In celebration of LGBT+ History Month, Quench Music take you through some of the community’s most influential musical figureheads
In the build-up to his eagerly anticipated 2012 debut Channel Orange, rumours surrounding Frank Ocean’s sexuality began to circulate. Critics, who were able to listen to the album prior to its release, noticed that gender pronouns implying a male love interest were used on the song ‘Forrest Gump’. While the technique of writing a love song from a different point of view had been used in the past, most prominently by fellow RnB star J. Cole in ‘Lost Ones’, the possibility was neglected amongst the speculations.
As the release date for Channel Orange came closer, rumours continued to surface across the Internet. In reaction to the gossip, Ocean released a statement on his Tumblr page that was supposed to be included in the linear notes of the album. In this statement Ocean wrote about what he called his first love, confirming that it was someone of the same gender that he had fallen in love with. Never giving his sexuality a label, Ocean garnered great amounts of praise for coming out publicly.
Coming from a genre of music that has been plagued with a history of dissension towards LGBT+ persons, it’s not surprising that the discussion of Frank’s sexuality was met with some opposition. Part of the hip-hop collective Odd Future, who have previously been criticised for using homophobic slurs in their musical projects, Ocean is no stranger to the prejudice that the LGBT+ community still face today. Despite this, Odd Future leader Tyler, The Creator voiced his support for Frank, claiming that he knew Ocean’s sexuality much before his announcement. Although the majority response towards Ocean’s announcement was positive, there were a few instances that tarnished the music industry’s attitude of LGBT+ artists. Prominent rappers The Game and Lil’ Wayne both released songs that included homophobic lyrics that clearly referenced Frank and his sexuality. While these instances are still worrying, the wide acceptance of Ocean’s sexuality is a definitive step forward for a community plagued with a reputation of under-representing artists who identify as LGBT+.-Jack Boyce
LAURA JANE GRACE
There are approximately seven-hundred thousand people in the US who have been affected by gender dysphoria. Laura Jane Grace, frontwoman of Against Me!, counts for one of this statistic. Her earliest memories of her childhood are tainted by gender dysphoria, a condition that causes a person to experience a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity. Grace has described it as a ‘misalignment in the body,’ a conflict between ‘the way you feel and the way people perceive you.’ As a teen, Grace, formerly known as Tommy Gabel, didn’t know how to cope with her dysphoria. She was repeatedly getting into fights, getting arrested and taking drugs to find a means of escape from the world and her feelings.
During her turbulent youth, Grace fell in love with punk rock and became attracted to the idea of fighting the system and its gender roles. Grace met James Bowman, with whom she formed the band Against Me!, in high school. A bedroom project turned success story, the band took to the road. While on tour, Grace was confronted with a male dominated scene and was left to feel like she was ‘shoved into this role of the angry white man in a punk band.’ She was forced to confront her own masculinity but for the sake of the band, Grace decided to commit to a male image. While on tour with Alkaline Trio in 2006, Grace met Heather Hannoura, a punk-rocker from Detroit, and the couple were engaged in the same year. During their whirlwind romance, Grace was able to suppress her dysphoria. However, in 2009, when Heather became pregnant with their daughter Evelyn, the feelings she had tried to ignore began to resurface; performing lost its sense of fun because the screaming crowds didn’t know the truth. Grace tried to ignore her feelings for another year, but Against Me! were dropped by their label and her dysphoria became unavoidable. Checking into hotels dressed as a woman in the hope of finding solitude in songwriting, she realised that her feelings would never change.
It was in 2012 that Laura Jane Grace decided that she wanted to transition. She told her wife and the band about her transgender identity and Rolling Stone magazine released an article, detailing her battle with gender dysphoria and her decision to come out. Her family and friends reacted warmly to her announcement, with the exception of her father, who she hopes will reach out to her one day. Bandmate James Bowman confirmed that ‘nothing’s changed’ and her mother said that ‘not [once] did it change how I felt about her […] it made me prouder.’ Since revealing her struggle, Grace dropped her birth name and began undergoing the medical transition, involving hormone replacement therapy, electrolysis, breast surgery and facial plastic surgery.
Last year, Grace released a ten-part AOL web-series called True Trans in celebration of National Coming Out Day. The documentary depicts Grace’s own experiences with gender dypshoria and her transitional process, as well as the experiences of other transgender people that she has met throughout her career. January Hunt, whom Grace met at one of Against Me!’s shows, says that ‘it’s iconic, in a way, to have someone like Laura in the position that she’s in, putting herself out there in a really honest way, is what people really need.’ The Against Me! song ‘Searching for a Former Clarity’ saved January’s life because it directly related to what she was going through as a transgender teenager in New York. About a man suffering from AIDs, ‘Searching For A Former Clarity’ features slippages of Grace’s battle with dysphoria, illustrated by lyrics such as ‘confessing childhood secrets of dressing up in women’s clothes.’
During her transition, Grace has received a lot of support from her fans and the punk community, including musicians such as Brian Fallon, Brendan Kelly, Franz Nicolay and Mike Shinoda. Grace hopes that showcasing her experiences will help the public better understand the lives of transgender people, but is determined not to let her changed gender identity define her. ‘I don’t want it to be the only thing about me as an artist. I don’t want it to always be ‘transgender performer,’ ‘transgender singer,’ I just want to be a singer. I just want to be in a band.’ Grace is currently working on a new record with Against Me!, writing ‘things that are fun to dance to…songs about hanging out with your friends and travelling the world and playing music.’ Since transitioning, things are completely new for Grace: she is no longer with her partner, half of the members of Against Me! are new, she’s touring with new people and has moved into an apartment in Chicago and according to Grace, the world feels like it did when she was nineteen, ‘terrifying and thrilling.’ –Kate Barlow
It’s difficult to find artists to compare to CN Lester. The London-based musician straddles the worlds of classical and alternative music, managing to build a reputation as an opera singer while making time to release several highly acclaimed albums of original songs. But that’s not the only shattered dichotomy that makes CN such a unique voice in the music industry; they are also openly non-binary, identifying as neither male nor female.
When not making music, CN is a blogger and activist for transgender rights, even appearing on the 2013 Pink List of influential LGBT+ figures. They often write about the challenges of living in the space outside of gender, an experience which most of society refuses to even acknowledge. In particular, they have found one major similarity between the classical and popular music industries. Both are more conservative than they would like to appear, at least when it comes to transgender and non-binary identities; anything that subverts cultural norms too far in the wrong direction becomes inconvenient to package and sell to consumers, making it harder for artists like CN to get taken seriously, in spite of their talent.
But like the gender binary, the old system is starting to unravel. As the Internet provides artists with more opportunities to communicate directly with audiences and manage their own careers, a new diversity of identities will hopefully be allowed to flourish. CN’s last two albums, Dark Angels and the hauntingly beautiful Aether, were both crowdfunded through Indiegogo. They could not have raised that money without a strong following in online LGBT+ communities, amassed through their blog and twitter presence. As increasing numbers of young people start to identify as non-binary, CN’s powerful mezzo-soprano voice is one of the first to sing directly to them, helping them feel less alone in a world too often divided into black and white. –Kevin Smyth