinity as tough and hard with the emergence of hip- hop, Prince countered with his own and very fluid ideas of black masculinity… was he woman or man? Gay or straight? he asks us. He doesn’t answer directly, but offers us instead a sexual dream space.

The question “Was he a woman or a man?” is not just a queer question.  It is a trans question, too.  Perhaps more trans – non-binary trans, specifically – than queer.  I do not contest Prince’s status as a queer icon.  However, his significance to transgender communities has not been duly considered.  This oversight is all too typical – artists, even straight ones, are often claimed as queer because of their gender expression.  However, their relevance to trans communities goes unconsidered.  Of course, this pattern has its roots in our history.  In the 1960s, the boundaries between homosexual and trans communities were permeable.  Homosexual identity was often seen as a gender difference.  However, in the early 1970s, gays and lesbians began to distance themselves from transgender communities, believing that they would find acceptance faster without us.  When gender transgressive artists like Prince are considered relevant only to queer people, it is an erasure.  It is another way we are violently excluded from the very communities that transgender women of color created.  Today, I offer an alternative method of cultural and historical analysis.  I examine Prince’s shifting career within the context of transgender history and consider what it means to be a trans Prince fan.  I ask when, exactly, were you mine.  I don’t pretend to offer this group new information about Prince, but I do hope that I can introduce US trans history and provide a sense of why that history is relevant to you.  I further hope that by re-contextualizing Prince in this way, you are inspired to consider other ways that trans history shapes your reality.

Let’s begin.

Dig if you will the picture.  Prince was born in 1958, during an era of transgender history marked by tough street queens, drag balls, and jail cells.  At that time, living as a transgender person made it nearly impossible to find legal work. Many transgender people, especially trans women of color, lived on the streets.  They were pursued relentlessly by police.  Many were arrested for crimes related to their poverty – loitering, sex work, and petty theft.  They also were criminalized by local laws against cross-dressing.  In response, many trans women of color formed tightknit communities through which they supported and defended each other.  Over a decade, trans women of color across the United States formed political organizations and fought back against the police.  In May 1959, a year after Prince was born, trans women, femmes, and gay male hustlers in Los Angeles, many of whom were Latino or Black, resisted when police attempted to arrest them at Cooper’s Doughnuts, a popular late-night hang-out spot.   In 1965, Black activists in Philadelphia held sit-ins at Dewey’s lunch counter after managers began refusing service to patrons in “nonconformist clothing.”  In 1966, another riot broke out in San Francisco’s Gene Compton’s Cafeteria.  Once again, trans women, gay men, and sex workers fought back against police and private security harassment.  Then, in 1968, when Prince was ten years old, the legendary Stonewall Riots erupted in New York City.  These riots, instigated and sustained by trans women of color, are remembered as the beginning of the LGBT movement.  In fact, they were a continuation of a decade of trans struggle.

At the time of Stonewall, Prince was probably thinking more about school and music lessons than the bourgeoning LGBT movement.  Nonetheless, it’s undeniable that the resistance of transgender women of color created the context in which a Black man who did his own eyeliner could thrive.  The Post-Soul Black cultural era into which Prince blossomed was shaped by transgender women of color.  Take Marsha “Pay it no mind” Johnson.

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Marsha, pictured here in a crown of flowers, instigated the Stonewall Riots and sustained decades of transgender activism in New York City.  She also performed with the Hot Peaches, a queer and trans performance group.  Her work prefigured the Black Arts Movement, especially in its queer iterations.  When we think of Prince, we should remember Marsha P. Johnson and the Black transgender women who birthed the LGBT rights movement.

In fact, the trans movement was particularly fierce in Prince’s hometown Minneapolis.  In 1975, Minneapolis passed one of the first trans-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances in the United States.  The law banned discrimination based on “having or projecting a self-image not associated with one’s biological maleness or one’s biological femaleness.”  Prince was most assuredly a beneficiary of this landmark civil rights measure.

By the time, Prince released his first album “For You” in 1978, transgender women had been largely excluded from the LGBT communities they shaped.  Gay activists saw them as a liability to their efforts to assimilate.  Lesbian feminist refused to acknowledge that trans women were women.  The 1970s and 1980s were difficult decades, to use trans historian Susan Stryker’s term.  Trans women were forced to turn inward.  They took care of friends and lovers with HIV and threw down in the streets with ACT UP.  While they struggled, there was Prince on the TV looking like he was about to sashay his way down Christopher Street pier.

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There’s something about Prince that calls to us as trans people.  In the 1970s and 1980, he served up so many images that remind me of us.  A friend of mine who is an elder in the trans community recently posted about Prince’s first television performance.  It was January 8th, 1980.  Prince played “I wanna be your lover” wearing animal print briefs and black thigh highs [pictured above].  He flounced and whipped his hair while he told the whole world that he wanted to be our mother and our sister too.  In her post, my friend used the pronoun “they” to refer to Prince.  Coming from her in this context, the pronoun “they” signaled a respect for Prince’s gender nonconformity and a desire to speak to his feminine androgyny.  Her use of “they” spoke to our desire to claim our kinship with the artist, strange as that relationship may be.

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In 1984, Prince incorporated into his film Purple Rain a symbol connected with the trans community.  This sign, a circle leading into a cross and in turn leading into an arrow, was the basis of the glyph that would become Prince’s name.  Probably few viewers realized that symbols like it have long been used to by the trans community. In the archives, I’ve countered art that prefigured today’s trans symbol as far back as the 1960s.

Wendy and Lisa, Prince collaborators during the Purple Rain era, have talked about his support for them as gay women.   Their comments beautifully express the Prince I see, someone who was not just androgynous, but also femme, maybe even trans-feminine:

Did you first think Prince was gay?
Lisa: He was little and kinda prissy and everything. But he’s so not gay.
Wendy: He’s a girl, for sure, but he’s not gay. He looked at me like a gay woman would look at another woman.
Lisa: Totally. He’s like a fancy lesbian [emphasis mine].
Wendy: I remember being at that Sexuality video shoot and him on stage with that little black jacket and that tie thing around his neck and his black pants with white buttons on the side. And we looked at each other for the first time and I thought, Oh, I could so fall in love with that girl easy.

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That femme side to Prince was expressed beautifully in 1986 on the cover of “Parade.”  Look at that eyeliner and those hands about to vogue.   In 1987, he told us exactly how it would be if he was our girlfriend and damn did he make it sound good. These images, created while the trans community coped with mass incarceration and the AIDS crisis are solace to me today.  I can’t help but see them as an expression of our beauty and potential.

The 1990s were a time of coming in to our own power for both Prince and the trans community.  Transgender people began to organize outside of the larger LGBT community.  We began to describe ourselves to ourselves.  We developed the term “transgender” to describe our experiences and the term “trans feminism” to describe our politics.  Prince created new words for himself, too.  In 1993, he took the love symbol as his name.  In an interview with Oprah, he articulated this decision as a part of the tradition of Black resistance:

0{+> : Well, just like Muhammad Ali…
OPRAH: Mm-hmm.
0{+> : …and Malcolm X…
OPRAH: Mm-hmm.
0{+> : …people like that change their name, and some people take names that are hard to pronounce.
OPRAH: Mm-hmm.
0{+> : And it just so happens I picked one that you can’t pronounce.

In the same interview, Prince also told Oprah: “Recent analysis has proved that there’s probably two people inside of me. There’s a Gemini. And we haven’t determined what sex that other person is yet.”  This description hearkened back to Prince’s feminine alter-ego Camille, a persona he adopted briefly in the 1980s.  If these self-expressions are not examples of Prince identifying as non-binary, I don’t know what would be.

Prince’s decision to adopt a variation of a transgender symbol as his name is an action that feels so familiar to me – and also one that highlights the differences between us.  It is common for trans people to choose our own names to represent our sense of self and our gender.  However, Prince’s decision to do so was largely respected.  Ours are not.  Our names are not unpronounceable glyphs.  They’re simple: Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major Griffin-Gracie, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Cece McDonald, Chelsea Manning.  Still, cisgender people can’t seem to find a way to say them.  Prince was respected and celebrated for a type of gender expression that gets trans people murdered.  In that regard, he wasn’t one of us at all.

Fast forward to today.  2014 was a landmark year for both Prince and the transgender community.  Prince regained control of his masters and released two albums.  At the same time, Time Magazine declared it the year of the trans tipping point.  Trans people were visible in the mainstream in ways we had not been in years.  That tipping point has been a space of precarity for us.  Prince, inadvertently, illustrated that too.  In 2015, Prince put on a concert in Baltimore.  He played a beautiful song honoring Freddie Grey, a Black man brutally abused and murdered by the police.  The concert was an important part of Prince’s activism and support for the Black Lives Matter movement.  What Prince did not mention, however, was another police murder in Baltimore just two weeks before Freddie Grey’s – the shooting of Mya Hall, a Black trans woman.  In fact, Mya Hall was not remembered by many.   The murders of Black trans women rarely are.  Prince probably never even heard her name.

This is the ambiguity of the transgender tipping point.  Trans people are presented as a success story.  The media say we’re the next civil rights struggle – as though the old civil rights struggle is over, as though civil rights have been enough.  We are celebrated for our visibility, while Black trans women continue to be murdered for the same.  We’re marketed to more directly.  Today, we can find trans and gender non-conforming artists that are perhaps more like us than Prince.  We have Laura Jane Grace and Big Freedia.  Apparently, we were liberated by becoming a niche market.  Meanwhile, there is no one in the mainstream like Prince.  Is this the future?  Does it work?

As trans people, there are so many people from whom we gather the strength to be ourselves.  Our love of them tells us more about ourselves than about them.  Musicians like Prince can provide us with a sense of something deep: imagination, possibility, complexity.  We need harmony, rhythm, and funk.  Prince took the unspeakable and the opaque and he put a beat behind it.   He made it irresistible.  He did that for several capacious categories: Blackness, sexuality, gender.  When Prince passed, I honored his memory by learning to put on eyeliner.  I wanted to celebrate his expression of a feminine androgyny.  I found it healing for myself.  To me, he provided the sense of expanse that is missing in limited media depictions of trans existence today.  That’s why here at the trans tipping point, I love Prince even more than I did when he was mine.

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