I Was an American Girl: One Trans Guy Says Thanks and Bye to Tom Petty
I was an American girl, raised on promises.
I always thought the next line said, "She couldn't help thinking that there was a livable life somewhere else."
When I heard this morning that Tom Petty had died, I Googled the lyrics and found out it wasn't a livable life, it was "a little more life."
Crying in the shower, I thought about how I went after the former -- and managed to find the latter. But, on a day like today, it all still feels so very far out of reach.
I still remember where I was the first time someone told me I was a tomboy: cafeteria, Rose Tree Elementary, third grade.
"Tomboy" turned out to be trans and queer as fuck, in so many then-unimaginable and deeply wonderful ways. And this was a promise I needed to keep or die.
Every day, I am so grateful I didn't die trying, as so many have. As that American girl, I walked away from drunk-crashing a car into a stone wall and another time woke up in a stranger's (aka rapist's) bed after blacking out drunk and crashing my bike. The list does go on for a bit till I pulled it together, more or less, at age 19 before coming out as queer at 23.
My mom was also an American girl, who never quite found that livable life. And I bear the scars of her scars. We'll save the details for another day. Or maybe, someday, some zillions of out-of-network co-insurance PTSD dollars later, the details and the non-details will have slipped away, waves reversing, swallowed into the ocean of somatic healing and 12-step fellowship.
But here's the relevant part for today:
"You're just like me," she liked to say. "You can't sing."
With the unflappable surety that's the secret sauce of a borderline personality, she continued to say it for years after I'd been in bands playing out around Philly, and after I'd taken to accompanying myself with just my bass guitar at queer cabaret.
If I hadn't broken off contact with her going on five years ago, she'd probably still be saying it, even though I combat the lingering claws of trauma-turned-chronic-pain with joyous and jagged, top-of-my-voice sing-alongs from my playlist.
Every day, I keep my promise by keeping that distance. I'm not that American girl anymore. But she's always with me, and now I get to keep her safe.
Bridging Trauma and Resistance
Petty specialized in lyrics that were, well, evocative and vague. Who isn't an American girl, reading these lyrics? They cross the political spectrum while still conveying that there's something fundamentally hard, fundamentally not OK, that American girls have to face.
But by all reports, Petty was a good guy who knew from a bad deal, and he was on what I'll just loosely refer to as "our side": the side that bridges trauma and resistance.
His dad was an abusive jerk who beat the fuck out of him, assuming that the kid was gay because he was into art instead of sports. And as he carried that trauma out into the world, he chose solidarity with LGBT people, including marching in the first LGBT pride parade in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida, a bunch of years before we came to see so much more of that. (He also ended up using heroin, the balm and the bane of so many abuse survivors.)
I remember when Petty came to that Gainesville event in 1992 after it was threatened by the KKK, though it's not mentioned in any of the online coverage of Petty's death that I've seen so far. But on Facebook, Greg Seaney-Ariano says:
I will ALWAYS remember how Tom Petty suddenly appeared at our first ever Gay Pride in Gainesville, Florida in 1992. I'd contacted the police in advance to ask if they could provide some protection for the event. The SE headquarters of the KKK was only a 30-minute drive away, and well, I had to assume police presence would be a good thing. I had no idea that the Community Liaison of the police force was Tom Petty's cousin, and through her, he found out that the KKK was planning on attending our Pride event. So he decided to show up to give his support and be a counter media presence. Friggin AWESOME!!! Mind you, back in '92 public acceptance of being gay was not so common as today. He was a rebel, a vanguard, living truth to his music.
Petty also wrote a song decrying the cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, and explained to Billboard that the song also spoke to his repudiation of religiously justified violence:
"Religion seems to me to be at the base of all wars," continues Petty, who was raised, unconvinced, among Southern Baptists. "I've nothing against defending yourself, but I don't think, spiritually speaking, that there's any conception of God that should be telling you to be violent. It seems to me that no one's got Christ more wrong than the Christians."
A few months ago -- at the same time the current U.S. president pushed to oust trans people from the military, having already sought to oust trans kids from school bathrooms -- he was on his final tour, a Heartbreakers reunion. And he was projecting a "massive photo of the late transgender actress Alexis Arquette, who died of AIDS complications in 2016," as a part of a slideshow of women for the "American Girl" encore.
Petty's vision of American girls was expansive. It's got room for Alexis Arquette, it's got room for me and it's got room for my mom.
Petty's "American Girl" is on my "scream-along-with" playlist. It's also on the set list for my legendary-but-not-actually-not-often-real raucous punk cover band (call it homocore if you're old-school.)
I did a quick search for "punk cover Tom Petty," but YouTube didn't do me right; I just found a handful of dudes having a good time.
"Doesn't' that song always make you happy? Probably because it's about girls," opines the singer of Sum41, after their spirited but faithful rendition.
They aren't punk covers. And that song always wants to make me smash things, in all the best good-angry ways. I need to belt it out so fucking raw, you couldn't even take it. Or maybe I mean I can barely take it -- and can't get by without it.
Gender's not binary, and it's not just bodies. My gender has musical roots. I'm self-named after John Doe, who was the bass player of X, the dare-I-say seminal L.A. punk band he fronted with his partner-then-ex-partner Exene Cervenka. One of the main reasons I was excited to start testosterone was that it held the promise of lowering my already-pretty-low-for-cis-female voice firmly into his range.
I taught myself bass by playing along with X records while sitting around selling weed to get through college. I'd married my high school boyfriend when I was 19, partly to get away from the family of origin, partly because I'd been fantasizing about my female roommate too much and partly because he was (and is) a super sweet guy who saw me through a lot of pain and abuse till I’d gotten out.
I'd been the dutiful girlfriend/fan when he, his brother and a few friends were in a punk band when I was in high school. I say that as if the reason was the standard gender role of the girl on the side dancing along, but it also didn't hurt that my mother forbade me from having a musical instrument in the house. (I tried to hide a cheap, used bass in my closet, but she found it, and to be honest, an electric bass without an amp doesn't do much but frustrate.)
But, after my brother-in-law killed himself, my husband and I formed a band with some of the original band's remaining members. I felt honored to play his brother's bass and to start finding that low voice that would ultimately bring me to and sustain me in my gender truth.
Take It Easy, Baby
Often these days, my hands hurt too much to type for long, much less to play the guitars that will remain neatly stacked up against the wall till my daughter gets big enough to give them a go. So, when I sing, it's just me: me, and the testosterone-toned voice for which I am so grateful, a vocal confirmation of living the promise.
But I'm typing today; it's my knees that are flaring up, and I shift uncomfortably from standing to sitting to pacing while I'm typing this out. I have a well-honed self-care practice, and I know that this is a day I need to sing, in addition to taking the drugs I reserve for the worst of days.
I love to perform, though I don't get to much these days. I'm turning 50 soon, and I daydream about having a mini cabaret tour, showing up where there's lots of people I love and raising some money for groups such as ACT UP Philly, Positive Women's Network – USA (PWN-USA) and others. I started planning it out, then got reality-checked with the unpredictability of chronic illnesses: What happens if I set up these things and then get in a bad spell, as can happen sometimes, and I can't pull it off?
But, this morning, I had a cabaret of one. I put on my PWN-USA shirt for a snarling sad, grateful, pained, heavy-lidded send-off to Petty. Here it is:
JD Davids is the director of partnerships and a senior editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.