R&B Legend Jackie Shane On Growing Up Trans in the South
"You have no idea what you could become or who you could become until you stop playing follow the leader." Trans legend Jackie Shane reflects on her time touring as an R&B singer in the 60s, and offers advice on being unapologetically yourself.
All photos courtesy Jackie Shane.
This interview is part of Broadly's Trans Legends oral history project. Read more here.
It was a humid August night in Manhattan when I was introduced to the legend Jackie Shane. Susan Stryker, pioneer of trans academia and esteemed historian, was wowing actress Laverne Cox and I with tales of the most obscure figures in transgender history. Susan lead us on a journey from nonbinary Quaker leader Jemima Wilkenson, who rose from the dead to declare themselves a genderless being in 1776, to renegade Joseph Lobdell, who lived off the grid and kept a bear on a leash in the mid-1800’s, finally landing on the jaw-dropping talent of Jackie Shane. Although Laverne and I are both committed enthusiasts of trans history, neither of us had ever heard of her.
As we congregated around an iPhone to watch a grainy, black and white YouTube video of Shane’s hit “Walking the Dog,” I felt something light up deep within me. If this trans performer was openly mixing gender signals—in a tailored suit and a full face of make up—on national television in 1965, where else did we exist in plain sight throughout history? How was it possible that Jackie Shane was not a household name for every queer person in America?
Jackie Shane burst onto the scene as an R&B musician in the 1960s. After getting her start in music with a traveling carnival, she went on to release her album Any Other Way in 1967. Shane had been living as a woman since her teen years in the 1950s, when it was still illegal to cross-dress in many states. And her life story reads like a film: encounters with the mob, kidnapping, and a personal disappearance that left people thinking she was murdered for years. Finally, in 2017, Shane’s music was re-released, and the soulful enigma re-emerged in Nashville, Tennessee after 46 years of silence.
When I was invited this past May to correspond with Shane for her “Dear Jackie” advice column, featured on her website, I wrote to her immediately. Jackie’s wisdom in response was generous and precise, and I knew she would have more to offer for Trans Legends.
When I daydream, I often get lost in escape fantasies. I imagine this is true of many trans people; seeing and being able to manifest ourselves in a world built upon our exclusion is exhausting, and we invariably contemplate being invisible, disappearing, not being trans, and other modes of living that perhaps would take less of a toll. The ultimate goal is to survive life for as long as possible, knowing that we owe it to ourselves, and to our predecessors and descendants, to carry on. Jackie Shane survived by always prioritizing her own self-preservation, by only ever being Jackie, and not trying to be anything to anyone else. I am grateful to her for that; our mere existence is enough.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
ZACKARY DRUCKER: I’m such a huge, huge fan of your work and presence, and I just think you’re fabulous. I thought that this would be a great opportunity to share your message with other young people out there.
JACKIE SHANE: Yes, and I want to do that, Zack! I have always been partial to the younger people, because they don’t have support, many of them, at home and in the neighborhoods. So, I have tried to give them what I could, because without hope, children go astray. And we don’t want that. I would call on the adults that are intelligent in life to reach out to children, to let them know that they’re not alone, and they’re not doing anything wrong. They’re simply obeying their nature.
If you can be true to yourself, you can also be true to others. But if you can’t be true to yourself, you really have nothing. You are lost. You see, most people don’t understand that if you think you’re wrong, then you’re wrong. No matter what anyone else says. But if you know that you’re right, because you’ve been true to your nature, then you’re going to have a life that is full and wonderful. But if you doubt, just a little bit, whether or not you’re right in how you’re going about life, then you’re a loser. You will lose. But if you know this is how it is for you, you were placed here with the nature to be who you are, it doesn’t matter what ignorant people have to say. They’re busy messing up their own lives because they’re too busy meddling in yours. But you must latch on! You must be the person that you’re born to be.
What are some of your survival strategies from over the years?
I let nothing get in the way of hindering my life. Nothing. I never have. You can’t change your nature, and as long as you follow your rules, going in your direction, you won’t have a problem. It’s when you allow those who would eat away at your foundation and make it crumble around you, that you lose. But as long as you can say to whoever, “This is my life, and I will live it the way that I choose, I’m not gonna tell you how you should live. I’m going to say to you, you do your thing, I do mine.” Even if we’re friends. “What you do is your way, what I do is mine, and I don’t want you to interfere in how I do what I do. No matter what you think, it’s not your life. You do what you want to do with your life, and you leave mine alone.
This is how I have lived for as long as I can remember. I live with my convictions. I don’t cry and moan and kick and complain. I do what I feel I should do. Not what someone says I should do, but what Jackie knows is best for Jackie. And if you don’t know what is best for you, find out. Find out by pulling away from the crowd. As I’ve said to people, most people are carbon-copies. But until you have broke yourself from that flow of following the leader, and put yourself in your own flow, you will never know who you are. You have no idea what you could become or who you could become until you stop playing follow the leader. You know, someone says, You dress like this, you eat like this, you do this—no no. Uproot yourself from that.
This is what we’re up against as transgender and gay and what have you. People who are following the leader. They’re not thinking for themselves. It’s like, let me explain something to you: I went through it, a part of it. This country allowed the most outrageous evil practice in the world: enslaving people. So, therefore, I don’t jump in when they say this, that, and the other, because I know how wrong they can be. I research it. I find out what this is all about. I don’t just listen to what they tell me. You must look at all of this and realize, those who think they’re doing the right thing are not always doing the right thing, because they’re not thinking on their own. So therefore, when it comes to transgender and such, remember: they’re just coming into this. They don’t understand, but we must teach them that life is multifaceted. We are not all alike. We’ve got to teach them that we’re no threat. We’re just another person trying to go on up the road, just as they are. But we can’t get angry with them. They’re ignorant. We must bring them into reality.
You really have to investigate what is going on here. What’s going on here is the man has set up things for his benefit, not the woman. So, you must question everything. Don’t just let someone say, well it’s this or that, and you accept it. Go into a different part. Find out what it’s really all about, and you’ll find that you’ll be led down through those paths. It’s not true. That’s the reason that transgender people and gay people have such a hard time. The lies. They’re going to hell, they’re this, they’re that. Have you ever been to hell? How do you know there even is a hell? And that’s a proper question all over the world. But people always will set upon you if you let them. I’ve never let them set on me. Joy is simply doing what you know is right for you.
How did you keep yourself happy and safe all of those years of touring and being a public person who was openly subverting gender?
I mean, I know I’m different. But there’s nothing wrong with being different. I’m not harming people. I’ve killed no one. I haven’t hung anyone on the gallows. … I do what my grandmama said: “If you want to get on with people properly, feed them from a long-handled spoon.” Keep people at a distance, if you want to get along with them; when you let people come too close, that’s where the trouble starts. You don’t want people in your business—not even your sister or your brother or anyone. Your business should always be yours, and you should handle it properly. I don’t allow people to tell me what to do. You can suggest, but don’t ever try to tell me what to do. I don’t care who you are.
I feel like it was your confidence in being out in the world before there were other trans people making music and putting yourself out there, your confidence was that thing that propelled you and lead you to success.
I don’t know another way. I can’t go any other way than to go the way I go. I have always, you’ll find this interesting… my friends were adults. I wasn’t fond of other children because they could be silly and pathetic and I didn’t like it. So my friends were adults, even when I was seven or eight. We would sit and talk. They would call me to conference with me. Adults! I remember this one lady who lived next door. One day, she saw me at the back and she rolled up her window and said, “Come on, I got to talk to you, I need you!” and I went over and we talked, and she said to me, “I don’t understand it.” I guess I was nine or ten. She said, “I have friends that are much older than you—five, six times your age—but they don’t have the knowledge that you have.” She said, “I don’t know where you get it from, but I’m glad you’re my friend.”
Where did you get it from?
I don’t know! I simply look at the world as it is, not the way I would make it be—although there are things I would change. But I’m not in that capacity that I can change anything other than the things that I confront. I’ll tell you something funny: My little sister and I received [a letter from the draft board] to be inducted into the military. It was fun. Her and I were devils. We got ready and headed down, and I stood up, and I said to this guy, “You people sent me this letter. I’m here.” They were calling others in. I said, “Hey, look, my friend, you sent for me! I didn’t come here voluntarily.” As we were leaving, they were peeping out behind the doors. I really gave them quite a time. I knew how. I said, “Now, here’s what it will be. I’m never up before 12. And I will have to have my room designed to suit me.” I had so much fun that day! They were laughing when I left.
What were you wearing?
I wore a floor-length black dress, a broach, earrings, and a couple bracelets.
Did you have a full face of makeup on?
I didn’t wear too much makeup. But I had so much fun! It was so funny, because, first of all, let me tell you what you’re doing, military man. You’re taking innocent men and turning them into killers. Do you think that’s a thing you think you should be doing? Don’t look at me like I’m doing something wrong. You’re the wrong one. How dare you to do that! You send innocent people to kill or be killed. You send them to foreign soil and just say, “Get ‘em!”
Leave other people alone in the way that they live their lives that you don’t understand. If you want to really know about those people, come to them in friendship! Sit down and let them tell you what their lives are like. But don’t just jump up and holler, “She’s wearing this,” and, “He’s wearing that.” Sit down with a transgender person and let them tell you what their life is like. Sit down with a gay person and let them tell you what life is like for them. Sit with a lesbian and let her tell you about the nature of her life, and what she goes through. How can you judge when you don’t know what it’s about?
I don’t have time for it! Life is stepping forward as you and I speak. And every moment, every second of my life, is precious to me. I will not let idiots interfere with my life, I will not.
Many of my teachers in school didn’t like me because my questions were like this: “How do you know what you’re teaching out of that book is fact and truth?” They didn’t want to deal with that. Down here in the South, during Jim Crow, you didn’t get the education that you deserved. So, I educated myself. I had to learn about African people, who have contributed so much to this country. That wasn’t written about. I would ask, “You mean we’ve done nothing but build this country on our backs? And there’s not a nickel for it? I’m sure we’ve done other things.”
Like I have said to people, a little African girl learned to rise to be the true queen of hellish times in the South called Jim Crow. She rose above it. I didn’t accept what I knew was wrong. I simply looked at it, and I said, I’m gonna beat them at their own game. And that’s what I’ve done. I simply said, what they’re doing is a lie. And they know it. I can come into your home, cook, raise your children, counsel you, but I can’t sit beside you in a public restaurant? That makes no sense, my dear.
So all those things I’ve incorporated, and I don’t play the game—I don’t go through the back door. A friend and I who knew Judge Doyle here, we would go to Judge Doyle’s house during Jim Crow, sit on his front porch, have an iced tea and cookies … that’s where I was. So I rose above it all by being determined. I will not take a back seat. If I can’t sit down at the table with the lace tablecloths, I will not sit out there in the yard and eat on the ground. I’ll fix my own meal and eat at my own table, but I will not come to you and let you degrade me. And I have done this all my life, loud! I will tell anyone.
Who were your teachers? And also, who taught you the ways of transness?
I didn’t have any! I was always teaching someone else. I mean, I didn’t have anyone besides my mother to take me by the hand and say, “I want you to look at this.” My grandmama and my mother, and my grandfather were the people that made me the person I am today. They didn’t make it, you know, “It’s going to be easy.” They simply said, “You’re gonna have to know to make your way through this room of people. Which means, your brain is what you must depend on.”
I was reared to know that the world wasn’t going to be kind to me just because I’m here. I would have to learn how to take people and make them respect me. That I could not just say, well, I’m here, you got to do this and you got to do that for me—that’s not the way things work. You have to be clever enough and strong enough to make people respect you. This is something that I learned early on because my family knew what kind of roll I would be up against. The people in the world, what they would be, so they trained me in how to live in this world amongst all these people, and all these people are multifaceted—they’re different. You must learn to deal with them.
"I was reared to know that the world wasn’t going to be kind to me just because I’m here. I would have to learn how to take people and make them respect me."
And that’s not an easy thing to do. You cannot cater to them. You can’t let them aggravate you. You must stop them even if they want to go where they shouldn’t go with you. You have to be the power. You. You cannot play games with life. You’ve got to be strong, you’ve got to be powerful. You’ve got to let them know you don’t play.
I went to a foreign country at fifteen and won that country over. I don’t have to tell you my accomplishments. You will see them. But it’s because I am the person I am. I’m not a phony. You may not like me, but you will respect me. What you think means nothing to me, but how you treat me is very important to me. You don’t have to be near me day after day to really absorb the creature I am. I don’t hurt people, and I’m not gonna let you hurt me, either. I say very little. Most of the people in my neighborhood have never seen me. I move in such a way that I’m out of sight, out of mind. I don’t want them trying to get close.
You’ll have to live with me and you will see. One day I was buying this limousine. I don’t believe in credit; credit scares me. So everything I buy, I buy cash for it. The night before, [I saw that a car dealership I was passing] had this limousine—it was the same make that the president had at the time—and they had it on this platform that slowly went around. I stopped my chauffeur and I said, “We’re coming back in the morning, and I’m gonna buy that.” We stayed up and then drove to the dealer, and I put an amount of money in my attaché case, and I had my chauffeur stand over to the side, holding the attaché case. I sit down at the desk. On both sides of the street was nothing but car dealers. I sat down and told the dealer, I’m ready to trade in my motor car, which is paid for, and I beckoned for my chauffeur to bring the case over. I unlock it and I turn to him, and there’s cash. “That is as far as I am going to go.” And he said, “I’ll have to talk to my boss.” I got up and started looking across the street at these other car dealers. He came back with mine. As me and my chauffeur drove away, he said, “Jackie you’re too much.” I said, “No, no, no, dear, in this world, you can’t be too much when you’re conducting business. You have to let them know how far you’re willing to go.” My way of life is simply doing my thing, not somebody else’s.
What is the moment in your life that you would like to relive?
Honey, I have never given that a thought! What would be the moment I would like to relive in my life? Oh, gosh. It would be a collection, because I would put them all together and go from there. It would be impossible for me to choose one moment. There’s been so many moments that were unbelievably satisfying and wonderful that I could not, in all fairness, just say that one. I would say this: There would be a collection. I would dabble and enjoy that collection, because they were all so beautiful that I could not neglect one for the other. And that’s the way Jackie is.
Are there little pieces or flashes that you can share?
Well, I’m on stage. And the spirit is in the room. And all of a sudden, it takes me. And I can see just before I go under, the people shouting and dancing and going through these changes, and the guy that protects me [the bouncer] swoops me up in his arms and takes me to the dressing room and sits me down and goes to the door and locks it and stands in front of it so I can’t run back out. That is the moment that cannot be explained. You see, with us, there is the spirit that takes over.
In Boston, Massachusetts, I would go on first, but once I went on, there was nothing for you to do. When I finished, the people overturned tables, chairs. The spirit was in the room.
My friend Etta James—we became friends later on when we met in California—we had a Monday Night special where a disc jockey would come out and emcee, and I would host the proper entertainers of the day. On that night, it was Etta James. And our dressing rooms were next door, and I heard her say to her manager, “I thought you had found out what was going on. If I knew she was that powerful, I would’ve went on first!” So when she went on, she just told the people to come up and dance. Because there was really nothing she could do.
Oh my goodness, why did they turn over tables?
Spirit! You have never been in a room where the spirit is? Baby, it’s an experience. I mean, they’re normally in control. The spirit takes over and you see people shouting, rolling. It’s a fascinating thing. So when I project that, that is the moment that I can’t explain. But it also takes me, and to keep me from being hurt, the guy (the person that is in charge of making sure I don’t get hurt) lifts me up, takes me to the dressing room, and locks me in, because I’d run back out! I’m still under the spirit. And until it leaves me, he doesn’t move away from the locked door.
When the spirit is in you, when it takes over, you’d be surprised what you can do. I think people run out and you have to run and catch them, because they’re not in control and can be run over by a motor car! If it’s something you’ve never seen, you’d be fascinated by it. I’ve seen people… do you know in church, you know the back of the bench where people sit? I’ve seen people walk the back like a tightrope. It’s something they could never do under their own power!
Jackie, I could go on talking to you all day.
I am so humbled to know that you wanted to know one thing or another about me, how I live. And I will always tell you just the way it is. I’m not gonna sweeten it up or do anything other than tell you the truth.