These Colours Are Our Rainbow:
Sexual Identity and the Music Industry
I do love those features where I get to rank the greatest albums…
of some band or other; commemorate the anniversary of vital creation from music or compile a top-ten list. Every now and then, one must focus on something deeper, more important and, well, less personal. The reason I want to look at sexuality in the music industry is to tackle and address issues, I feel, still stink and festoon beneath the surface. I have written pieces about gender inequalities and racial discrimination in the past – and will not put the links as to distract from this – and gone into a lot of death as to why I feel there are things to be done. I shall not go into quite the same details as I did then but feel, if anything, this problem is equally important. I have reviewed a few homosexual artists (men, mostly) and a couple of transgender artists. I know, for a fact, there are a lot of gay musicians out there and those going through gender reassignment – those who have already gone through the process.
It is a very natural and personal decision that should always be celebrated and applauded.
We are, in every nation and walk of life, powerless to counteract our gender and personality at birth. Whilst it is, through discourse, discipline and sensibility, easy to modify personality quirks and bad habits: it is not as simple changing your gender. If you are born a girl, why then, if you are unhappy, should you live with that burden and confusion for the rest of your life? An existence enveloped by a lie is an inhumane and disgraceful mistake. Not that it is becoming more common and accepted but we all know about celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverene Cox but, one feels, their decision to reveal their transgenderism and transformation was less soul-easing and smooth as they’d hoped. In an age where we can change any part of our body and choose how we dress and act – why should gender be such a stigma?! One might say switching one’s gender is a big deal and relatively uncommon – there are those religious zealots, whom I have no time for, who say it contravenes God’s will. It would be wrong and unnatural were someone to remain, say, a girl if they have always felt like they were a boy – or woman/man if you want to be overly-politically-correct!
If you want to change your gender and go through that process, you should be met with acceptance and support. Those who have nothing constructive to say should remain passive but we are seeing outright aggression and bigotry.
There are alarming statistics that show how many people undergoing gender reassignment commit suicide because of the judgement and cruelty they are afforded – when brave enough to tell their ‘friends’/family about their choice.
In the music industry, Against Me! singer Tommy Gabel decided he would become a woman having lived thirty-one years as a man – in 2012, he underwent gender reassignment and became Laura Jane Grace. That surname is very appropriate for a musician who has accrued a legion of fans as he was: a man named Tommy with a certain sound, look and demeanour. In this case, the public reaction was supportive and humbling. His wife, as you’d hope, remained with him whilst Rolling Stone ran a profile that looked at Gabel/Grace’s lifelong struggle with gender dysphoria and the relief at having fulfilled his true nature and identity. CN Letser has just written an article for The Pool where she talks about the judgment and anger faced when explaining her decision behind transgenderism/being trans. To be fair, gender reassignment and transgenderism is a fairly new concept to me but something I am desperate to know more about. Lester explains in the piece the following:
“To be trans, you have to be surer than you’ve ever been, because being trans is what you are when you’ve exhausted every other option. And still, other people would like there to be a chance of something different, and so they ask ‘Are you sure?’, just in case”
IN THIS PHOTO: CN Lester
A successful musician and author in her own right; I read the article with greater interest and, although I might be falling into slippery tar-pits many commentators and people do – not showing Lester the full respect deserves – I am a passionate supporter of the trans. community and those who undergo body dysmorphia – and feeling the need to make changes and be in the body you are supposed to be in. I feel there are many musicians out there who face the struggle and darkness many men and women will out there.
CN Lester, when being asked about the decision to become trans,. was often met with that question: “Are you sure?!”.
The surgeon asked that as did, I am guessing, many random strange and, possibly, a few friends. There are those who judge people like Lester and assume they hate women or must be suffering some sort of abnormality – identifying yourself through a gender not assigned to you at birth must mean there is something wrong in the head. I will not dwell too much on the article – you can look it up yourself – but it raised fascinating points from a human not only rebelling against narrow-minded chatter but has written a book about it: Trans Like Me: A Journey for All of Us. I urge you seek it out as it provides the struggle and decisions many trans people have to make every day. Lester does raise alarm bells when drilling down to statistic around mortality and suicidality:
“This report is a litany of suffering. A full 41 per cent of respondents had attempted suicide, compared with 1.6 per cent of the general population. Seventy-eight per cent of gender non-conforming kids had experienced harassment at school; 15 per cent were forced to leave school to escape abuse. Nearly half of all respondents had been discriminated against in employment, which makes sense of the fact that 16 per cent of respondents worked in underground economies as a way to survive”.
It seems baffling, in 2017, we should be addressing subjects like transgenderism and body dysmorphia in such terms – often with teary eyes against those who let their cruel tongues outweigh common sense. Those who say gender is a social construct and shouldn’t be an issue are missing the point: those who feel trapped in a body they are not comfortable in are being written-off and belittled. Identity and feeling comfortable in one’s own skins is a very important and personal thing.
IN THIS PHOTO: Sir Elton John
Bringing it back to music and, like Lester, there are those in the music industry who are undergoing gender reassignment and are transgender. It is hard for ‘normal’ people in society to deal with sniping judgements but what of the musician?! Being in the public eye so prominently – even if you are an unsigned musician you still have to perform live and gain exposure – it can be a very unsettling and scary thing to go through. I have, as said, reviewed a couple of transgender artists but would, not as a concession or fad, review a lot more. Not because it gives me credibility or helps a societal minority – being condescending and prejudicial in that manner is not acceptable – but learn more about their experience and how that affects their music. Normally, I would reserve a sized-fourteen pair of dog pooh-stained Dr. Marten boots for any musician that utters the word ‘journey’ in any context other than an actual, literal journey – my leg is becoming tired and all the available dogs within a ten-mile periphery have shi*ted their poor little bottoms dry. In the case of a musician going through gender reassignment; that seems like a very appropriate word. It is a huge and life-changing process that has many ups, downs and roadblocks.
The point of this article is to shine a light on an area of society that, like gender and race, are thousands of years less evolved than one would hope. We are still seeing blatant sexism and racism and there is an adjacent wave of homophobia and narrow-mindedness when talking about trans. artists.
What I love about the ‘issue’ is how little an issue it is. Those who ask what the point of changing gender is – or saying it means you hate that sex and want to punish them – are displaying the same kind of mealy-minded attitudes we should have dispensed with centuries ago. I want to discover and feature more trans artists; not only to hear their story and discover more about them but show, under their skin and when you talk to them, they are the same as you and I. We allow plastic surgery (unnecessary) and cosmetic modifications; we are encouraging of those who want to get tattooed or change their bodies in any way they see fit – it belongs to them so denying that freedom and liberty is a form of slavery and discrimination. If you are unhappy, to the point of suicide, then judging those who want to assign their gender should be welcomed with open arms, no?!
At the very least, we should not make a deal of it. It is the business of the man/woman who wants to go through that. In music, there are transgender artists but I feel they have to struggle in the shadows through fear of compromising their success and musical credibility. Whilst, as has been shown in some cases, the audiences and fans are demonstratively supportive and positive towards such transformations – one wonders whether society, as a whole, would be so favourable towards trans musicians? Maybe, again, the fans and gig-goers are the exceptions but I feel there would be some up-turned noses and seedy, whispered conversations at some record labels and boardrooms. Some would say spotlighting those brave enough to reveal their transgenderism is drawing attention to something when all they want is to be left alone and accepted.
The reason one would cast a light on a transgender musician is not to cause controversy and backlash but show how normal, right and brave it is.
I am desperate to interview and feature trans musicians and talk about whether they have faced any hesitation (in themselves or from other people) when discussing their choice; how that has affected their career and whether, in light of that transformation, their subject matter changes for the better/worse. It is a fascinating thing to consider but, in addition to admonishing those filled with hate, I wanted to urge transgender artists to speak out and show strength. There are those, like Lester, writing books on the subject in order to de-stigmatise the subject and explain why transgenderism is normal and, often, essential – and how prevailing attitudes are causing many people to take their own life. Music is that forum designed to proffer love and protest against those coruscating and unevolved – it seems, in too many areas, we are seeing a reverse-policy.
IN THIS PHOTO: Lady Gaga/PHOTO CREDIT: Harper’s Bazaar
The second part of this feature – and something more common, perhaps, than transgenderism and gender reassignment – is homosexuality. Again, it is 2017 and one would say the following: we are not seeing as much judgement in society and greater communality. I would argue society has not really caught up and not as accepting as it should be.
I still see discrimination when it comes to homosexuality and, in fact, the L.G.B.T.Q. community still have to go through life with a certain amount of fear and burden. Music has done a lot over the decades to help the L.G.B.T.Q. cause and prove to the rest of the world – those people who live in the Dark Ages – it is perfectly normal and acceptable.
If one looks at those musicians who have revealed their homosexuality over the years – from Freddie Mercury and Adam Lambert to Chely Wright and Frank Ocean (in 2012) – there has been, from the fans, a really positive reaction and affectionate support. In the case of Wright, she was met with death threats and dwindling record sales. She did not retreat and, instead, married Lauren Blitzer and filmed a documentary about her experience. Freddie Mercury, during the 1970s and ‘80s faced criticism and hate from a lot of people. He wore his sexuality on his sleeve but one wonders, when news broke about his H.I.V. diagnosis (and death a matter of hours later) there was a lot of ill-advised and misjudged assumptions – the fact he died was down to him being gay. Rufus Wainwright, Sir Elton John and Rob Halford (Judas Priest) are gay musicians with a huge profile but, again, they have faced homophobia in the music industry. Madonna has fought (for decades) against such attitudes and celebrating homosexuality and equal rights. Lady Gaga launched her Born Brave bus/tour – celebrating those courageous enough to come out and embrace their homosexuality – whilst many other musicians have tried to strip away the stigma and judgement many provide L.G.B.T.Q. artists. I have seen a lot of musicians (I know) play at festivals like Brighton and Hove Pride and Pride in London. We are in the twenty-first century where a musician (or person) should not be judged harshly for their sexuality. If they want to be gay or transsexual; if they want to be bi-sexual or ‘different’ then it is nobody’s business.
I guess the main reason for writing was to see whether music was truly accepting and evolved? I have mentioned musicians, those legendary and established, who have opened up and there are many unsigned and underground artists boldly and defiantly living their lives as they should – free from fear of persecution and not giving a damn about anybody’s opinions. It is heartening seeing a wave of musicians rally and celebrate the L.G.B.T.Q. community; musicians opening up about their sexuality and bravely speaking out. I fear there are avenues and areas of music that have not advanced and are holding back many artists. Cities like London and Brighton have large gay/bisexual/trans communities and are, perhaps, not as culpable but how much of the discrimination is coming from those in the music industry and how much is coming from outside that circle?
If musicians, as a group, are more tolerant and loving than your average human: do cases such as Chely Wright’s create anxiety and reluctance?
Ricky Martin revealed his homosexuality and documented it in the 2010 autobiography, Me. There were doubters and critics but he acted as a role model for many men and women. That is the good thing that comes out of that struggle: inspiring others and creating that wave of love and strength. Should it be the case so many musicians have to closet their sexuality and cocoon it – through fear they will be met with homophobia and sneer?! We are divided between the gay rights festivals (and those that encompass and congregate the L.G.B.T.Q. community) and recruit a lot of musicians and people together. They are, in my view, the sane and sensible people. There is another faction of people who still hold prehistorical attitudes and feel sexuality is a huge issue. Like gender reassignment; sexuality is not an evil or something that does not need to be changed. If you are attracted to the same sex (or both sexes) want to change genders then why should anyone else judge?! There seems to be a moral irony where people can make much bigger and more questionable changes to themselves and others and not be confronted.
Music is that church of equality and humanity that is seeing its flock poisoned and dirtied by those with contumelious minds and hollow souls.
What does one’s sexuality have to do with the quality and nature of the music?!
Many assume there is ‘camp’ music that will be made by gay people. They see it as inferior and, somehow, ‘wrong’. To that, I would say ‘camp’ music – whether Pop or whatever – is predominantly recorded by heterosexual artists and is rather bloody good. In fact, gay artists, to me, seem to have a greater sense of humanity and understanding – having undergone such a struggle and, often, having to deal with many sides of the human being. They lend that strength and survival to their music and, as people, are a lot more fascinating. I have reviewed gay artists like Ruben and Chris Selman who are the nicest and most talented people I have encountered for a long time. They are both brave and strong and will never be silenced or quelled by those unwilling to be educated. There are many more who are either disguising and distilling their true nature or facing sleepless nights through fear of ridicule. What if a big star came out and had to face the possibility of reduced record sales and a whirl of tabloid bullying?! Even those starting out in music, if they revealed to a venue or fans they were gay/bisexual, for example, might have to work harder than anyone else to get credibility and respect. I will never accept the fact anyone who chooses to step away from a bias and subjective normalcy should be castigated from society. Sexuality is not an aggregation of rights or wrongs: those gay or straight are not different and destined for Heaven or Hell. We are, under it all, the same and have no right to think less or anyone else because of their sexuality, gender or lifestyle. Again, like transgenderism, I want to feature more musicians from the L.G.B.T.Q. community and their stories; celebrate them and put them out front – not to pander but show how normal and wonderful it is. Even those musicians who pay no mind to judgement still must have faced people along the way who have questioned their decision. We should not be strangling and suffocating music but imposing tariffs and limitations on a person because of their race or gender; their sexuality or whether they want to change genders.
Every person has the right to live their life any way they want. It is not down to anyone to think less of someone because of this.
Those musicians who have shown the fortitude and spoken out are to be congratulated but there are lots of people reluctant to reveal who they truly are. We all part of the same rainbow and of the same planet. We all want to band together and oppress those evil forces in the world – not be divided by something as personal and wonderful as a person’s decision to be who they should be. If we are to make music a lot stronger, balanced and more open; we need to create a dialogue and understanding for…
IN THIS PHOTO: Lady Gaga
THOSE who face fear and discrimination.