Joe Stevens and his band Coyote Grace, on stage (courtesy the film Real Boy)
Beyond the Film

12 Trans Musicians Carving Their Own Identities

June 09, 2017 by Craig Phillips in Beyond the Films

Real Boy is the portrait of Bennett, who is undergoing gender reassignment surgery, and his mom’s struggle to process the change, but it’s also the portrait of a young musician (Bennett) who is mentored by the more experienced folk singer Joe Stevens (who is also trans and been through a lot of ups and downs himself). In other words, it’s a coming of age film, a coming out film, but also a story of music. Bennett and Joe are complex human beings who find common ground not just in being trans but in their love of music.

It’s no surprise, then, to find trans artists making a fascinating variety of music. Here are just 12 such artists, from fresh new voices to critically acclaimed virtuosos.

Artist: Anohni

Song: “Drone Bomb Me”

Artist: Anohni (F.K.A. Antony, and J. Ralph)

Song: “Manta Ray”

Born in England as Antony Hegarty, and once lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, Anohni has a remarkably unique and transplendent voice. Her song with J. Ralph, “Manta Ray,” for the documentary film Racing Extinction, was nominated for an Oscar, who considered herself the first (actually the second) transgender performer ever to have been nominated for an Academy Award. But she decided not to attend the ceremony after discovering the show’s producers (for various reasons) had no intention of letting her perform it on stage. 

Separate from that story, is the story of Anohni’s amazing voice, above all else.  

Read more:

“Anohni, the artist once known as Antony Hegarty, on life beyond the Johnsons

Artist: She King

She King is the stage name of Shawnee Talbot, an aboriginal “Two Spirit” Canadian (Mohawk First Nation) pop singer and songwriter.

Song: “Mirror Me”

She “writes stellar pop songs with big hooks, polished production and plenty of vocal power. It came as no surprise to learn that She King’s recent accomplishments include being invited to tour with Roxette and Glass Tiger and asked to record a song for a show that’ll soon air on The Disney Channel,” says AutoStraddle, a GLAAD Award-winning Canadian site, which also included She King on this list of 12 Incredible Indigenous LGBTQ and Two-Spirit People You Should Know.

Artist: Ezra Furman

Song: “Restless Year”

Singer-songwriter Ezra Furman, whose work has elements of Jonathan Richman and Weezer, considers himself gender-fluid, not transgender, and, after his Catholic-raised mother converted to Judaism and he followed suit, “an observant Jew.” In this first-person piece for the Guardian, Furman writes about a seminal influence on his work, and on coming to terms with who he is.

Looking back, I realise how primed I was to fall in love with Lou Reed and the Velvets. I was a suburban kid who fancied myself somehow intellectual. I was into punk rock but I couldn’t get into the subcultural signifiers of dyed hair, safety pins and torn denim. Being a punk seemed like a new set of rules that I wasn’t interested in having to follow.”

Read more:

Talking with Ezra Furman: Champion of Sincere Body Positive Dance Jams

Artist: Audrey Zee Whitesides/Little Waist

Song: “(I Wanna Be A) Dyke Wife”

Whitesides fronts emotional punk/singer-songwriter trio Little Waist and folk solo project Audrey Otherway, and has been or currently is in several other queer bands, including Mal Blum, April Mei, and Worriers. “She’s a poet, a big nerd, and a fan of crying,” she says in her bio.

“Fronted by Audrey Zee Whitesides, Brooklyn-based queercore-transcore trio Little Waist strikes a revolutionary chord with this raw, blistering track about queer domestic bliss.”-The Advocate

Artist: Laura Jane Grace and Against Me!

Song: “Black Me Out”

Leader of the Florida punk rock group Against Me!, Grace publicly came out as transgender in 2012. “Her deeply personal songs about gender identity on 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues provided for the band’s most impassioned effort to date. And this perceptiveness stretches through the band’s entire discography. Against Me! is one of the premier punk groups of the past ten years and only shows signs of improving.”-What Culture

Artist: Shea Diamond

Song: “I’d Love to Change the World”

New to the music world, Shea Diamond‘s story is a powerful one reflected in the strength and urgent inspiration in her soulful single “I Am Her” and in her gorgeously evocative cover of the song “I’d Love to Change the World,” which was used for ABC’s LGBTQ rights miniseries When I Rise:

A New Yorker via Flint, MI, the new musician says she was born into a gender role that she did not accept, so Diamond ran away from home as a teen, ultimately ending up incarcerated for ten years—where she discovered others of trans experience who helped her find her voice.”- Time magazine

Artist: Mina Caputo (band: Life of Agony)

Song: “Got Monsters”

“Becoming one of the first openly trans women in heavy metal when she came out in 2011, Mina Caputo is the founder and lead singer of legendary band Life of Agony. Despite some initial backlash from some in the metal community, she has since been widely embraced, with Life of Agony reuniting in 2014 to sold-out shows, and Caputo joining Laura Jane Grace on an acoustic tour.”-Advocate

Here’s her solo song, the powerful “Got Monsters (I No Longer Exist),” in which she sings “Was born a monster/Do you hide your monsters, too?”

Read more:

The Advocate: “Agony and Ecstasy” (Heavy Metal Rocker Comes Out as Transgender)

Artist: Black Cracker

Song: “The Sun Is in My Face”

Black Cracker is an influential American MC, producer and a poet now living in Berlin, who describes himself on his site as “Not one to stay put or be pigeon-holed in a time which revels in classifying artists, Black Cracker’s work has resisted and presented a problem to those who insist on stretching the chaotic web of creation into a straight evolutionary line.”

Hear more:

Radio New Zealand feature on Black Cracker

Artist: Native Cats

Songs: “Cavalier” and “Soft Chambers”

The duo of Chloe Alison Escott and Julian Teakle form the noise-pop band from Tasmania, Australia, Native Cats. One of their songs,”Soft Chambers,” was released as a pay-what-you-want download on their Bandcamp page, with all money going to support the San Francisco-based Trans Lifeline.

Taken from an upcoming album to be released on RIP Society in early 2017, “Soft Chambers” was written in early 2015 before Chloe started transitioning and she says it’s the most complex song the band have tackled: “We wrote the bare bones (Julian’s bass, my lyrics) in my last months of denial before I came out and started transitioning. This year I came back to it with my new lease on life and made it what it is now. Appropriately it’s a song about healing from trauma and physically revisiting moments from your past.” – Vice

Artist: Cash Askew and Them Are Us Too

Song: “Eudaemonia”

Bay Area transgender artist Cash Askew of the gothic dream-pop band Them Are Us Too, was a rare talent. Only 22, she tragically lost her life in the Oakland “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire in 2016.

Askew’s stepfather Sunny Haire and mother Leisa Baird Askew said: “She was very special, an enigma, and I can say without hesitation she truly affected and made an impression upon everyone she met…”

“With her passing, the world lost a tender, luminous spirit who was just beginning to imprint an indelible mark on the world through her art and through her humanity.”-Remembrance on KQED

In an interview published posthumously on Medium, Cash talked with Beth Winegarner about influences:

“As a young teenager, I was definitely attracted to goth and new wave in part because of the androgyny, and that aesthetic gave me a way to explore my gender expression before I could even come to terms with being transgender. But that was just a personal relationship with images in my head, ‘cause I wasn’t a part of any scene, I was just walking around on my own looking like a freak.”

Artist: Angel Haze

Song: “Planes Fly”

The MTV, BBC, BET and GLAAD Award-nominated hip-hop artist broke through in a big way and has performed with Sia and covered Macklemore in her diverse arsenal of deft, dynamic rap tracks.

After the braggadocious calling card that was New York, Haze released an EP online: the acclaimed Reservation is titled with her Native American heritage in mind, but also serves as a statement of arrival: “That was my way of introducing myself – I’ve made a reservation here already.”-The Guardian

Historical Flashback

Artist: Billy Tipton

Billy Tipton, a jazz pianist who began his career during the Great Depression, had a remarkable life story.

“He toured around the country with other jazzmen – and they almost invariably were men – playing swing music. In the ’50s he formed his own small group, the Billy Tipton Trio, and recorded two albums of standards. Then moved to Spokane, where he spent the next decades running a booking agency for musicians, while still performing weekly until arthritis made it too difficult. Tipton was married five times, or at least there were five women who at times called themselves Mrs. Tipton without the benefit of a legal wedding. With the last of his wives, he adopted three children and became involved in the PTA and camping trips with the Boy Scouts. One of Tipton’s sons was with him at home in 1989 when he fell seriously ill. Paramedics arrived and, attempting to revive Tipton, removed some of his clothing. The question they then asked took his son by surprise: ‘Did your father ever have a sex change?'” Read more here on KCTS, “Writing His Own Tune: Billy Tipton’s Secret Surprised Even Those Who Knew Him Best

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.