Justin Tranter Talks Artistry & Activism Ahead of Gun Violence Concert: 'Everything Should Be Intersectional'

Justin Tranter
Jared Siskin/Getty Images for Warner Music Group

Justin Tranter attends the Warner Music Group Pre-Grammy Party in association with V Magazine on Jan. 25, 2018 in New York City. 

On Friday (July 13), San Diego Pride will welcome a wealth of celebrity guests and artists such as TLC, Kim Petras, Kandy and RuPaul's Drag Race finalists Asia O’Hara and Kameron Michaels.

This year, the festivities will kick off on Thursday (July 12) with OUT To End Gun Violence, a live music benefit concert raising funds for The Brady Center, an American nonprofit organization that advocates for gun control and against gun violence.

The event’s lineup includes Grammy-nominated songwriter Justin Tranter, indie pop artist East of Eli, San Diego’s own Danielle LoPresti and Alicia Champion, and Pulse Nightclub’s DJ Infinite with more speakers and performers to be announced.

On the verge of this event, Billboard caught up with Tranter about the upcoming benefit concert, his involvement with GLAAD, and the inseparability of artistry and activism.

How’s was your Pride Month?

Good! I’ve been working with Shea Diamond on some events and performances. You know, it’s tough. When we’re in such a weird place in our country, it’s so hard to celebrate anything but kind of have to find a way to do it.

You’re helping kick off San Diego Pride with the OUT To End Gun Violence event. How did that all come about?

I’ve been really vocal about the horrible gun violence situation in our country, as vocal as I can be. I’ve gotten involved deeply with Everytown [for Gun Safety] and I’m starting to do the council with them and I’ve been getting involved with that, but this came out about through a very different way, through some friends of mine from college, Alicia Champion, who is a music staple of San Diego. I went to college with Alicia and so, when she hit me up to ask if I would perform a couple songs at this event, there was no was I could say no. The cause is very important, I think, for all of us to be involved in and then pulling it into Pride is a whole other step of importance.

To those who may be confused about the convergence of these two activism battlefronts -- LGBTQ Pride and ending gun violence -- how do you explain the event?

Everything should be intersectional. Everything should be diverse. I’ve been lucky enough to be working on the board of GLAAD and they’ve been using the ampersand as a symbol for a very long time and the idea is that all marginalized communities need to stand together. Right now, the only thing this administration is standing behind is hurting children, whether it’s LGBTQ kids with the policies they stand behind or gun violence or separating families at the border. So I think that Pride and [activism against] gun violence should always come together. Gun violence affects our community as well and if we can’t stand with everybody, then how can we expect them to stand for us?

You mentioned your work with GLAAD—when did your involvement with them start?

That started unfortunately right after the shooting in Orlando. I got on a plane the second I heard to go to Orlando and do whatever I could. I was buying water. I was buying suntan lotion. I was at the LGBT center there, distributing food, handing out cash cards so they have immediate money, just doing anything I could to help. And while I was there, I connected with Zeke Stokes at GLAAD, and with the help of [GLAAD President] Sarah Kate Ellis, we came up with the idea to do a big charity song for it. So, then, me, Julia Michaels, and BloodPop wrote the song "Hands" to raise awareness and raise money for that situation. That’s how I got involved with them, and then through that whole process and a few months later I was asked to apply to be on the board and here we are two years later. I’ve learned so much about activism, so much about outreach and how to make all this stuff work.

As an artist, how do you fit those pieces of your life together?

I feel like art and activism should always come together, for me personally. When I was in high school, I started an AIDS benefit, a student-directed, written, choreographed, performed show. Me and my friends put together this show that still happens at my school, 27 years later. And so that was the moment for me when I knew that art and activism feel so much better when they coincide. I’ve been trying to do that my entire life. My band, Semi Precious Weapons, we weren’t speaking out against anything political but me living in my hypersexual femme truth, which is not very expected to be seen very often even in LGBTQ culture, was a form of activism in itself. Just existing in that way I felt like I was pushing the boundaries that need to be pushed. So I guess the way I balance it is just that’s the only way to do it for me.

You’ve been working with artists that share similar approaches to their artistry—Janelle Monáe, Troye Sivan, Years & Years. Is that something that something that comes from you or from them, or are those people just the ones you end up gravitating toward?

I’m very blessed in my career right now. Some things come to me, some thing I have to go out and fight for and beg for. So I think it’s different in every instance. I love working with artists who aren’t activists, too. Just to be a part of anything that can reach a large platform helps me grow my voice, grow my reach and, most importantly, makes me money that I can put to causes that I believe in.

How have you seen the landscape change in terms of how the industry accepts or celebrates queerness?

Luckily, with social media the industry, there are not a lot of aggressively homophobic people in the music business. They’re passively homophobic. They’ll be like, "Oh, of course I don’t have a problem with LGBTQ people. I believe in equal rights. I consider myself an ally. But I don’t think that would sell. I don’t think it would make money. I don’t know if we’re ready for this, ready for that."

I think that’s been the mindset for a very long time and I think luckily with social media, the proof is right there and the kids can just flat out click "like" and show how many people like it. I think a lot of that fear has been taken away because of it. Obviously, culture is changing and organizations like GLAAD are doing their best to push culture forward to help these things be more accepted and be more exciting, but I think Hollywood has learned in the last couple years that diversity sells. It’s not only what’s good for culture or what’s honest, but it’s also good for business. I think the music industry is starting to realize that supporting and signing more queer artists, queer songwriters, queer producers, queer executives, it’s not only what’s right to do for society but what’s right to do for business.

In that case, are you sometimes looking for things that resonate specifically with LGBTQ+ listeners when writing?

The goal for me is always to create the most honest thing possible. With the artist, I’m literally pulling lyrics from the conversation we’re having. Making sure I’m being the champion for the song title that’s actually something they said. I want it to feel the most honest as possible because I think the fans will relate to that.

As a queer artist, I was lucky to be part of Halsey’s "Bad At Love" and I had nothing to do with it. She almost completely wrote the verses in that song by herself. The first verse, she’s using male pronouns in a romantic setting and, the second verse, she’s using female pronouns. A lot of people don’t even realize that when I point it out to them. It doesn’t even feel like that big of a deal because it feels very honest, very truthful coming from her. She identifies as bisexual and we know that this is her truth. For me, it’s not about seeking about what will hit this market or this will work here. The goal is that we’re trying to tell as much truth as possible because people relate to the truth.

On Thursday, you’ll be in San Diego with OUT To End Gun Violence continuing that fight. There are some great performers and attendees. Who are you excited to see?

I saw my friend Alicia a few times after college, but it’s been a minute. Her and her wife are San Diego royalty. I’m super, super excited to see them perform because they’re amazing and just to be in that energy. They’re coming back to their hometown. All that magic, I can’t wait to witness that, especially for such an important cause. Two causes, really. I don’t really perform anymore unless it’s for a charitable cause and this is my first performance with something that has to do with gun violence prevention. I’m really, really excited.

See the full lineup for the OUT To End Gun Violence benefit concert here.