Ryan Cassata is appreciative of his role as a rising trans and queer artist: since gaining public attention following his 2014 documentary Songs for Alexis, Cassata has campaigned for transgender equality around the world. But sometimes he wishes that he could be recognized for something outside of his gender identity.
So when the ASCAP Foundation presented Cassata with their Sunlight of Spirit Award on Wednesday night (Dec. 11), the singer knew that he was being honored for something that had little to do with being trans. The award is given annually to an artist who is “under the age of 30 who is exemplary in recovery and in music creativity,” according to ASCAP’s website.
“I think it shows that the industry is moving to a place where trans artists are getting closer to equal opportunities,” Cassata tells Billboard. “A trans artist winning an award that is unrelated to being LGBTQ … I think it shows young trans people that they can accomplish anything, regardless of being trans.”
Cassata chatted with Billboard about his relationship with his sobriety, his gender and what he hopes his fans can take away from his success.
You said that this award is a “very big deal for me because it is focused on something other than me being trans and queer.” Are there other examples of the industry focusing on your gender and queerness or moving beyond that?
When I was 18, I was the subject of a documentary feature called Songs For Alexis. I loved that being trans was a big part of the movie, but my music and romantic relationship was the main focus. That was the first time I really felt like the entertainment industry saw all of me and not just me as a trans person. The American Idol controversy is an example of the industry only focusing on me being trans.
At the shows I play, I share the stage with artists that are queer and artists that are not. It’s been pretty equal in terms of performances, although I have played many pride festivals as well. I will say it’s fun to celebrate being trans for me. It’s fun to celebrate being a musician, too. Either type of lineup or event is fun for me.
What motivated your decision to be open about your addiction and recovery?
I knew that, by being open about my addiction and recovery, I could inspire others to find healing and take better care of themselves. I also knew that because of my age and following, I wanted to promote a lifestyle that is healthy and not filled with drugs and alcohol. I want to make sure to be a positive role model to those looking up to me and I felt being honest about this could help someone. I want to show people you can still have fun if you’re sober. You can accomplish if you’re sober. You can still write songs if you’re sober.
You mentioned writing “Jupiter” as a response to how the opiate epidemic has effected your friend group and hometown. What has the conversation been around your song and your visibility in this area?
I have been able to raise some awareness, and I hope that this award will raise even more. Many of my friends, queer or not, have been taken due to the opiate epidemic. I will do everything I can to continue to raise awareness.
If this award could do anything in the queer music community, what would you hope might happen?
Navigating the music industry as a trans person hasn’t been easy and it’s been difficult to get more into the mainstream. I feel like this award is a huge step towards trans artists being more accepted in the music industry especially since the award has no connection to being LGBTQ. I hope this award shows other trans people that we are moving closer to equal opportunity and consideration. We can meet our goals too. Being trans does not have to hold us back.