There may be other transgender heavy metal musicians -- Cretin singer Marissa Martinez in the U.S., From Metal to Maternal stage star Jade Starr in Australia -- but none as high profile as Mina Caputo. Once known as Keith Caputo, the front-person for the popular rock band Life of Agony, Mina Caputo shocked heavy metal fans when bloggers and magazines around the globe picked up on her transition this summer. Many (with the exception of Kerrang!) got the facts wrong and they were, says Caputo, a little late.
"I came out technically three years ago. I kind of thought it was funny," she says of the flood of attention she got this summer, especially "in the metal world, which I came from when I was like 19. I was in a very hard-edged, male pseudo angry kind of punk rock metal kind of band. We were very different at the time. Most people know me from that I guess, but I've also been doing solo albums for 10 years."
The irony of being the first high profile heavy metal musician to come out isn't lost on Caputo, who has been making very non-metal music in the last decade. Her latest video, for "Got Monsters," is Niko Bikialo's 11-minute docu-opus in which Caputo and an alter-ego struggling with identity. "We didn't want to make it a cliche coming out story," she says. "I really didn't want to be all dolled up and give the wrong impression or put transsexuals in the wrong light... because its really not about style of dress or how much makeup you're wearing. It's state of spirit and being, I believe."
The actress in "Got Monsters," who represents Caputo's subconscious sex (female) is unlike traditional metal music video vixens: "We loved her because she was really natural and there was pretty much nothing really girly about her. That's what we like and that's why we picked her."
Caputo herself is non-traditional. She's a transgender lesbian (her girlfriend is a makeup artist who lives in Vienna), who isn't having bottom surgery and doesn't mind when fans flub and call her Keith. "I'm not really big on titles. I don't like to box anything [in]."
Growing up in Coney Island, Caputo's life was anything but storybook. Her dad overdosed on heroin in 2002; her mother OD'd when she was still an infant. "Even though they were never around, they literally they showed me how to live my life and to create bliss out of any tragic situation which is pretty much my way."
She knew she was different before she even hit puberty. "When I was like 8 or 9 years old I started cross dressing. I used to go through my aunt's drawers when nobody was home and I used to steal her lingerie." Raised by strict grandparents ("If I came home with dyed red hair, I'd get the shit kicked out of me, literally, so me coming out to my grandparents -- it was never happening."), Caputo first thought she was a gay man, experimenting with men and hanging out at transsexual bars
"I really didn't even know the word transgender back then. I just though, OK I'm a transvestite or I'm a gay male but I love presenting myself as a woman." Since her parents died of drug overdoses she was skittish of taking black market hormones as her other trans friends were doing at the time.
"The last thing I was going to do was starting shooting herself with something, I didn't know what it was. So I didn't go that route, even though I thought, 'Oh my god, I want to be there, how do I do that, turn this male self into my true female self?'"
Becoming a rock star, says Caputo, delayed her transition. Caputo, and Life of Agony (which disbanded years ago but reunited last year for shows) have long been huge acts in Europe. In 2001, when Agony went on hiatus and Caputo launched a solo career--long before her transition--Coldplay opened for her. Even today, tickets to her sold-out shows in Copenhagen, Budapest, and London are selling for $250 each.
"I was very boxed in that metal thing," she admits. She was going to college when the first Life of Agony album came out. "The first album I've ever done was released and then it pretty much exploded in Europe and I kind of had no choice but to leave school. I didn't want to sing in a band. That wasn't really what I set out to do. I wanted to go to Julliard. I wanted to play the classics, get good grades... and I pictured myself living more of a feminine life then at 19 when this whole alpha male world just pretty much took over. I was in hell for years."
She says the pressure didn't come from her bandmates, though. "Yeah it was more of a sense of responsibility and not getting labels down... the management, the band, and the fans. And I mean, we were a really, really really, really big band. We were doing concerts in Europe where 60 to 100 thousand people were showing up."
Caputo finally quit. "I couldn't deal anymore. Actually I quit because we came too big. Band members were becoming the cliche rock and roll, sleeping with women every night, the drugs, everything and it was just like, 'Argh, I can't deal, gotta go.'" She quit Life of Agony at "the pinnacle and height of our success, and yeah I needed a break. I needed a break from the label, I needed a break from everything and everyone."
Four years later, Caputo's first solo album came out in 2000 and as the years went on she says her true self came out. "I couldn't hold her down anymore. I became really, very eccentric." That led to a turbulent 2008 and a series of failed relationships with women who didn't want a male-bodied partner who wanted mani-pedis and Brazilian waxes. Until she met her current girlfriend, Caputo says women expected her to be Keith Caputo, the rock star.
"Maybe I was some sort of status thing to them and they felt really safe... hey were with this beautiful boy and he's famous and he writes beautiful music and he's generous. There were a couple of girls that understood but my feminine feelings weren't genuine [to them]... to most it was just like maybe a bed thing, a sexual fantasy kind of thing in their own mind."
These days Caputo is still trying to explain the complexity of the bedroom -- not to her girlfriend but to the media, who has been aghast that Caputo isn't planning on having bottom surgery any time soon.
"The whole penis...I'm OK with that down there, you know. Most people don't realize that there's more to being a woman than just, I guess, putting on dresses and wearing makeup and your genitals. [People think] you have a male body and a penis so that makes you the man. But they can't dig deep enough unless they really want to understand what's going on in the subconscious mind and what I like to call subconscious sex.
"Not only is the environment changing, but people don't realize the human being is changing, our culture is changing. I see more and more trans women and trans men and it's just, it's so ironic, it's so cosmic.
"A lot of people I did come out to, friends, and family members and stuff, like people that I thought would really support me really let me down. And people that I was a little bit fearful to come out to pretty much completely had my back. I'm from a crazy Italian family so all the Italian men in my family are like stereotypical bruisers--too much testosterone, most of the men in my family have gone bald, tattooed from head to toe, vicious looking, but deep down inside they're like flowers. I have many cousins like that that I thought would like never get it or understand and they were like, 'We always knew something was different about you.'"
Caputo wishes people could be more sensitive to the idea of what transgender individuals go through emotionally and psychologically to "finally become this fearless entity within him or her own self." For her, she's at a point where "I don't give a fuck who says what or what looks I get. I'm a beautiful human being and I offer society a lot and I'm proud of who I am."
The singer admits her first year "going through hormone therapy was murder, I thought I was going to commit suicide. It's like I'm 34 years old going through puberty again, the whole mind changes." Puberty in your 30s, says Caputo is odd. "Trust me, I'm like a fifteen-year-old girl. I am so goofy... one minute I'll be really happy and giddy and laughing and joking, and an hour later I'll be just so dispirited."
She still feels lucky that her physical metamorphosis from angry rocker dude to, well, the fierce female musician she is today, may have been easier than some women's. "I'm really lucky, I'm really tiny, I'm very fit. So I'm blessed. I went to the Guitar Center yesterday to shop for some guitars, and the guy's like, 'Hi, ma'am, how are you?' I get all gushy inside because it's just so nice to finally [be recognized as a woman]. And my breasts aren't even that big, you know? But the hormones have really, really changed my body a lot. I have a great doctor. He's amazing, he's like my psychologist too."
Living part time in New York City and part time in Europe, Caputo admits she's already faced discrimination Stateside. "I've had run-ins on the train, ignorant people, you know, calling me 'he-she' or 'he-man.' If anyone tries to screw with me, I will not hesitate to cut somebody up like a piece of meat. I will do anything and everything to protect myself. I mean I don't want to hurt anybody but if someone lays their hands on me, I'm going to shank somebody. My father's been in prison his whole life, so just because I'm wearing a skirt doesn't mean I don't got big balls, OK? Because I will not hesitate to do anything and everything to protect myself."
While she has the media spotlight on her, Caputo -- whose new CD with the Neptune Darlings ("Chestnuts & Fireflies) is already garnering geek rock comparisons to David Bowie and Pink Floyd -- is finishing up another solo album, touring Europe (as Keith M Mina and Her Sad Eyed Ladies), and trying not to let the media cacophony get her down. Fans, so far, have been behind her. Since the media picked up on her transition story, Caputo has been flooded with letters from gay fans inspired by her coming out, by former junkies now sober and clean thanks to her music, by wives of closeted transgender women who want advice. And there are plenty of date offers by male fans. Her transition is still a huge topic of discussion among rock music fans.
"I try explain to people without pushing it in people's face too. I'm not like an activist. If someone needs my help I'd be glad to. I think it's hysterical actually that I get these people that have been listening to me for like 20 plus years and they think they stand for something else like brutality and masculinity but meanwhile I have these guys asking me to take me to dinner.
"I'm really happy that the media really picked up on it because it was kind of like a big step three years ago, but now it seems like a full circle sort of happened and I'm happy. Newspapers all across Europe...I'm on the front page, and everybody was talking about me when I was Europe and it was like, At least get the story straight. Girlfriend is keeping their genitals and it's not just about that."
Though many mistake Caputo for a flamboyant gay man, she tries to explain to people that "gender has nothing to do with sexuality. And who knows what scientifically makes us transgender. Does it happen in the womb? Is it environmental? No one really knows for sure. I used to think that because my mother used to do dope, OK maybe something didn't develop in my brain, because, when I didn't accept myself growing up, I was like, No, I want to. Every time I had a whole girl's wardrobe, I would go through my phases of throwing all of my clothes out. I can't do this, I'm going to grow my beard, I'm a man. Then a month later I'm like, Oh my God, that dress is so gorgeous, I got to get it. Here I am starting up my wardrobe again."
Now that she's accepted herself, and found coming out had nothing but a positive impact on her music, Caputo just wants to make music her fans will like.
"I had an interesting and turbulent evolution, in every part of my life -- spiritually, physically, family wise. I've been through crazy stuff. But it made me stronger and it made me appreciate life. I love life, I do. It's so precious. Every moment, every waking moment is a gift, and that's the important thing."