On the surface, it’s business as usual in the heavy metal community.
Godfathers of metal Judas Priest released a new album, Firepower (2018), and are in the middle of a world stadium and festival tour. Otep will be releasing their new album KULT 45 (2018) and will be embarking on a North American tour. Life of Agony will be continuing a world tour supporting their recent album A Place Where There’s No More Pain (2017). And not only will heavy metal veterans King’s X play a series of East Coast shows.
Otep, “My Confession”
Yet, beneath the surface, there is something very special and exciting happening. These bands aren’t just similar because they are metal bands; they each also feature lead singers who are prominent members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community. Rob Halford, the singer of Judas Priest, and Doug Pinnick of Kings X came out as gay men in 1998 and 1999, respectively. Otep Shamaya of Otep came out as lesbian in 2002. And most recently in 2011, Life of Agony singer Mina Caputo shared that she is transgender.
What’s going on? Aren’t metalheads close-minded meatheads whose music, we’re told, has no redeeming social value? Isn’t heavy metal music harmful to kids, causing violence and mental illness? How can the heavy metal community be providing a platform for LGBT stars to shine?
A closer look beyond the misguided stereotypes suggests that the prominence of LGBT stars in the metal community actually makes quite a bit of sense. Both communities have faced marginalization and discrimination – reduced at times to stereotypical caricatures and judged harshly by those outside of each respective community. As a result, for both LGBT people and metalheads, simply being your authentic self – whether it means being out as openly gay or transgender or simply having long hair, tattoos, and a Slayer shirt – is often seen as a confrontation of societal norms to be met with derision.
The discrimination against both groups is well documented. Members of the LGBT community often face harassment, bullying and discrimination throughout their life. LGBT individuals often face rejection and abuse at home; LGBT children comprise forty percent of all homeless youth and family rejection is the primary cause. Further, bullying of LGBT children is common in schools, 40% reporting physical bullying because of sexual orientation. More, once in the workplace, 42% of LGBT adults experience workplace harassment. And not only have LGBT couples historically faced marriage discrimination, but also many states still discriminate against LGBT couples in adoption, despite research showing that children raised by LGBT parents function as well as children raised in other households.
The heavy metal community has faced a different type of discrimination due to the misinformed notion that metal music is harmful to those who are exposed to metal music. While there is limited research on this issue, lifelong metalheads often report being shunned, harassed and even beaten up for the music they love. And over 30 years ago, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) put heavy metal music on trial with Senate hearings describing the dangerous effects of heavy metal music on children with the intention of censoring heavy metal artists. Further, over the years, heavy metal musicians have actually been accused of and even put on trial for being the cause of violent acts committed by others, including suicides, homicides, serial killings and school shootings.
This is all in spite of evidence suggesting that metalheads from the 80’s have grown up as well-adjusted, or even more well-adjusted, than their non-metalhead peers. And far from causing mental health problems, experimental research suggests that listening to extreme metal music can actually soothe rather than exacerbate negative emotions. In 2008, a study published in Journal of Youth Studies found that among 182 participants aged 14-24, individuals who regularly listened to heavy metal music were significantly more likely to be engaged in civic activism as compared to listeners of other music genres.
So how have these communities come together and what is the evolution by which LGBT musicians have become prominent in the metal community? I talked with Otep Shamaya, and Michael Alago, subject of the movie Who the Fuck is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago and the former A&R executive who signed bands such as Metallica and White Zombie, about their experiences as members of both the LGBT and heavy metal communities.
The trailer to Who the Fuck is That Guy?
Alago and Shamaya agreed that early on, the heavy metal community was in fact less accepting of LGBT people than it is now. This trend was perhaps most epitomized in 1989 by Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, who infamously sported one of the most horrible T-shirts in history spouting anti-gay sentiment.
“In any walk of life, there are going to be certain groups of people who are homophobic. And I don’t want to generalize, because that’s a little weird, but if we’re going to talk specifically the heavy metal community, I was always amused that when I went to these concerts – hardcore concerts on Sundays at CBGBs or heavy metal concerts in big arenas, I would say that 98% of the audience was male,” Alago told me. “If you’re talking to me specifically about the metal community, I think it was a bit less accepting. I think it was a bit confusing.”
Shamaya made similar observations as she encountered men with specific stereotypes about lesbian women and transgender people. “It was worse than I thought it would be,” Shamaya told me. “I always considered the metal community to be a welcome place for outcasts and those that didn’t feel like they fit into ‘normal society,’ and at the time, back when I came out in 2002 – which, I was already out – people started seeing me walking around Ozzfest with my girlfriend … And certain people had ideas about what lesbians were because they watched a lot of shitty porn … We’d have people trying to fight a trans couple who showed up … people didn’t understand them so they wanted to fight them.”
In typical metal fashion, both Shamaya and Alago felt that confrontation was the best way to handle people’s preconceived notions of the LGBT community – first and foremost, through their music. “What are we supposed to write about? Write another song about getting drunk? Write another song about heartbreak? Write another song about what?” Shamaya explained. “Let’s reflect the times we’re living in that poses a direct danger to marginalized communities.”
Alago concurs, saying that the metal community is often a stronger vehicle for addressing social issues than more radio-friendly music. “I think in the metal community, because the music has been so underground and the music has to do with a lot of angst and growing up – and that has nothing to do with gay, straight, black, white – it has to do with the feeling of where a lot of these artists come from, of not being accepted… when you talk about the forms of music like a Top 40, those people are almost forced into keeping it bubble gumesque … They don’t deal with heavy issues because they all work in a format that doesn’t allow for it. If you want to get on the radio, how heavy can you go? How deep can you get?” Alago said.
This confrontation manifested on a personal level as well. As someone who was out as a gay man throughout his life, Alago described personal confrontations with people who embraced more biased attitudes.
“Now for me being a gay man, and then being a gay man in the music business…I, personally, got a good laugh out of all of it because I’m someone who has never been in the closet. I really don’t give a shit if somebody else likes me or not,” Alago said. “I’ve always been a person who’s been very forward when I think that somebody might be a little afraid of me or look at me like ‘he’s a fag’ or something like that. So, those are the people who I want to be in their face, and almost, how do you say, destigmatize what it means to be gay…Even when I’ve been in these rough guys’ faces, I kind of charmed them … Brought them down to a level that’s ‘everything’s OK, let’s hug, let’s have a beer together,’” he said. “And for me, I liked when that happened, because I’m kind of breaking down the stereotype.”
Shamaya described how she found other musicians confronting bias on her behalf, and how welcomed she felt as a result. “Jamie Jasta (of Hatebreed), Randy (Blythe) from Lamb of God –I’ve had some great heterosexual allies in the tough guy metal scene…This is where I feel like I belonged,” she said.
While the music and direct confrontations did help to address stereotypes, perhaps the most powerful challenge to people’s notions of LGBT people in the metal community was learning that their heroes were members of the LGBT community – and that it didn’t matter one bit. Shamaya and Alago recalled how powerful of a statement it was for Rob Halford to be out, as Judas Priest is one of the most revered bands in the history of metal.
“Over the years, it has changed quite a bit for the better. And I think that has a lot to do with prominent LGBT members in legacy bands coming out. I remember I toured with [Judas Priest] on Ozzfest, and he had just come out I think right before then,” Shamaya recalled. “And then he would come out and the entire place would scream and roar and sing along. And it was beautiful – 25,000 people singing along. And there wasn’t one – that I heard – not one homophobic slur or anything. They were just there to see their favorite band and their favorite singer sing and perform. And that’s when I started to see that the mood was changing…”
“And isn’t it great that in this day and age that we can think, ‘yeah, we know Rob’s gay. We love Judas Priest. Who gives a fuck?’” Alago said.
Over time, the music, direct confrontations and personal examples shifted the culture whereby people in the LGBT community were feeling comfortable being much more open in the metal community. Soon the attitudes towards the LGBT community were more in line with metal’s reputation for openness and inclusion.
“I remember I was doing a VIP meet and greet, and there was a couple of gentlemen down the line … they looked like they were right out of Duck Dynasty … big beards, American flag bandanas around their head, camouflage. They were loud, they’d been having a good time all night … they had obviously been drinking. And I thought oh great, this is going to be interesting to see what happens,” Shamaya recounted. “These two gentlemen came up and they were just the sweetest, most grateful people that I had met that evening. And they were married. And it was these two men who looked nothing like you’d expect gay men to look like … and yet here they were, and they said, ‘We’ve been to tons of your shows, but this is the first time that I said it out loud – this is my husband.’”
“And it was one of the most remarkable moments of my career, and I think it just showed how comfortable people were getting coming to our shows. People coming in drag, people showing up just to enjoy the show to be their authentic selves, even if they had to undress or take all of that off before they went back to their families or friends,” she said. “But during those moments it felt like this was a place of liberation and acceptance. And it wasn’t like that in the beginning but I definitely saw a gorgeous arc towards acceptance and equality.”
But Shamaya cautions that the work towards LGBT acceptance in the metal community and the world at large is not finished by any means. Shamaya described how she sees the rhetoric and policy from the current political administration as emboldening bigotry. For example, the Trump administration has put forth a policy by which transgender people can no longer serve in the military, regardless of years of service or performance record. And Shamaya reports that she is seeing more harassment and bullying online and in person.
“Unfortunately, under the current regime, we’re starting to see it regress. And it’s quite unfortunate. The culture has shifted … It’s just like we’re seeing it everywhere else – the rise of hate groups – because they feel emboldened by the resident of the White House. He emboldens them by the way he speaks about marginalized groups,” Shamaya said. “We had an incident at a show where these were obvious metalheads because they were known to the venue to come to a lot of shows there, who snuck in sex toys and hot dogs to throw at me during our show … And these geniuses were smart enough to update their Facebook while they were doing it. So, we actually got everyone and they were all banned and we’re taking legal measures. Some of them wrote ‘Oh we just wanted to slap Otep in the face with a dick to see if she’d stay gay’ or ‘We want to show that dyke what a real dick looks like’.”
Ultimately, Alago and Shamaya have faith that they will continue to see progress in the metal community – and they encourage people to keep pushing themselves to have open hearts and minds.
“I think it’s 2018, and we’ve come to a place that we hear so much about who is gay, and who is coming out of the closet, that people have listened and learned to be more respectful,” Alago implored. “Let’s keep it simple. Have respect for your fellow person – period.”
“What I expect to see on this next tour is more and more gay people come out. I expect to see more heterosexual allies come out. I expect to see people who are friendly to the LGBT community and who are part of the LGBT community and all of its facets – the LGBTQ cluster as they say – come out to show that they’re not afraid, to show that they’re loud and proud, to show that they support our community,” Shamaya said.
“And that no one’s going to diminish it in any way.”