Podculture: ‘I can be happy and trans’: Queer students find joy in music

Isabel Funk and Maia Pandey



The Daily spoke with students and faculty about what queer music means to them — from pop divas to indie artists.

SOPHIE LEYVA: Any time I’m walking around on campus, I listen to music.

GEORGE SEGRESS: I think it’s gotten to a point where if I don’t have music playing, my brain is like, ‘Wow, this is really quiet.’

CLAIRE GARDNER: I listen to music probably, like, 50% of my day.

LAUREN JOYCE: I don’t listen to music very often because it’s really distracting, so I can’t do it when I’m doing anything else. So when I’m listening to music, I’m just listening to music.


ISABEL FUNK: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Isabel Funk. 

MAIA PANDEY: And I’m Maia Pandey. This is Podculture, a podcast about arts and culture on campus and beyond. For many people, music is ingrained into the fabric of their day — from walking around campus with earbuds to connecting to the AUX at a party.

FUNK: But music is also correlated to how we express ourselves and connect to different parts of our identity and culture. In this episode, we spoke to queer students and faculty about how they use music to find community and connect to their identities. 

RYAN DOHONEY: I think broadly, music and sexuality have been completely intertwined from the very beginning of human history. I think what music’s really good for, among other things, is music really does give us shape to our emotional lives and gives us a sense of what we enjoy. And those are all things that can go into our conceptions of sexuality and how we understand our own relationship to our bodies and what we enjoy. 

FUNK: That’s Bienen Prof. Ryan Dohoney, who has spent much of his career studying the connection between music and sexuality. This fall, he’s teaching a class called Sound, Sexuality and Space.

DOHONEY: There are these moments really of recognition where we sort of hear in someone else some echo of who we are, and oftentimes finding that with sexual identity, or coming to terms with one’s gayness or queerness, the music is so fundamental. It was for me, and I see it in my students.

FUNK: Music has a long history in the queer community, from jazz and blues in the 19th century to disco music in the 1970s and 1980s.

PANDEY: Black musicians were key to pioneering these genres and creating space for queer people and narratives in the music industry.

FUNK: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Lucille Bogan were instrumental to the evolution of blues music in the early 1900s. These artists, and others, used their music to express queerness and gender ambiguity.

DOHONEY: Lyrical content, you know, expressions of same-sex desire constitute a kind of queer music. That can’t be overstated as something important for younger people growing up, to kind of hear that affirmation of possibility. But there’s a long history, really, of this other kind of queering, a listening that does active work queering and appropriates music for its own needs and desires. Queers have long been listening to music that is not overtly queer, but finding queer things in that, and I realized that that is almost, makes that an almost meaningless definition of what queer music is. 

PANDEY: Weinberg sophomore Sophie Leyva said they have often sought out music to affirm their queer identity — music that is often by queer-identifying artists.

LEVYA: I find that a lot of songs written about queer people by people who are not queer tend to be really lacking in nuance and don’t really reflect my own experiences, at the very least. The best stuff is usually made by queer people for queer people. A queer person has to be involved somewhere for it to be queer music, otherwise it’s just kind of like an inaccurate retelling of someone else’s opinion of what we’re like.

PANDEY: Leyva said Scottish pop artist Sophie and Venezuelan musician and rapper Arca are two of his favorite artists.

LEVYA: Their music expresses a full spectrum of emotions. And in particular, joy was the most important to me. Because a lot of narratives about trans people are just about how miserable we are, how much we hate ourselves or how hard it is to be trans. But there’s a lot of joy in being trans also. And I’m thinking in particular of (“Immaterial”) by Sophie — the song talks about transcending your body and saying, “I can be anything I want, I can do anything I want.” And it was just really, really important to me. When I was just starting to deal with questioning my gender, remembering that being trans doesn’t have to be miserable, that I can be happy and trans and yeah, I can do anything I want. It’s my life. 

FUNK: But not all music that is popular in queer communities is by queer artists. Communication freshman George Segress said several non queer-identifying artists hold significance in gay culture.

SEGRESS: I mean, it’s undeniable in the gay culture — gay male culture, specifically — a lot of female artists are very popular that aren’t queer. And so that line kind of blurs a little bit. Some of the most popular, like, “gay” female artists are Charli XCX, Megan (Thee Stallion), Doja (Cat), a little bit, Lana (Del Rey) … I think some of them might be queer, but overall they’ve kind of adopted a more queer persona, and a lot of them kind of play into it and know that a lot of their audience is gay. Especially, like, Charli XCX makes a lot of jokes about it on TikTok.

FUNK: Segress said these artists are known to be popular in gay clubs and queer nightlife.

SEGRESS: I saw a tweet, it was something along the lines of, “Every gay man at the age of 13 is assigned some female celebrity to latch on to.” And for me, it was sort of a combination of Lana and Britney (Spears).

PANDEY: Medill sophomore Claire Gardner said she has actively sought out queer music, and her Spotify has also recommended specific playlists to her.

GARDNER: I’ve found more community in the music that I’m listening to, as opposed to just listening for a pure, joyful rush, which is what I feel like I used to do. But I’ve always prioritized an emotional connection to the songs that I’m listening to. And I really like songs that play directly to whatever I’m feeling at that moment.

PANDEY: Like Segress, Garder said it’s not crucial that the artist themself is queer.

GARDNER: It’s really hard to define queer music because everyone’s queer experience is different.

FUNK: Weinberg sophomore Lauren Joyce said listening to work by queer artists was instrumental for her when she was coming to terms with her identity.

JOYCE: I didn’t have any out queer role models when I was in the process of coming out. And so a lot of times that … fell on to the artists that I was listening to, or at least discovering at that time. Like the Japanese House, Clairo, Maude Latour … people like that. 

FUNK: But Joyce agreed that this idea of queer music isn’t just limited to queer-identifying artists.

JOYCE: Maggie Rogers hasn’t, like, come out or anything — nobody really knows what’s her deal is, but I think that she’s a good example of what, like, queer magnetism is — like, it doesn’t have to be necessarily queer in the sexual sense so much as it’s like queer as different and, like, differentiating.

PANDEY: Joyce produces music herself. She released her first single, “Cotton Candy Lullaby,” earlier this year. As a queer musician, she said it’s exciting to see other queer artists break into the mainstream.


JOYCE: Music has been one of the primary mediums through which alternative media is really prominent and gets to achieve quasi-mainstream status. I think that Clairo is a great example. Somebody who is queer and is not at all peripheral, like is very much the mainstream. … I don’t know, you can even argue in the heteropatriarchal conscious, the fact that us as queer people get to control the media, passively insert our agenda into mainstream society in a way that people can that is more covert, almost.


JOYCE: I think it’s just interesting that we tend to gravitate towards the people and the mediums and the art that is most queer, even when we are only subconsciously aware of the fact that we are different in a queer way. 

PANDEY: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Maia Pandey. Thanks for listening to another episode of Podculture. This episode was reported and produced by me and Isabel Funk. The multimedia editor of The Daily Northwestern is Joanne Haner, the managing editors are Yiming Fu, Audrey Hettleman and Charlotte Varnes and the editor in chief is Isabel Funk. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @isabeldfunk

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @maiapandey


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