HERstories: The Journey Of Trans Women In Music | Rock & Art

Trans women in music have consistently defied cultural norms, challenged ‌expected boundaries, and set a precedent that would inspire countless people. During Pride Month, we celebrate the journey of those who pushed aside what was expected of them; from their identity to the musical concepts at play.

Trans Women in Music: Icons Who Changed the Soundtrack of History

Coming out has never been easy. It was considered taboo during most of the 20th Century (and even today, depending on where you ask). Nowadays, when writers discuss music history’s key LGBTQIA+ figures, they tend to prioritise the ‘God-given ass’ of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Freddie Mercury’s provocative personality or the Village People’s Macho Man alongside Disco culture.

Even though these figures are crucial to the LGBTQIA+ movement, today we will focus on figures that disrupted gendered categories whilst changing music altogether. This article will explore five artists, spanning distinctive styles and times, who altered the representation of transgender identities in the creative world.

Jayne County: The First Trans Rocker

Machismo has reigned supreme in much of the UK and US’s West Coast punk scenes. However, the 1970s and ‘80s in New York cultivated a different artistic culture. The city’s chaotic atmosphere allowed for the most uncommon of creative unions.

Blondie’s Debbie Harry was seen hanging out with Suicide, Robert Fripp (King Crimson) often attended punk concerts with Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates), among numerous other friendships. Yet despite these standards, Jayne County’s emergence onto the New York punk scene was unprecedented.

HERstories: The Journey Of Trans Women In Music | Rock & Art

Looking like the New York Dolls’ version of Jackie Curtis (Andy Warhol’s protégé and playwright), Jayne County was one of the most influential figures in the evolution of glam culture. Expanding into the confrontational world of punk, Jayne mixed raw power with some incredible insult-fuelled ballads.

From an early age, she wore makeup to school and didn’t feel confined to societal gendered norms. Aged 19, Jayne left her home in Georgia and went to New York City. Involved with the legendary Stonewall Inn, she soon became acquainted with many prominent figures in the alternative art scene. She even has a role alongside Patti Smith in Jackie Curtis’s play Femme Fatale.

Performing with Warhol and eventually being financed by David Bowie’s management firm, her career was set to rise. However, even though $200,000 was invested into filming her stage show Wayne at the Trucks, it was never released. Her embroilment with Bowie’s management also resulted in further controversy, claiming that her song ‘Queenage Baby’ was a prototype for Bowie’s hit record ‘Rebel Rebel’.

Have a listen to it on YouTube and decide for yourself. Personally, I don’t find it to be a rip-off; it feels more like two artists imitating the rock and roll aesthetics of the likes of the Rolling Stones or the New York Dolls.

During the next few years, her sexual themes and snotty attitude would only increase, becoming an icon for punk culture and featuring in seminal films like The Blank Generation and The Punk Rock Movie. In 1979 she moved to Berlin and changed her name from Wayne to Jayne, becoming the first rocker to come out as transgender. Her struggles with identity and the machismo of the punk scene are perfectly encapsulated in her 1978 song ‘Man Enough to Be a Woman’.

ANOHNI and the Johnsons: Returning When You are Needed the Most. 

An entertainer is different from an artist (even though sometimes you will find performers who can traverse both characteristics). The purpose of an artist is not only to provide a pleasurable experience but also something beyond that; a deeper meaning.

HERstories: The Journey Of Trans Women In Music | Rock & Art

During the last few decades, many would argue that the LGBTQIA+ community has taken huge steps in advocating for their rights. However, recently it feels like we’re regressing, in both the political climate (writing from Argentina, it is pretty evident around here), as well as the public’s social consciousness and empathy. That’s why ANOHNI and the Johnsons returned to the studio after a 13-year hiatus, to create My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross (2023).

This is one of the finest (and most heartbreaking) albums capturing our current social and political climate. Through canalising the anger of a generation that can’t afford rent to the struggles of a Black man in Mississippi, Anohni’s reflection on greed and hatred, results in a fascinating album that is as personal as it is relational.

Anohni Hegarty has collaborated with the likes of Lou Reed, Björk and Yoko Ono. Originally called Antony and the Johnsons, her band became one of the finest alternative pop projects of the 21st Century. With the current proliferation of worldwide right-wing politics putting LGBTQIA+ rights at risk, Anohni felt inspired to make a comeback.

The album cover perfectly reflects the album’s intentions. The cover art displays a portrait of Marsha P. Johnson, one of the most prominent figures for gay rights and a key figure during the Stonewall uprising of 1969 (where Jayne County also played a significant role). She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the activist group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Initially ruled a suicide, her suspicious death was recently re-opened as a potential homicide case.

Notably, she was a friend and mentor for Anohni, (the nomination of ‘the Johnsons’ as a tribute to Marsha’s legacy), with the LP drawing on both Marsha’s activism and their relationship. Marsha P. Johnson’s work paved the way for both activists and artists for years to come.

The very first words that you hear on this album are: “It must change. From the way you talk to me and the things you do to me, to the way you leave me and the death inside you. It must change.” This opening can be interpreted from the perspective of nature’s interaction with humanity, but also as a direct reference to Marsha.

Anohni’s harrowing tone is far more powerful when you realise it was the first and only time she sang this song. She describes: “There’s a magic when you suddenly place words you have been thinking about for a long time into melody. A neural system awakens. It isn’t personal and yet is so personal. Things connect and come alive.”

 During the next 40 minutes, the album only grows. Not only as an accurate and poetic description of life in the 2020s but also as a musical masterpiece. Journalist Alexis Petridis said that among Anohni’s influences for the album, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is identifiable. I see a clear connection between these two albums, both able to tap into and go beyond the context they are both produced.

Sadly, ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ is still as relevant as in 1971, with its exploration of war, drug abuse and poverty. In this case, I feel that Anohni’s work transcends time, relating to both the 1970s and today. My hope is that won’t be as quite relevant in a couple of decades.

Wendy Carlos: The Woman Who Made Electronic Music Mainstream 

Synths have been an essential part of music culture since the 1970s. From the experimentations of symphonic prog outfits, all the way to the catchy synth-pop of Soft Cell and the Pet Shop Boys. However, as early as the 1900s experimental electronic instruments were being put to use. Italy (largely associated with the Futurist movement) were the first to implement experimental music, with some compositions dating as far back as 1907.

HERstories: The Journey Of Trans Women In Music | Rock & Art

Avant-garde composers and the musique concrète scene would follow, emerging out of their underground artistic status. The Beach Boys and the Beatles were essential in popularising these experimentations during the 1960s, in a pop and rock format. Arguably the first ‘big hit’ of purely electronic music was the album Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos, where she performed classical music through a Moog synthesiser.

The result was groundbreaking, with releases all over the world. It reached #10 on the US Billboard chart and topped the Classical Albums chart for over three years. In 1970, the album won three Grammy Awards; Carlos becoming the first transgender artist to receive the award.

Proceeding the likes of Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, Carlos’ instrumentation was unprecedented. In 1971 she was tasked with making the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s latest film, A Clockwork Orange. Based on Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, the music was essential, due to the main character Alex’s (Malcolm McDowell) obsession with Beethoven.

These electronic arrangements would provide the perfect background for Kubrick’s dystopian tale. After such outstanding work, she would collaborate with Kubrick once again in The Shining, and with Steven Lisberger for Tron. During the release of these two films, Carlos continually raised awareness for transgender rights by telling the world that she had been living as a woman since 1968, undergoing sex reassignment surgery in 1972.

Genesis P-Orridge: A Gender-Defying Love Story.

Trying to define Genesis P-Orridge would be futile. Musician, poet, performance artist, BDSM enthusiast and occultist, they were unlike anything and anyone before, and God do I love that!

Creator of the art collective COUM Transmissions, and an avant-garde icon, they would tear apart any of your expectations. Leading the pioneering industrial band Throbbing Gristle, they helped dramatically alter the musical landscape and gendered preconceptions. During the mid-1990s, Genesis met Lady Jaye at the New York dungeons.

They immediately fell in love, and eventually followed the ‘Pandrogeny Project’. It consisted of undergoing body modification to resemble one another, to become a single ‘androgynous’ being. When asked about this terminology, they would say: “We wanted a word without any history or any connections with things – a word with its own story and its information –.”

Both went under the name Breyer P-Orridge, sharing a unique and extremely passionate love story. The book Nonbinary: A Memoir by Genesis P-Orridge is an incredible read for anyone interested in delving further into their history.

Sputnik / Weatherday: A Lo-Fi Bittersweet Journey

In May 2019 I came across a new, exciting release. The album cover resembled a meme or a character from Undertale. I was intrigued, but what I discovered was far better than anything I could have expected. Come In is the debut album for Weatherday, a solo project that perfectly combines lo-fi indie/slacker rock and the dense effects of noise pop. 

There was little information back then, but I wrote to the band in an attempt to learn more. That’s when I realised it was only one Swedish person behind the project, and she also let me know she had released another album under the name of Lola’s Pocket PC. When I suggested an interview, she nervously asked me if we could do so via text. I sent her some questions and she happily replied to all of them. By the end, she thanked me for my interest and appreciation for her projects, letting me know it was her first-ever interview.

Weatherday hasn’t performed much live, with very few pictures online. However, it has gained a cult following, becoming one of the most critically acclaimed albums within alternative circles, with a new LP coming in 2024.

From the work of Jayne County to emerging artists like Weatherday, trans artists have always played a fundamental role in altering the landscape of music. I believe it is relevant to support trans artists in the past and present, encouraging the new generation of LGBTQ+ musicians to explore their creativity.