16 Trans and Fluid Musicians Who Transformed Music
By Alley Hector
16 Trans and Fluid Musicians Who Transformed Music
Transgender entertainers may just now be finally getting some real media attention, but trans and genderqueer musicians have been making noise for a lot longer than you might expect. Here are 16 singers, songwriters, ax-slingers and more who have transformed the scene.
1. Lucas Silveira
Cliks front man Lucas Silveira in 2006 became the first trans man to be signed to a major label and in 2010 was crowned Canada's Sexiest Man in the "Throw Your Underwear Award" competition in the year-end readers' poll from ChartAttack. Initially worried that testosterone would alter his singing voice, Silveira took his time before starting hormone replacement therapy, but found his new voice, pivoting his successful folk songwriting to a harder-sounding rock style. He has since pivoted again, turning Cliks Productions into an alternative life-coaching business.
2. Laura Jane Grace
Founder of the political punk band Against Me!, Laura Jane Grace had years of musical protest experience before she came out as trans in 2012. Against Me! already exhibited a profound anger that hearkened back to some of the most important figures in the history of punk but took on additional meaning with 2014's Transgender Dysphoria Blues, a deeply personal album that catapulted Grace into being an important trans spokeswoman. In 2016 she published Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, about her decade long struggle with gender dysphoria. It was named to Billboard's 100 Greatest Music Books of All Time despite the controversial use of the word "tranny" in the title.
Anohni is best known for her experimental pop band Antony and the Johnsons, so named for Anohni's former moniker, Antony Hegarty, as well as transgender rights activist Marsha P. Johnson. The artist identified publicly as transgender since the beginning of her career. She changed her name to Anohni and began using feminine pronouns in 2015, with the release of her fifth album, Hopelessness. The next year she was nominated for an Oscar for her song "Manta Ray" from the documentary Racing Extinction.
4. Mx. Justin Vivian Bond
This gender-bender is best known as the female half of the Tony Award-winning duo Kiki & Herb, where she played an always tipsy lounge singer in her 70s named Kiki Durane. She became more explicit with her feelings on gender in 2011, when she added the gender-neutral prefix Mx and Vivian to her name, saying, "I want a name that provides a balance to the traditionally male name of Justin, and because it means 'to be alive.'" In addition to the stage, the self-proclaimed "trans-fabulous performance-activist" has credits in multiple art forms, including film (probably best known for her appearance in John Cameron Mitchell's 2006 Shortbus), television, watercolors, sculpture, and writing, having published TANGO: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels through the Feminist Press in 2011.
5. Billy Tipton
Probably one of the lesser-known figures on this list, Billy Tipton was one of the earliest and most influential trans artists of the 20th century. The swing artist began as the leader of a band playing on radio station KXFR in 1936 and continued through a varied career for several decades, including 1957's releases Sweet Georgia Brown and Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano. The albums sold a respectable 17,678 copies, and Tipton continued to play until arthritis forced his retirement from music in the 1970s. Tipton performed as a man for most of his life, save for some very early performances as a teenager, and presented himself as a man to even his closest friends, family, and partners. Only after his death in 1974 was it revealed publicly that he had been assigned female at birth.
6. Willmer "Little Ax" Broadnax
From the 1940s to the '70s, Willmer "Little Axe" Broadnax was one of the most popular gospel singers. His high tenor voice and clever R&B crossover made Golden Echoes, a group he formed with his brother, Willie "Big Axe," very popular in the '50s and '60s, and his arrangement of "You Are My Sunshine" one of the most celebrated. Only his co-performer ever knew his transgender identity until his death by stabbing in 1992.
7. Big Freedia
New Orleans bounce music mother and queen Big Freedia has embraced the use of female pronouns but would prefer not to be labeled. That said, growing up black, queer, and in her words, "overweight" shaped her experience as a performer. She is proud to combine sissy bounce with rap, another genre rooted in black culture that has a less positive reputation for queer and trans inclusiveness. She has appeared in music videos for RuPaul and Beyoncé and stars in the reality show Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce. In 2015 the Louisiana native released a memoir titled God Save the Queen Diva.
8. Katey Red
One of Big Freedia's inspirations in the sissy bounce movement, Katey Red may not have achieved quite the same level of mainstream recognition but is a founder and staple in the bounce movement, having released her first full album in 2000. Early articles call attention to her shoe size and her unlikely success as a rapper, which is evidence of just how much of a pioneer she was as a musician, being out about her transition nearly 20 years ago. Her famous "siren" call started as a way to let her audience know she was there and became popular enough to put in her songs.
9. 187/Jordana LeSesne
One of the most highly regarded drum and bass producers in the U.S., Pittsburgh native Jordana LeSesne was better known by the pseudonym 1.8.7., under which she has released over 50 tracks. LeSesne got her start in punk and metal bands before finding her place in EDM and the rave scene of the '90s. She started her transition in 1998, which earned her a cover story in the July issue of Mixmag. In February of 2000, LeSesne was brutally attacked in a hate crime outside of one of her gigs in Ohio. Although she has not penned any herself, she has been featured in several books most notably journalist George Petros’s The New Transsexuals: The Next Step in Human Evolution. More recently she has drawn on some of her early rock roots to start a melodic goth metal band in her new home of Seattle and work on the score of the documentary Free CeCe.
10. Katastrophe/Rocco Kayiatos
Rapper Rocco Kayiatos has been performing under the name Katastrophe since 2002, but might be better known as cofounder, along with photographer Amos Mac, of Original Plumbing, which they describe as "the premier, theme-based print publication dedicated to trans male culture." Getting his start by winning poetry slams as a teenager in the late '90s and then going on to tour with Sister Spit, he is often credited as the first openly transmasculine rapper. More recently he has been focusing on a couple of adult summer camp ventures, one for trans men and one for the larger queer community.
11. Mal Blum
A soulful singer-songwriter with just a hint of punk, Mal Blum describes themselves as "a nonbinary trans person, [who uses] 'they' pronouns & plays as a 3piece" but is so much more. Producing music for more than a decade now and touring with the likes of Mary Lambert, Blum has a solid following, even if they haven't reached widespread critical acclaim. Still, Stereogum just called them the "hidden gem" of SXSW, and NPR features them with some regularity. With five albums and an EP already in their discography, Blum seems poised to break out very soon.
12. Kim Petras
Wunderkind from Cologne Kim Petras made her name both as a YouTube star and for undergoing gender-confirmation surgery at the tender age of 16. She first gained attention with an appearance at 13 on Stern TV, a German current affairs television show, before becoming a model for a chain of hair salons and leveling up her fame after her 2008 transition. She released a couple of singles in Germany soon after, and her cover of Chris Brown's "Don't Wake Me Up" went viral in 2012. But it wasn't until last year that she released her first single in the U.S. It reached the top of the Spotify Global Top 50 chart and featured Paris Hilton in the video. Petras has also appeared on Charli XCX's recent mixtape and plans to release a single a month to fill the track list of her first full-length album, which you can expect this year.
13. Mykki Blanco
Hip-hop and performance artist Mykki Blanco is an outspoken transgender activist in addition to his work as a musician. The openly HIV-positive rapper has announced plans to transition out of music to pursue investigative journalism full-time. He stresses the importance of recognizing that there is no singular narrative around trans identity. Having gone by female pronouns, he told Mixmag last year that he has chosen to go back to male pronouns because even though "exploring my trans-ness was a journey of healing and love ... I am a he, and that still makes me Mykki Blanco."
14. Athens Boys Choir/Harvey Katz
Irreverent Jewish trans guy Harvey Katz performs under the name Athens Boys Choir, even though it's just him behind the mike. He made waves in 2004 with his comedic twist of the gender binary in his song "Faggette." The music video positioned him as a fey gay man, not what one might have expected of trans men at the time. Having come of age in the Deep South, he has said his multiple identities made it impossible not to see the comedy of life.
15. Ruby Rose
Better known for her modeling and acting, especially as Stella in Orange Is the New Black, Rose is also a multigenre recording artist. Her most famous music video is an intimate look into the gender journey of the main character (Rose) and shows her both binding and packing. Although she considered medically transitioning at points in her life, the genderfluid performer has said that she is glad she didn't.
Sylvester was a gender-nonconforming pioneer in disco and soul. An alumnus of the drag troupe The Cockettes, the Los Angeles-born singer produced hits like "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and "Dance (Disco Heat)" in his famous falsetto voice, which garnered a worldwide fan base. Dubbed the Queen of Disco, Sylvester was also an ardent HIV activist who died of AIDS-related complications in 1988 at age 41. He was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2005.