It was 1967 and Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul and I did not know why her song “A Natural Woman” drilled straight into my soul. That is the first sentence of my book, “Woman Incognito.” I go on to explain that about thirty years later I finally understood that I am a transgender woman and that Aretha’s line “You make me feel like a natural woman” made ME feel like a natural woman. When I accepted my true gender identity, she definitely contributed to my sense of what being a woman means.
Aretha’s music is an exuberant, sensuous celebration. At a time when women were oppressed and sidelined even more than now, Aretha used her powerful and unbridled voice to declare that a woman could be whatever she wanted and that no one could stop her. It was a message of empowerment. But her voice was not only about womanhood, not only about gender. It was the tumultuous, iconoclastic 1960’s, when the buzzword was “liberation” and every traditional value was under assault.
American society was being confronted with something that had probably not been named yet. I only heard the words perhaps 20 years ago. It is called the intersection of oppression. It is the understanding that oppression and discrimination based on any one thing, be it gender, race, religion, class, sexual orientation or anything else, is all of the same fabric and ultimately threatens the whole society. It was all bubbling to the surface in the form of race riots and the violent clash over gay rights in the Stonewall Rebellion. Feminists burned bras and anti-war protestors burned draft cards and American flags and hippies ridiculed almost all traditional values at once, often through a haze of marijuana smoke. Meanwhile, the “establishment” viewed all of it as a coordinated conspiracy against Truth, Justice, and The American Way.
Aretha Franklin was not actively involved in all these movements of the 60’s and succeeding decades, but she was a strong voice for change, not only in the perception of women but also in the cause of racial justice. The latter was an inevitable role for her. Her father was a prominent black preacher involved in the civil rights movement with Dr. King and her own early career as a gospel singer together with her subsequent huge success as a rock singer made her a natural favorite at justice oriented events. It was a fitting tribute to her presence in the racial justice movement when she sang at President Obama’s first inauguration.
So for me Aretha touches all the bases and expresses them in music that is powerful and unforgettable.
The music will live on and through it so will Aretha herself and the force of her ideas, emotions and indomitable womanhood. She is still the Queen and I may be just one of the Chain of Fools, but I will go on demanding Respect for all my sisters, cis and trans, straight and gay, black and white and whatever.