About a week after Donald Trump was elected president, a group of anti-LGBT protesters gathered outside of PWR BTTM’s concert in Jackson, Miss. It was a clear message to the band and their fans, but also a reminder to the rest of the country: Even with the legalization of gay marriage and numerous media outlets celebrating an unabashedly queer punk duo like PWR BTTM, many people outright reject others just for living their lives. In short, there are still a lot of discussions we all need to have.
With that in mind, we recently spoke with several LGBTQ musicians — Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce of PWR BTTM, Katie Stelmanis of electro-pop outfit Austra, and piano-favoring neo-soul singer Kiyan — about touring, fostering a sense of inclusion with their fans and what the future holds.
It’s not always been true in music, but numerous artists today take care to foster a sense of inclusion at their shows. Everything from choosing an opener to a venue impacts the experience a fan will have.
For PWR BTTM, their shows are glittery galas involving theatrical drag, fistfuls of glitter, and bleeding streaks of makeup. The trappings of the show are meant to welcome everyone.
“For Liv and I, we wanted to create something kind and caring about the people who came,” PWR BTTM’s Ben Hopkins remarks. “You don’t have to know all the words to a PWR BTTM song, you don’t have to wear a crazy outfit, you could’ve never heard our music before. We want you to feel a part of it though.”
“I’m always excited to create space for people to relate to one another… People, despite having the common interest in our band, might not be friends before meeting at a show. It’s great bringing families together,” Liv Bruce comments.
Austra’s Katie Stelmanis also stresses creating a welcoming event for those who might not always have that.
“I did it because I wanted queer people to come to our shows. It’s a fun night when you have a room full of queers. I wanted to create a safe and welcoming space. A place for people to let loose and they can just be themselves,” she says.
Most musicians deal with taxing tours. They dedicate their lives to the road for months, often not knowing where they’re heading next. For LGBTQ musicians, touring may mean rolling into towns where you’re not necessarily welcome. As previously mentioned, PWR BTTM faced protesters slinging homophobic slurs in Nov. 2016. But for Liv, the more banal parts of touring can be the moments that stick out as potentially dangerous.
“I usually feel more fear or danger off stage than on. On stage is a pretty safe place as far as physical harm, because there are hundreds of witnesses. It’s at the merch table or going to get mascara at the CVS down the street that scares me.”
New York-based Kiyan also mentioned the impossibility of doing what he does now if he were back where his family comes from.
“We need to be clear about gay culture’s status in the world. There are people who might not be on the same page as you and I, what we find righteous with equality. People are turned the fuck up with their hate speech. So you just accept it as fact,” says Kiyan. “My own heritage, [if I were] back in Iran, [people] would stone me to death. Does it make me nervous? No. Because if I have to be killed for it, so be it. I’m taking my anti-hate speech and trying to spread it across the world.”
But rooms filled with accepting fans give hope that things are shifting in a positive way. As Austra toured, Stelmanis found that the least likely of places offered the best of times.
“It doesn’t really scare me. In the cities where we should be the most afraid that we’ve had the best show. Our craziest show was in Moscow. People are really looking for an outlet and want to have a good time.”
As Kiyan and I bonded over our love of Joanne the Scammer, the topic of straight people appropriating gay culture came up. We discussed simple catch phrases such as “yasss queen,” and the argument that Jimmy Fallon’s lip-sync battles steal heavily from RuPaul’s Drag Race. For Kiyan, appropriation isn’t a clear-cut issue; he opined that the difference between mocking and paying tribute has to do with knowledge.
“You cannot appropriate gay culture if you do not know, understand, and empathize with gay people. If you don’t meet that criteria it’s just mocking. I think if you meet that criteria, it’s a bridge that brings people together. Fun, huh?”
Finding Your Home
While major cities often lean toward a liberal point of view, there are still many places where people can’t break out and be themselves. In that sense, the anonymity the Internet offers can be a blessing — you’re able to release any project and meet like minds while in the comfort of your pajamas.
“I would say [to anyone exploring their identity] travel and go online. I know people who had their first girlfriends on the internet. People tend to drive to the nearest city, too, where they can find it [their community],” says Stelmanis.
“To a young person who can’t come out to our show, make your own band,” Bruce says. “Make your own music project. One of our fans made a project where they ran our lyrics through Google Translate and it was the best thing I’d ever seen.”
“PWR BTTM isn’t the only queer rock band,” Hopkins adds. “We’ve been lucky to receive a platform. If you go on Bandcamp and search for ‘queer rock’ you can find 150,000 bands that you could love more than PWR BTTM.”
The emphasis on community is a running theme for all — and being true to yourself in order to find what you’re looking for.
“I hate the label that the smaller crowd consists of misfits. If you don’t like the suit you’re in, tailor it,” Kiyan says. “You will eventually achieve the approval you’re looking for, and then you’ll have to take stock in what that costs. When you bend and twist for people then who are you? If you have to bend for someone’s approval, fuck that person.”
What This Year Brings
“A crock pot,” Ben says with gusto. “For PWR BTTM? We’re working on a new album.” Shortly after our interview, PWR BTTM announced Pageant, their second album, will drop May 12. Austra just released Future Politics, which dives into some of the previously mentioned topics, and they’re currently on tour (so if you’re having a hard time breaking out, check if there are any artists near you who offer a welcome space).
As far as what 2017 brings on the international level, while it may seem that things are going backward, the LGBTQ community is far from silenced. National protests, an increasing number of openly out artists, and vocally supportive allies provide some hope while showing different sides to the struggle.
“You know in 2016 when Kylie Jenner released that fireside video and said ‘I feel 2016 has this energy about it and we’re going to realize some stuff’?” Bruce asks. “Everyone was like ‘lol,’ then holy shit did we realize some stuff. I think in 2017 we’re going to keep realizing. We’re going to learn a lot about interdependence when previously reliable structures fail to provide the support that they have for decades,” Bruce opines.
“I hope, I pray, we learn how to be okay disagreeing with each other,” Bruce adds.