by Cody Kenner
In many ways and in many fields, trans people have seen a significant increase in public visibility. Caitlyn Jenner was featured on the cover of the July 2015 Vanity Fair, actress Laverne Cox was featured on the cover of Time, and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez received critical acclaim for her role in the Sundance Film Festival-premiering movie Tangerine. Still, there is one field of the entertainment industry that has offered little exposure for trans individuals: the music industry. Nonetheless, trans individuals have and continue to shape the history of music, often in bold and innovative ways. Below are a handful of trans people who have made a mark on music history over the past century.
Wendy Carlos (she, herself)
Wendy Carlos, a music composition major from Columbia University, was first introduced to the Mood synthesizer at New York City’s Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where she oversaw the development of the Moog synthesizer, one of the first commercial synthesizers ever. Carlos went on to popularize this instrument with the 1968 record Switched-On Bach, which became one of the highest-selling classical music recordings of its era, and precipitated the use of the Moog synthesizer in more popular contemporary genres. Carlos’s later went on to score a series of tremendously successful films, including A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Tron. In 1979, Carlos became one of the first public figures to disclose that they had undergone sex reassignment surgery.
Genesis P-Orridge (s/he, h/erself)
From the very beginning of h/er artistic career, Genesis P-Orridge was a controversial figure. In 1969, P-Orridge, then a student at University of Hull, England, initiated h/er first project, COUM, an avant-garde artistic and musical troupe of Dadaist design. The group, which was banned, censored, harassed by police and shut down numerous times for their lewd and often masochistic performance art, eventually morphed into the band Throbbing Gristle in 1975. Throbbing Gristle was one of the earliest pioneers of industrial music, coining the term with the release of their debut album, The Second Annual Report, which they deemed “industrial music for industrial people”. P-Orridge later went on to form the band Psychic TV, which in turn spawned a fellowship of artists and chaos magic practitioners called Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. P-Orridge is pandrogynous, a form of identification in which s/he and h/er partner underwent body modification in order to resemble each other and identify as a single person. In an interview with trans punk rocker Laura Jane Grace, P-Orridge had the following to say about h/er identity: “we wanted to demonstrate that the human body is not the person… the mind is the person. And ultimately the body’s supposed to be discarded altogether, and we become pure consciousness, that’s our belief…and so this is a step symbolizing the beginning of seeing the species differently, and looking towards an ultimate future where there is no either/or, and ultimately there is no body, there’s just divine thought, and divine consciousness.”
Jayne County (she, herself)
Jayne County, originally from Dallas, Georgia, moved to New York City in 1968, where she became a regular at the Stonewall Inn and took part in the historic Stonewall Riots. Jayne County soon became involved in the theatrical endeavors of the Warhol Factory. County was an influential force in the fostering of proto-punk, appeared in a number of seminal punk films, and went through a number of bands (one of her backing bands was, humorously enough, named ‘the Backstreet Boys’) before spearheading Jayne County and The Electric Chairs and becoming rock’s first transgender singer in 1979. The Electric Chairs’ music was never commercially successful, but was nonetheless an influence on the likes of David Bowie, the Ramones, Patti Smith and Lou Reed.
Justin Vivian Bond (v, vself)
Bond began v career as an actor in regional dinner theaters, and eventually found v voice as a queer performer and activist within the LGBTQ community of San Francisco’s Castro District. Bond’s first bout of success came through v performance as a washed-up, alcoholic lounger singer, Kiki, accompanied by an equally-damaged pianist, Herb (Kenny Mellman). Kiki and Herb relocated to New York City after a spurt of San Francisco queer club crackdowns in 1994. As the duo’s mythical backstory grew, so did their fame, and in 1999 they received their first New York Times review, as well as the GLAAD media award. Bond currently curates a lively solo cabaret career, and continues to act as an LGBT activist. Bond’s pronoun, v/vself, pays homage to v middle name, Vivian.
Lucas Silveira (he, himself)
Lucas Silveira is the frontman of the The Cliks (a portmanteau of the slang terms ‘clit’ and ‘dicks’), and as such is the first openly transgender man to lead a rock band signed onto a major record label. The Cliks have undergone multiple lineup changes, but are noted for consistently including queer musicians in their roster. Silveira’s most notable exposure has been through Cyndi Lauper’s Human Right’s Campaign-benefitting True Colors Tour, his musical feature in Showtime’s The L Word, and numerous Pride festivals.
Grimes (no preferred pronoun)
Though many music-lovers are already familiar with Grimes for their experimental pop music and for calling out the music industry’s pervasive sexism, some may not know that they identify as gender fluid. “I vibe in a gender neutral space so I’m kinda impartial to pronouns for myself,” they tweeted. “Don’t have a preferred so much but I wish I didn’t have to be categorized as female constantly. Everything I ever hear about Grimes is super gendered and it’s always really made me uncomfortable.” One of Grimes’ latest songs, “Kill v Maim”, is written from the perspective of a gender fluid version of Al Pacino from The Godfather Pt II who is also a space-traveling vampire.
Laura Jane Grace (her, herself)
At age 17, Laura Jane Grace dropped out of high school to form her punk band Against Me! The band’s early years were rough— Laura recalls playing at dive bars and laundromats for tiny audiences, dumpster diving, selling blood plasma for money, and living with twelve roommates in a low-rent house by a waste dump. As the band moved forward, Laura began to feel alienated by the male-centric punk scene. This feeling, in combination with depression and substance abuse, served to fuel her gender dysphoria, which she would wrestle with throughout her career. Though she hinted at her gender identity in much of her songwriting, Grace publicly came out as a transwoman in May 2012. In 2014, Grace released Transgender Dysphoria Blues, a concept album that mixes Grace’s dysphoric experiences with the story of a transgender prostitute. The release made multiple ‘top albums of 2014’ lists, and was critically acclaimed.
Angel Haze (they, themself)
Angel Haze comes from a very difficult background. They were raised in a strict religious community, the Greater Apostolic Faith, where they were not allowed to speak with other outside of the group, date, listen to music, or, in their words, “do pretty much anything”. Furthermore, Haze experienced repeated episodes of sexual assault as a child at the hands of family members, and developed an eating disorder as an adolescent. Haze’s deeply confessional song, “Cleaning Out My Closet” (which borrows the beat of the Eminem song of the same name), a recounting of these events, proved hugely successful, and in 2012 they released the mixtape Reservation to exceptional critical acclaim. Currently, Haze helms a positive body image campaign entitled “The Naked Eye”, which seeks to address different forms of body dysmorphia ranging from eating disorders to gender dysphoria.
Anohni (her, herself)
Anohni started out her career as the leader of the chamber pop band Antony and the Johnsons. Anohni’s songs under this project addressed a variety of topical issues, including queer culture’s identity politics, the green movement and humanity’s destruction of the environment, gender as it relates to spirituality, and female empowerment. In 2014, Anohni released Turning, a film that intimately documented her tour with 13 butch lesbian and transwoman performers, each of whom would pose onstage as Anohni performed. In 2015, Anohni publicly announced her name change as well as her new album, dropping May 6 th , which she described as “an electronic record with some sharp teeth.” Most recently, Anohni became the second openly transgender person to be nominated for an Academy Award with her song “Manta Ray” from the documentary Racing Extinction.
Shamir (no preferred pronoun)
From an early age, Shamir was immersed in music. His aunt was involved in the music business, and would frequently bring bass players and producers to his house. As an adolescent, Shamir participated in country singing competitions, and was even in a punk band in high school. Shamir got his big break with “If It Wasn’t True” in 2013, and followed up the single with his debut EP Northtown. Shamir has been lauded for his androgynous countertenor voice, which has been compared to Janis Joplin, Prince, and Michael Jackson. As far as gender identity goes, Shamir identifies as genderqueer, and on the matter has clearly stated “I have no gender, no sexuality, and no fucks to give.”