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It’s Never Been More Dangerous for Trans Musicians to Tour

Twelve months ago, Anjimile wouldn’t have thought twice about touring on his own. In the summer of 2022, the North Carolina-based indie folk singer toured as the opening act for the band Tune-Yards and felt safe tagging along in a car by himself behind the headliner’s van. Not today, though. As a Black transgender person traveling alone, fear of harassment — if not worse — lurks around every corner.

“I don’t think that that’s something I feel comfortable doing now,” says Anjimile, who will release his second album, The King, in September, but has fewer than a dozen U.S. concert dates slated for this fall. “It’s just a fucking tour,” he says. “It’s definitely not worth putting myself in danger in any way.”

For transgender musicians, playing live music in America, much less touring to faraway cities or states, is as fraught now as it’s been at any time in recent memory. The raft of anti-transgender bills coursing through state houses across the nation, combined with increasingly violent behavior and messaging from the far right, has added an extra level of dread to not only touring, but simply existing.

“It’s absolutely terrifying,” says Blanca Del Loco, a Black transgender woman who performs as a solo pop artist and opera singer. “Every day I wake up and I feel like I’m in a dystopian novel.”

Getting home, in fact, was the worst part of being on tour earlier this year for Del Loco. After three months on the road as a lead actor and vocalist for Bright Star Touring Theatre’s winter ensemble, she took a Greyhound bus to visit friends in Nashville before heading home to Shreveport, Louisiana, last March.

“I just got done performing for all these people — being cheered, being loved, being told how talented I am, how loved I am,” says Del Loco. “But now here I am, outside the glitz and glamor of performing, scared for my life, just trying to travel back home.”

Alone on the darkened bus at night, Del Loco was afraid to fall asleep. When she reached her station in Tennessee, she could feel herself being watched. “The police gave me this look that was, like, ‘Hmm, we’re questioning whether the girl is a girl,’” she says. “It was the most terrifying experience, because I literally know no one here. There’s no one at all.”

The battles that artists face are often of a private and insidious variety. “I just feel more and more on edge than anything else, and I think that increases my anxiety,” Anjimile says. That sense of unease can be spurred by hateful online comments or simply by going to the grocery store. “It’s rough. It feels like dark shit. It feels bad,” he says. “I’m not sure if any given encounter with a stranger could be dangerous.”

While U.S. drag bans sparked outrage and protest throughout the spring, parallel legislation attacking trans people flew comparatively under the radar. Proposed legislation, often outwardly aimed at healthcare for children, has appeared in nearly every state in the country. The online Trans Legislation Tracker cites 566 bills being added in 49 states since the start of 2023, 83 of which have passed and more than 350 of which are still active. (There was a total of 174 proposed bills throughout all of 2022.)

This latest front in the war on trans life has brought a new sense of urgency for artists like Shea Diamond, who, through her career as an R&B singer, works as an ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign and dropped a new single this week. “Hate has a lot of money, you know? Hate can always find someone to fund it,” she says. “We have to get people motivated. We have to put a fire under people, so to speak, to get them to activate.”

The deliberately vague wording of the various drag bills leaves tangible fears for trans artists. One such example in Texas, which takes effect in September, prohibits sexual content from being performed in front of minors. What that means seems open to interpretation. “I could [theoretically] be arrested just for going up on stage at an all-ages venue,” says Adri Hullet, who performs in multiple bands in Austin, including the Get Lows and Spider & Spirit. “Like, doing nothing sexualized or anything, just existing on a stage.”

Those fears aren’t unfounded, according to Jonathan Gooch, communications director for advocacy group Equality Texas. “I think it’s a very real concern that people will take this law as permission to enforce whatever bias they already have about trans performers,” he says.

As a result, artists, along with their management and bookers, have been left to make difficult decisions about where to travel. “It’s definitely changing the landscape of touring at the moment for queer artists,” says Chris Genco, the marketing director for indie label Imprinted Group and for Obsessed, which organizes drag tours. Obsessed has stopped routing shows through Florida and Tennessee altogether. Texas may not be far behind. “Everyone is on high alert,” he says.

The fear experienced by trans artists isn’t just in Southern states. Del Loco relocated from Louisiana to New York earlier this year and wasn’t prepared for how she’s been treated in her everyday life. Even in the cocoon of her Bright Star touring company, she experienced problems: While catching a flight from Seattle, she was confronted about being in the wrong airport restroom. “The person looked at me, and they’re like, ‘Oh,’ and they kind of freaked out and left,” she says. “I just left the bathroom, because I was like, I don’t know what’s about to happen.”

Adding to the murkiness of these encounters is the fact that, for trans people of color, they are often coupled with racism. “I would say that most of my experience with any sort of prejudice has been race related, and not necessarily to do with my gender or my sexuality,” says Rae Chen, who performs under the name Tofusmell. He released a new EP, Humor, in June. Chen acknowledges what he refers to as the “privilege” of being able to pass as a male and escape certain abuses. “Especially when it involves race,” he says, “trans Black women are definitely most often the victims of violence.”

That threatening vibe has spread across the border into Canada too. “I feel more scared than I’ve ever been,” says Vivek Shraya, a singer, author, and professor in Toronto. Being anywhere in a public-facing capacity comes with a degree of risk, a fact that was reinforced when a trans professor was stabbed during a gender studies class at the University of Waterloo in Ontario in June. “There’s not a single day I don’t go to my job worrying about being attacked,” Shraya says.

Not that any of this is particularly new for trans artists. Anjimile admits that he’s chosen straight, white, cisgender males for bandmates in part as a matter of protection. “If I wasn’t about to travel with two white dudes, I would be kind of freaked out,” he says. “Because I feel like, in a lot of ways, the folks I interact with in the music industry who are cis and white and hetero are kind of my shields.”

Even basic amenities can become an issue when playing shows, as Shraya points out. “When you make a request, like a private dressing room, there’s just an unspoken assumption, I think, that you’re being a diva, as opposed to it being a safety request,” she says.

Though Shraya believes venues are getting better in how they treat trans artists, the concert experience can often be full of micro-aggressions, like being misgendered by staff. That can make for a particularly jarring reality when juxtaposed with being in the spotlight. “I think a lot of trans people, our identities are seen as performative, right?” she says. “And being onstage is one of the places where we’re allowed to be trans, essentially.”

If deciding where and when to perform presents its own dilemmas, artists are finding fewer opportunities to play in the first place. “This past year, I haven’t really noticed a lot of trans performers being hired. It’s been pretty cis-centered,” says Diamond. “Which is really surprising to see. None of these cis people are actually standing up and saying anything while we’re being attacked.” Shraya sees an element of fear at play: “They don’t want to deal with the blowback. They don’t want to deal with the Bud Light kind of stuff,” she says, alluding to the furor the beer brand faced for partnering with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

Pride Month presents its own mixed blessing in this regard. Trans artists report usually being inundated with show requests during June, but the same venues and promoters have a tendency to go quiet for the other 11 months of the year. “Pride is definitely a time where so many of us get gigs and get paid,” says Shraya. “We’ve had a lot of criticisms about these opportunities only coming during Pride, but at the same time, we still need them.”

Fans, too, have a tendency of only going so far with their allyship, particularly cis ones. Hullet experienced this frequently with one of her former bands, Transy Warhol. “We would play shows with straight bands, and all of the straight people would just kind of wander out of the venue when we started,” she recalls. “Then tons of queer people would come in, which is kind of cool to me, but like weird at the same time that people were leaving.”

Though Hullet commends certain local promoters for making a point of booking trans artists to queer-friendly bills, that can make for some incongruous pairings, liked playing alongside drag performers. Similar walkouts tend to follow. “It does feel like there’s a limit to how much a lot of straight people will even want to be in the same room when we’re playing,” she says.

The biggest obstacle for trans musicians, however, doesn’t have to do directly with their ability to perform or not. It has to do with having access to healthcare. “We are already seeing bills that do target adults across the nation. Some of these bills preventing care for trans youth extend through to adulthood,” Gooch says. As a result, “We’ve seen so many people choosing to leave [the state] if they can afford to.”

Hullett is one of them. “I didn’t really ever want to leave Austin, [but] it doesn’t really feel feasible to stay here,” she says. Many of her friends have already left, and it’s unclear how many of them — including her bandmates — will be able to resettle close to one another. “It felt like we built something here. Now, it’s just like every single trans person I’ve talked to has a plan to leave the state. That’s incredibly depressing to me.”

Chen has already vacated his hometown near Orlando for Canada. “I can’t imagine, when I go home, feeling safe at all leaving the house,” he says. He understands the argument for staying put and trying to help bring about change, but no longer feels able to justify the personal risk. “It’s an honorable thing to do, if you’ve got the stomach for it. But I think that certain things should be left to the people who don’t have to be protected by the laws that are being stripped. If someone shares the same sentiments as me, but is not going to be targeted, then yeah, that’s their duty to stick around and change that.”

In the midst of all the current backlash, concerts have taken on a new sense of importance for trans artists. “It’s becoming a statement. It’s becoming a battle,” says Genco. “Drag has always been political. Queer art has always been political. But now, more than ever, it’s coming back to the art form, front and center.”


Shraya toured Canada this spring in support of her new album, Baby, You’re Projecting, and is eager to add shows soon in the U.S. “I feel like the most important thing I can do right now is actually be as visibly trans and queer as possible,” she says. Many of those spring shows had a celebratory atmosphere. “I feel almost a responsibility to come to the U.S. I feel a responsibility to tour, I feel a responsibility to try and create a space where queer and trans people feel they can come together and be seen.”

“Trans people have always been survivors,” Diamond says. “Survival just looks different for different people.”

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