Embracing LGBTQIA+ Artistic Identity: Lessons from Troye Sivan, Big Freedia, Hayley Kiyoko, and More

Jessica Letkemann / June 21, 2022

Six musicians from the LGBTQIA+ community share what they’ve learned about navigating their careers and celebrating their identities in their music.

No art form is as personal as music — it flows from you, your experiences, and your perspective. And if you’re an LGBTQIA+ artist, you already know that comes with its own challenges and opportunities. We spoke with Troye Sivan, Big Freedia, Hayley Kiyoko, Sam Smith, Becca Mancari, and Joanna Sternberg to hear some of the best advice they’ve ever received — or given — about embracing their identity in their music.

Hayley Kiyoko: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

“As an emerging artist — [and] emerging can last years — you’re always having to prove your worth and your value,” pop phenom Kiyoko says. “I think as a woman and a queer woman in this space as well, it can be very challenging to just be able to respect yourself and your needs. And also know that you’re not the number one artist in the world, so you’re not just going to have this platter given to you. And even then, there’s always going to be challenges that you’re going to have to overcome.”

A fellow musician once asked her what subject she was most afraid to mention in her songs, which sparked an epiphany. “I was like, ‘Oh is that what I’m supposed to do, is actually tell you the truth?’” she says. “I had spent so much time doing ‘you’ and ‘he.’ I’ve been loving women since I was five, so that really helped me find my purpose as an artist. I don’t understand why it takes us so long [to realize] that our biggest strengths as human beings are our challenges, our goals, our dreams, the things we want to change. That’s what makes us so unique.”

Troye Sivan: Shout It as Loud as You Want

“I got some bad advice from someone that I really, really love and really, really respect and don't work with anymore,” says Australian singer/actor Sivan on our Best Advice podcast. “It was basically the thing of like, ‘You can be gay, but do you have to shove it in people's faces?’ And luckily, somehow… maybe it came from having the support of my family, I had the kind of inner strength to know that that wasn't good advice in the moment.”

Big Freedia: Haters Gonna Hate

Family support was also key to how Big Freedia navigated homophobia growing up in New Orleans on her way to becoming the Queen of Bounce, keeping her pride front and center as an artist. “When people were starting to call me different slurs and names and pick on me, my mom used to always say, ‘long as they don't touch you, they could say what they want,’” Freedia explained in our Best Advice podcast. “If they call me a sissy or a f-g or whatever they call me, I would say thank you. And they didn't know how to respond to that… that shut that down completely.” Part of that strength came from being unapologetically true to herself. “You're not hurting me because I know who I am.”

Becca Mancari: Sing Out

For Nashville singer/songwriter Becca Mancari, things were far different with family. “For queer folk who go through a lot of trauma with coming out — for me, at least — I only knew how to survive for years,” she says. In 2020, she was inspired to write about coming out directly in her music in the song “First Time.” She found the experience to be, “almost learning how to re-parent yourself, love your child self, and move on.” The day it was released, she says she “panicked. This whole record is just turning to the next chapter, which is asking myself, ‘Did you find your way out? Are you ok? And if you have to leave behind your whole world in a sense, how do you find your way to the next one?’”

“The reaction [was] amazing. People have reached out and said, ‘I get it, thank you.’ Even parents have reached out and been like, ‘I don't understand my trans child, my queer child, but I want to. I don't want to reject them.’ It's a lot. I didn't know I signed up for having that responsibility, but I think, as artists, what better time to really make music that will help change the world?”

Joanna Sternberg: Genre and Gender

"It's a lot harder trying to be a classical or jazz musician dealing with [gender neutrality]," says songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Joanna Sternberg. "If I'm playing songs by Irving Berlin or Cole Porter or even Thelonious Monk... it's from a time when there weren't publicly trans people as much or at all; it's from a more homophobic, different time. And the traditions are that on gigs, if you're a girl, you should wear a dress and makeup.” Sternberg says they’ve faced discrimination by bandleaders because they don’t present as a sex object. “They see me, they have no use for me, they don't want to have sex with me — so why am I there? This is really harsh, but I know it's true."

Sam Smith: “Dare Greatly”

“It's a shame that queer people, and women especially, have to fight their way into [production] rooms. And hopefully that's getting better now,” says hitmaker Sam Smith, who is nonbinary. “Just say what you want to say. Say how you feel. You have a right to be in those rooms just as much as anyone else.”

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