For Gay Pride Month, Billboard asked artists about the reality of being out musicians in hard rock/metal and the state of LGBTQAI acceptance in the genre. Below, Jason Rivera discusses his experiences as frontman for Gaytheist.
As someone who has never hid his orientation as a professional musician, Jason Rivera isn’t merely out and proud. The name of his punk metal band boldly declares both his sexuality and his stance on spirituality: Gaytheist. In terms of being a gay punker, Rivera says he hasn’t encountered much resistance — “We’re in the Northwest, and we do have our beautiful liberal bubble up here” — but the Portland trio’s moniker has raised eyebrows among those concerned about appropriation of gay culture.
“Once I started Gaytheist, some of the initial issues were like, ‘Should you guys really have that name if none of you are gay?’ ” says Rivera, 44. “That’s where it became like, ‘Oh, well, I’m gay and an atheist, so I do feel I have a right to the name.’ ” Once people realize this, they usually don’t have a problem with it, and he notes that he hasn’t much dealt with “the opposite spectrum of that, which would be people who were offended because they had a problem with gays or atheists.”
Such tolerance is a notable difference compared with a few decades ago, where being gay in hard rock/metal “was a big deal. Every time anyone was gay in a band, it was pretty much the only thing that band would get asked about,” recalls Rivera. “The metal scene in Portland, especially in the late ’80s and the early ’90s, it was much more homophobic. But there’s always been the punk scene around here that was way more accepting, and then over time, it just seemed to become a nonissue.”
He has had his share of trouble, though: “Altercations with audience people every once in a while, like sometimes a merch thing. I had a guy in Salt Lake City call me a ‘f—t,’ and then before he could say anything else, people were surrounding him. But those kinds of things are few and far between, and in fact, in cities like Salt Lake City, we do really well there and there’s a really great scene.”
What are some examples of homophobia you have witnessed in the scene?
Just the usual people being drunk and assholes, and I think somehow finding the courage because they’re drunk to start letting you know how big of a piece of shit they are. They hate you just because you’re gay. It’s ridiculous. I mean, it’s tough, ’cause even like our social media and our emails and stuff like that, we don’t have a lot of bigots coming after us. And I’ve been pretty fortunate not to have situations where the band was prevented from playing or a true physical altercation … I’ll get someone calling me “f—t,” but whatever. I feel pretty fortunate that on the music side of things, now that I’m older, it hasn’t been something I’ve had to deal with too much.
What have you seen that is encouraging in terms of people being more accepting?
We get a lot of positive feedback. I’ll get occasional emails or people come up to me after a show that fill my head full of ego and tell me I’ve made a positive impact on their life, are so proud to see someone like me playing the kind of music I’m playing, and that’s been really nice. It’s also been wonderful traveling around the country and finding not only other bands that are either gay-friendly or have gay members, but are good; where it’s not like, “OK, we’re kind of paying lip service to this, but our songs are terrible, and our bands are terrible.” There’s Sashay up in Seattle to Baby Boom in Salt Lake City. We keep meeting all these wonderful, open-minded, alternative-lifestyle people that are playing kind of traditional metal and heavy rock and punk. It’s pretty neat.
What contributes to the perpetuation of homophobia in metal or punk?
I would say a combination of religion interlaced with listening to pundits that are full of shit, like political people that are very anti-homosexual. And then there’s the machismo of it, that’s always been a big thing in metal. I also think it’s a big thing with homophobia in general is that it’s sometimes I don’t think that they’re even thinking about two people of the same gender having sex. They’re just upset with the person’s personality and way of acting. It’s also part of the whole effeminate man being heterosexual [mentally] fucks with people really hard the same way that a really tough-ass gay guy fucks with them really hard, like they don’t understand [it].
What do you think of musicians in this genre who choose to stay closeted?
That’s up to them. If you’re not comfortable in your own skin, you’re not comfortable in your own skin. They used to tell Bob Mould from Husker Du, “You need to be a gay icon. We need you,” and he was like, “No, I can’t do that. That’s just no who I am. I’m a private person, and I can’t do that.” He was in the shit back then, like in the early ’80s, touring the country.
I wouldn’t want anyone to try and have to become a public figure that doesn’t want to. If someone feels that coming out of the closet would make their life a lot worse, then I can understand why they wouldn’t. It would be nice if they wanted. It also seems like something that you kind of have to get to the point on your own, ’cause there are actors like Ian McKellan that took forever to come out, but then when they finally do come out, they make up for all the years [they were closeted].
Anything else you would care to add?
The moment heavy metal hurt me as a child was buying Anthrax’s [1988 album] State of Euphoria and loving that album, and then the album ends with “Don’t be a f—t/Now that’s the key/Don’t you know it’s easy as one, two, three.” It was like, “Wait, what’s happening?” The music video comes out for whatever song it was, and there’s a painting of [Mikhail] Gorbachev and [Ronald] Reagan kissing that somebody made, and they’re pointing at it like, “Look at these idiots.” Not because they’re Regan and Gorbachev, but because they’re kissing. That was my [moment] of, “I’m spending my high school years listening to fucking garbage,” and I gave up on heavy metal for a while.