The story of Rachel Humphreys, the transgender woman who acted as Lou Reed’s muse
The name Lou Reed is intrinsically intertwined with the golden age of rock and roll. Be it as a solo artist or as the face of The Velvet Underground, his contributions to music though unrecognised in his own time, is undeniable. The perfect word to describe the ideas that his music reflected is ‘avant-garde’. What the world marvels as ‘progressive’ today, was discarded by the society for being ‘too much’ at the time of Reed’s ultimate fame. But the question is; was Lou Reed as liberal as his music? The story we are going to share today is a reminder that one shouldn’t confuse between a public persona and a real-life human being even though, of course, both are embodied by the same person.
The story of Rachel Humphreys and Lou Reed hasn’t gone down in history the way it should have—but perhaps it’s foolish to expect so in a world where queerphobia exists in abundance. This retelling is an attempt to shed some light on the dark side of the celebrated icon to which the patriarchy-dominated world deliberately turned a blind eye.
Reed met Humphreys, a much-loved drag queen, in the 82 Club, a location which was in transition from a transvestite performance club to a glam rock and then, later, a punk club. At that time, Reed’s career was on the rocks with almost no success and recognition for his work, a situation that pushed him towards alcoholism and drug addiction. He recalled being captivated by Rachel’s magnetic personality in an interview with the Bambi magazine, in which he stated: “It was in a late-night club in Greenwich Village. I’d been up for days as usual and everything was at that super-real, glowing stage. I walked in there and there was this amazing person, this incredible head, kind of vibrating out of it all. Rachel was wearing this amazing make-up and dress and was obviously in a different world to anyone else in the place.”
Reed continued: “Eventually I spoke and she came home with me. I rapped for hours and hours, while Rachel just sat there looking at me saying nothing. At the time I was living with a girl, a crazy blonde lady and I kind of wanted us all three to live together but somehow it was too heavy for her. Rachel just stayed on and the girl moved out. Rachel was completely disinterested in who I was and what I did. Nothing could impress her. He’d hardly heard my music and didn’t like it all that much when he did. Rachel knows how to do it for me. No one else ever did before. Rachel’s something else.”
The only things that became public in their three-four year relationship during 1973-1977 are some cheesy photographs of the two and, of course, Reed’s 1975 album Coney Island Baby in which Humphrey acted as a muse. The line “I’d like to send this one out to Lou and Rachel, and all the kids at P.S. 192” of the title track is a direct reference to their relationship—but we need to dig deeper in order to understand what was lurking beneath the surface romanticism. One can’t help but wonder why Rachel was never heard talking about their relationship. What were her feelings towards Reed? Was she in love? Was she happy? Was she trapped or was it her choice? Was her voice consciously silenced? As a matter of fact, no information regarding her pre and post-Reed life is readily available. The lack of agency is a classic example of objectification and subjugation. Now, if we look back at Reed’s narrative in the previous paragraph, the red flags become prominent. Underneath the banter, a crude desire for an exclusively physical relationship is exposed.
It appears that Reed was not at all sensitive to his partner’s preference to identify as a woman. In 1976, Andy Warhol wrote in his diary: “Lou Reed called and that was the drama of the day. He said Rachel had gotten kicked in the balls and was bleeding from the mouth and he wanted the name of a doctor. Lou’s doctor had looked at Rachel and said that it was nothing, that it would stop the bleeding? but Lou wanted another doctor to check. Lou called back and said he got Keith Richard’s doctor to come over. I told him he should take her to the hospital. I was calling Rachel ‘she’ because she’s always in drag but then Lou calls him ‘he’.” It is widely reported that Reed fought with Rachel when she decided to have the gender reassignment surgery and ultimately ended their relationship. Though, in the months and years that followed, Reed played the victim card and said that it was actually Rachel who had left him. “Love has gone away,” he sings on the title track of 1978’s Street Hassle, an album that is allegedly about their breakup: “Took the rings off my fingers, and there’s nothing left to say.” He pretended that she never existed and refused to talk about her publicly except for the time when he said, “All the albums I put out after this are gonna be things I want to put out. No more bullshit, no more dyed-hair faggot junkie trip.” Most typically Reed got “clean and straight” and went on to marry his second wife Sylvia Morales in 1980.
The trans woman and cis man relationship, a love story which could have been an inspiration to the whole world, yet again proved to be a disappointing story of queer harassment. Humphreys died in 1990 due to the Aids outbreak and with her death, the world forgot yet another painful story.
However, before we jump to any conclusions, we should ask ourselves what made Reed behave in such a way? Why did he feel the need to come out as a straight man? No one person is born with hatred in their hearts, it is the society that slowly conditions the mind and injects hatred. Most often it is fear that feeds such a viewpoint. For Reed, maybe it was his childhood trauma. In the book called ‘Please kill Me: An Oral History Of Punk’, Reed described the electroshock treatment given to him as a teenager, by his mother, for being bisexual: “They put the thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland State Hospital to discourage homosexual feelings….The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable,” he said. This is not to be seen as an isolated event. It echoes the story of thousands of queer lives who were made to feel abnormal and made to hate themselves, which in turn made them look down upon and mistreat members of the same community. Though Reed was a victim of queerphobia himself, it doesn’t justify his actions towards Humphreys. A cultural icon in his lofty position of fame, Reed had the opportunity to use his platform and make a change. His attempt to whitewash his identity as a straight man makes him guilty of queer erasure.
Though a spiteful incident, it is a powerful reminder about how queerphobia and ignorance first destroys queer lives and then brushes their stories of struggle and triumph under the carpet. In a world with increasing awareness, our only hope is that the story would make one stop and reconsider the havoc that celebrated icons such as Reed, have caused in the lives of marginalised people like Humphrey and perhaps ask themselves; can art be separated from the artist?