15 Sep, 17

You’re Not Alone: Finding Comfort in the Songs of LGBTQ+ artists

Turn on the news for any length of time lately and it’s easy to feel discouraged or disgusted. It’s even easier to feel alone. From 45’s recent announcement of a transgender military ban to the vile acts of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, our world is quickly becoming a much darker place.

Queer artists have long used music to enact change, with current artists like Ayo Nako and Mal Blum and past artists such as David Bowie and Freddie Mercury using their platforms to speak their minds and share their experiences and emotions with listeners. When all is too grim around us, we can slip on our headphones or close our eyes and listen to a favorite record, finding peace in the stories of someone else. We may also find that music spurs in us the need to take action, to stand up and support those around us.

Now, perhaps more than ever, we need music. We need to share the songs and works of marginalized voices — to support them, listen to them and use their art as a way to fight hate.

As we continue to struggle to make sense of the events around us, these artists are providing listeners a place to feel less alone and the courage needed to resist. From the Minneapolis-based trio of 4th Curtis making self-described “scrappy gay cripplepunk” to the indie pop of Spook School, who encourage us to “Burn Masculinity,” these are just some of the voices needed now, and always.

The Catharsis of Creating

In this time of resistance, artist Tica Douglas views music as a powerful tool for both musicians and their listeners. As they explain it, “music can be cathartic, like breathing into the world something you’ve felt for a long time.”

Their recently released album our lady star of the sea, help and protect us wasn’t written with a prescriptive approach, where Douglas hoped the listener would get something from it. Rather, Douglas wanted to free themselves of feelings and thoughts that were bursting to get out.

“I hope that my music moves people in a way that is helpful,” Douglas said. “Music has a unique ability to reach people, and in that way it’s absolutely an important tool for anything that needs building or breaking. I think that in this long and exhausting fight against hate, white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, empire — the list goes on and on and it’s not new but it is urgent — it’s critical to remember that everyone is different and everyone has a different role to play."

"One kind of activism is trying to create greater awareness in people — about themselves and others. I think that’s one thing I’m doing in my songs.”

The ability to create awareness through song, even when unintentional, is something The Spook School relate to on their 2015 release, Try To Be Hopeful. Throughout the album, the Edinburgh, Scotland-based band continually explores issues of gender identity, transitioning and existing comfortably in the world as the person you are.

Singer Nye Todd explains that at the time of writing the record, each member of the band was figuring things about themselves and wanted the recording to be as straightforward and emotionally honest as possible.

“As we were writing Try To Be Hopeful I was getting close to starting testosterone and so I had a lot of questions related to that,” Todd said. “When you're first engaging with medical providers to transition, there's quite a lot of pressure to present yourself in a very normative way in an attempt to ensure acceptance as a 'real trans person,’ and it took me a while to sort out what elements of my gender identity and presentation were in line with what I felt and what was performance for the sake of acceptance. Quite a lot of the songs were very much me trying to sort those thoughts out and talking myself through these questions of identity.”

Todd said that the band never wants to assume their music detailing personal moments can or will help someone, but they’re always happy to hear that it has.

Musicians like Jo Kellen of The Florists agree with that ideal. Kellen said that many times artists create just to put something out there, and the fact that it resonates with others is a beautiful benefit of their craft.

Kellen, who just released No Costume with bandmates Jared Hemming and Luke Michaels, sings candidly in their music about past emotional trauma and their experience with gender identity. Like The Spook School and Douglas, The Florists wanted to write and put out music that reflected what they were going through.

“I don’t really think I have this essential viewpoint,” Kellen said. “We put songs out there and hope it can help people, but we don’t purport to know anything. With the songs and our video it’s weird to turn my real life into something, but I’ve learned to lean into that pain and learn from that narrative.”

As 4th Curtis explained, “pain is universal.” It’s an experience that both musician and listener go through, sometimes on a daily basis. For the members of 4th Curtis, singing about that past pain and seeing how others interpret it to fit their narratives is part of the magic of music.

The band, who sing about mental illness, gender dysphoria and disabilities, hope that their songs can potentially provide an opportunity for someone to find their own meaning. “We don’t put effort into writing songs about these things,” the band said. “Our songs are about what we’re going through and experiencing."

"We’re not going to tell you it’ll get better in our music because it might not, but if you surround yourself with people who lift you up emotionally and physically, you can get through it.”

Music-Created Communities

None of these artists may have intentionally set out to create work that could resonate with others, but they do realize the weight of their words and the ability they have to possibly enact change or serve as some form of catharsis. Douglas experienced this firsthand during the events of Charlottesville. As that day unfolded, Douglas received a tweet from a fan who said their music was just was they needed.

“Seeing that, I had to just pause and sit with it for a while. I cried, which is not unusual for me,” Douglas said. “I can’t really sum up in words how it feels to know that even one person feels less alone or finds comfort with help from my music. Whoever that person was who tweeted that has no idea how much they helped a person like me, who operates from a feeling of helplessness ninety percent of that time.”

That indescribable feeling of knowing someone found meaning from your music is also something the members of The Florists witness during their live performances. Kellen said that it’s beautiful to look out and watch “as a bunch of trans folks dance along to their music.” For even just a brief second the band is part of cultivating a space for someone else, and they haven’t yet found the words for how moving that is.

Each of these artists work to cultivate safe spaces and provide a outlet for fans to come and escape the harsh realities of an often unaccepting world. The Spook School collaborates with venues to make bathrooms gender-neutral for live performances, hoping this small act can go a long way in lessening the anxiety for concert-goers and preventing possible harassment.

“I think we’d hope that our gigs might be a space where you don't have to worry so much,” Todd said.

“We also need to stay aware of what else we can do to make our gigs welcoming, because there are more barriers to entry than just gender identity and presentation. It's a constant learning process and we try to stay aware of steps other bands and organizations are taking or recommending.”

Additionally, each of the bands interviewed noted that in order to cultivate safer spaces and to stand up to hate, both bands and the performance spaces where they play should be more aware of what message potential live lineups portray to audiences.

“It’s important to book more bands that aren’t just white dudes,” 4th Curtis said. “There’s nothing worse for us than being the only trans band on the bill. We need to start uplifting bands and start being intentional about booking. When you book a show with all white men, you’re communicating something to the audience. Why would you not put effort into booking more diverse shows?”

Some venues and musical platforms like Bandcamp, which had days where all proceeds from sales went to the ACLU and the Transgender Law Center, are putting in the effort to highlight marginalized voices. But the industry and fans still have work to do.

Douglas points out that the music community needs to provide more platforms for historically unheard voices, and in the process we have to remember to not reduce people to only their gender, racial or sexual identity, and that everyone has a different experience within these identities.

“My being non-binary is just one part of my much larger identity, born out of my full range of experiences unique to me,” Douglas said. “I think that highlighting certain identities which have long been denied or unacknowledged, while not reducing people to only those identities, is an important tension to hold, one that will ultimately make people feel welcomed and valued in deeper ways.”

Despite these seemingly daunting days we live in, there’s hope to be found in the voices of these musicians and their peers. We can all do our past to resist the change, fight back against the hate and amplify the works of artists and creators that need our support now and always.

By Lauren Rearick, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

Image by Paulo Barcelos, distributed under the CC-BY creative commons license.

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