As Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas continues to double down on his anti-transgender rhetoric, including calling on state officials to investigate supportive parents of transgender children for “child abuse,” Billboard is speaking with transgender artists in Texas about the ongoing fallout throughout the state. Below, Dallas avant-pop artist Lorelei K shares her story.
Dahlia Knowles knows what it’s like for transgender kids in Texas — she was one not that long ago. Beginning her transition around the age of 16 in Denton, Texas, Knowles says she quickly watched her world change.
“I remember losing most of my friends at school because of that,” she tells Billboard in a Zoom interview, holding back tears. “My parents put me through Christian-based counseling, and they sent me to a church camp that tried to ‘exorcise all my demons’ and s–t. All of that happened because of it, so I definitely know what it’s like being a trans kid and not being accepted or understood by anyone.”
Luckily, Knowles came out the other side of her transition as a stronger woman — one who would go on to become Lorelei K, the Dallas-based avant-pop project known for her stratospheric vocals, atmospheric production and lo-fi music videos. While she once felt she was being seen in the music space for little more than her identity as a transgender woman, Knowles now feels that the tide has turned. “I think with my personal growth, people have started to realize that, like, ‘No, not everything is about the transition,'” she says. “The music stands for itself.”
While preparing for her upcoming West Coast tour with Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum (“It’s our first tour since the pandemic, so we’re very excited,” she says with a smile), Knowles spoke to Billboard about growing up trans in the South, why she thinks Gov. Abbott is “a monster” and what words of wisdom she has for young Texans in need of advice.
Tell me a little bit about how you got your start making music — how old were you, and what made you want to pursue this career?
I started making music around the same time that I started transitioning, back when I was around 16 or 17. I was using it, at the time, as a situation where all of my writing had to do with my trans experience. So they ultimately tied together; back in roughly 2014 was really when I started the project.
You’ve been working in Denton as well as Dallas over the last few years. What would you say the LGBTQ music scene is like in those cities?
I think that there is no shortage of talent here, for sure. I definitely have found my artist community here, which has obviously been life-changing for me. If I hadn’t started here in North Texas, I wouldn’t be … I don’t know, I just feel like it’s like basically building up my chops. There is a community here, but it’s definitely the kind of community you have to search a little bit more for. It’s not like Austin, where everything is right there in front of you; you do end up having to dig a little bit more, and you have to know where to go.
You mentioned that you started your transition around 16. What was that experience like, beginning your process of becoming who you are at that age?
The beginning of my transition and realizing I was trans was a very difficult period of my life. It started a lot earlier, honestly, with what I realize now was a lot of gender dysphoria when I was way younger, like four or five. Because I grew up in a Christian household, and especially one that’s in the South in Texas, it was hard to express how I was feeling to anyone for a really long time without getting pushback — the 2010s were way different than now. The resources just weren’t quite as “there” as they are now. So it was really, really hard.
I’ve seen you talk before about your frustration with being tokenized for your transness – how does that play a role in your career today, where you’re trying to be honest and real, while also avoiding being further labelled?
To be honest, I wouldn’t say that I experience that same tokenizing as much as I did earlier in my career. There was a long period of time where I felt like I was being booked because I was “the hot trans chick,” and not because of my talent. I felt like it always got brought up in interviews, and not in a situation like this where it’s very clear that we are talking about a specific, important issue. It would just be brought up really flippantly and weirdly. Yeah, there is definitely a fascination people have with trans talent that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the artist themselves. I feel like over the years, especially since it’s been seven years that I’ve been doing Lorelei K, now that I’ve been touring more, and I’ve signed with the label (Idol Records), once we hit those milestones, people started taking the act a lot more seriously.
We’re here to talk about everything going on in Texas right now. When Greg Abbott first made his public comments about trans kids and their families, what was your initial reaction?
Honestly, it’s just heartbreaking. We all connect with our inner children and everything, and my inner child hurts because it’s already a really sore subject for me in general. But it’s the unnecessary villainizing of people who are completely helpless that infuriates me — we’re talking about children and parents who are just trying to do their best. Yeah, I really don’t know how else to say it. It’s just heartbreaking.
I mean, it took a long time for my parents to come to where they are now, where they’re in this very loving and accepting place with me. Just imagining people that are lucky enough to have parents that are a little bit quicker to come to and try and help them as much as possible … for them to be villainized and accused of being child abusers is just so wrong. Whenever we talk about this, there’s immediately these weird misunderstandings — it’s not like these kids are getting breast augmentations and facial feminization surgery, we’re usually just talking about hormone blockers. That’s it. Greg Abbott and his crowd really love to take a small concept and create a huge thing out of it, you know what I mean? If I had the privilege of having parents that were willing to put me on hormone blockers that early, that would have been life changing for the better. Like, my life would be pretty different right now. Not to say I have resentment for my family, but it is a life-saving process. The fact that they see it as the opposite of that is so frustrating, because it’s coming from people who simply don’t understand the trans experience at all. They’re trying to speak for us or trying to define what it is whenever they have no idea what’s going on.
Since all of this news came out, what have you noticed about the atmosphere in the community?
To be honest, I think everyone’s kind of afraid to talk about it. It’s one of those things where I am very particular whenever it comes to activism and making sure that if I am here for a cause, it’s because I usually see myself in it. I feel like, just because there is not that relatability to cis people when it comes to this issue, they don’t seem to see it as a major issue. Even if it’s nothing else, even if nothing ever goes into effect because of this, it’s still such a violent statement made against trans people coming from a government officials. Like, I f—ing live here, and it’s surreal to see this sort of dialogue taking place around essentially helpless bodies.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident — anti-trans and anti-queer legislation has taken a major foothold in state legislatures around the country. Just this past week, Florida passed their “Don’t Say Gay” bill. What do you think is creating such a huge uptick in this rhetoric?
I think people fear things that they just do not understand. They — Greg Abbott and the government officials making these policies — want to create this false narrative and try and sell it to their voters for their own political gains. It’s just … he’s a monster, he really is. These issues keep coming up, and Abbott has always just been awful around the clock. There’s always something coming out about another inflammatory statement he’s making, or another inflammatory bill that he’s trying to pass, and what’s so frustrating is that we could have the power to vote him out if people cared enough about this.
The good news to come out of this is that the ACLU has already begun a lawsuit against the state for this proposed action, and a Texas judge has already partially blocked it from taking effect. What does that feel like to see resistance to these efforts gaining ground?
I think it’s definitely nice to see trans people be given some of their dignity back. It’s nice to see people actually stepping in and trying to empower the voices of others, and basically save the lives of others, that’s very cool. I know how hard it is to be a kid that has gender dysphoria, and it gets really dark. So especially now, when there are an abundance of resources to alleviate that mental stress and negative ideation, it just doesn’t have to be something so dark and twisted anymore. So it’s good to see that actions have been taken, and that maybe this won’t go any further, but it’s still not good. It’s still damaging, even if it’s just boiled down to some transphobic remarks so that he can get some more votes.
Do you have any recommendations for what people outside of Texas can do to offer help and support?
That’s a pretty hard question, to be honest, because a lot of the time, I feel so small as an individual. I guess the best thing would be to do anything you can for public outreach, or spreading accurate information, and the true narrative of what a transition looks like, especially for young people. Education and making sure the correct information gets out is the most vital thing right now.
But it’s hard, because this is all built on a whole system of injustice. It’s built not only on transphobia, but also on homophobia, on systemic racism, on wealth, on privilege, on religion; it’s so multi-tiered, which just makes it hard to feel like anything one person can do could actually eradicate everything that’s wrong here. But I don’t want this to sound hopeless either — compared to 10 years ago, there is a night and day difference in terms of where we’ve come as a society. I just would like that progress to be reflected in the people that represent us and our government.
Whenever issues like this come up, there is always a question of whether or not artists should boycott shows in these states, or come and be supportive. Where do you fall on that debate?
I think it’s very much the latter, because while I understand the effort or the message that canceling gets across, it’s also very much diminishing the fact that, “Yeah, our governments don’t always represent our communities.” I mean, they certainly don’t here [laughs]. It ends up becoming a detriment to the communities that you are trying to stand for when you completely shut them out. Standing in protest like that is essentially just not doing anything. But I also try to give people the benefit of the doubt. If they think that maybe not playing a show in a state like that is the best method for them, then sure, by all means, go for it.
If you had the opportunity to send a message to trans kids in Texas who are scared for their future, what would you want to tell them?
I would want to do my best to affirm them in their position in life. It’s such a tricky, tumultuous time to discover who you are, especially when you’re different from the people that are around you. I guess what I would say to myself at that time in my life is that there is an upward trajectory with transition. It’s one of the most powerful, brave things that you can do for yourself. It’s a journey that I wouldn’t give up, that I wouldn’t want to replace with anything. I have come to love my transness, and to appreciate all of the ways that I am different, and how that’s given me my own unique perspective on life. Any of those kids out there who might be reading this, I would want them to know that they are on a really unique, special journey, and it deserves to be celebrated instead of being vilified. You owe it to yourself to go through this journey, because there’s so much pain in hiding and trying to push down what’s going on. Follow your intuition.