Joe Stevens: Queer Culture, Female Roots and Making Music as a Trans Man

I suspect I'll always remember when I met Joe Stevens... well, I will not technically meet him until Sept. 25, when he performs in Pittsburgh with Great Caesar and Night Lights. Formerly of Coyote Grace, Joe is one of the first openly transgender performers to contribute to the alt-Americana/alt-indie folk music scene. He's performed with the Indigo Girls, Chris Pureka, Melissa Ferrick and more queer icons. His first solo album, Last Man Standing, has just been released.


I spoke with Joe about his perspective on Pittsburgh, his queer identity and his relationship with the dyke community, and his music. His candor and wisdom, especially with regard to seeming contradictions, struck me on a personal note after a very trying week. I realized that I don't have to take on other queer women who think I'm anti-lesbian. I can continue to do what I do and promote artists like Joe to take care of people around me. It may not make me the absolute bravest ally to the trans community, but it is authentic.

Sue Kerr: Tell me about your first visit to Pittsburgh and what resonates with you about our city?

Joe Stevens: The first time I came to Pittsburgh, Coyote Grace was opening for Melissa Ferrick, and we had three days to drive from San Francisco to Pittsburgh for our first show. We arrived tired, late, and had a hell of a time navigating over all the bridges. Melissa Ferrick was a hero of mine, and it was our first tour opening for a bigger name. I was terribly nervous. Coyote Grace also played Pittsburgh Pride a few years back.

Kerr: Are there any Pittsburgh performers (based here or born here) who influence you?

Stevens: Pittsburgh is lucky to have Nicole Steele, the most amazing music therapist, who works at the Children's Hospital, plays professional women's football, and is an awesome percussionist. You might see her around town, supporting musicians with her beats and wonderful presence.

Kerr: Who was the first LGBTQ person that you met, and how did they impact you?

Stevens: I'm not sure about the very first one, but I spent my last two years of high school at Idyllwild Arts Academy in Southern California and met Amy. Amy was the staff on duty in my dorm, and she helped me in too many ways to number. She was the first person I had to look up to, she was the first to validate my queer identity, and she supported my music. She helped me record my first album, took me to my first pride festivals, took me to my first Indigo Girls concerts. In addition to making sure I didn't get kicked out of school, she could reach me in a way that other folks hadn't been able to. As someone of my tribe who I identified with, I listened to her and learned a great deal about what kind of person I wanted to be in the world. She showed me that I had a community, a lineage, and something to offer.

Kerr: In an interview with TransQueer Nation, you made reference to growing up "culturally queer." What are your queer cultural touchstones?

Stevens: When I was younger, I thought of queerness as something you either have or you don't: You are queer or you are not. As I transitioned from a very atypically gendered female to a man who tends to date women, I had a lot of fear around losing my place in the queer community. I realized later that there is a huge cultural aspect to my identity -- the movies I know, the music I listened to, common jokes, pride festivals, Stonewall, people I looked up to, and the people I felt comfortable around -- that was something I didn't have to lose access to. The death of Matthew Shepard was a very big deal when I was in high school; the fight for marriage rights -- all of these things are a huge part of how I see the world. I may not appear as queer as I once did, but I am no less queer and no less a part of queer culture.

Kerr: Pittsburgh is one of a handful of cities with an inclusive Dyke Trans March. How would you describe that solidarity, and what does it tell you about our city?

Stevens: For me, personally, being included and feeling welcome in dyke spaces and marches is a big deal. Not all trans guys identify with the lesbian community or with their roots in female culture, but I treasure that aspect of my journey. I feel deep solidarity with folks who were socialized female, and have immense gratitude for the older generation of women's rights activists, who took the first stones so that our lives might be easier. I feel greatly indebted and honored to celebrate their achievements.

Kerr: You've toured with a lot of well-respected queer performers. Who among the new and upcoming generation would you suggest that we pay attention to?

Stevens: Ryan Cassatta is a young trans guy out of San Francisco. He is making great work and I think will do great things. Humble Tripe, out of Durham, North Carolina, is Shawn Luby and Stud Green. They make beautiful, minimalist indie folk. Definitely look out for them!

Kerr: How do you use social media to engage your fans?

Stevens: Poorly.

Kerr: Past or present, who's your favorite LGBTQ character in television, film or literature?

Stevens: A movie I saw recently that I loved was [Albert Nobbs] with Glenn Close. The depicts the lives of queer folks in the past that we don't know a lot about, but they were definitely present throughout history. The trials that character faced, being a masculine female-bodied person, were close to home for me, and it's hard to imagine living in that era under those circumstances. These are the stories that give me pride in the tenacity of queer people, who have made the present a much more friendly place for many of us today.

Kerr: What is one simple thing a reader can do to support the LGBTQ community?

Stevens: Keep on reading, engaging, learning, and taking care of the people around you.

Kerr: What is your love song to today's LGBTQ youth?

Stevens: I'll keep it old-school: "True Colors" by Cyndi Lauper.

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I like this video of Joe performing "Beyond Me," a song from his new album:

Joe Stevens will be performing in Pittsburgh with Great Caesar and Night Lights on Sept. 25. A percentage of the proceeds from ticket sales go to the Cathy's Closet project at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Pittsburgh. Joe's performance has been coordinated by Music Night on Jupiter. Find more information here. If you are in or near Pittsburgh, perhaps we'll see then!