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  • Samira Burnside

Queer Artist Spotlight: Community as a Higher Power with Ryan Cassata

Today, I want to introduce you to Ryan Cassata. He is a transgender singer-songwriter and activist. He has been in the public eye since coming out on live television in 2009 on the Larry King show at only 15. Since then, he has gone on to star in and produce songs for documentaries and short films like Songs for Alexis, Collective: Unconscious and Flesh Trade. He's also released 11 albums that range from the sound of emotive candy-pop to the more recent turn towards emo-grunge sounds. He's put on over 500 performances and was the first trans musician on the Vans Warped Tour. You can find the greatest hits from his music career all in one place on May 26th when his greatest hits (so far!) album releases. He's also currently touring in several states around the U.S, you can check his tour schedule here to find out if he'll be in your state anytime soon.


But, beyond his music and acting career, Ryan is also a committed LGBTQ+ activist. Having been involved in Activism since he was 14, Ryan has spoken at venues like the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in Washington D.C and Harvard University. His activist efforts have led to him being the first recipient of the Harvey Milk Award, and getting congressional recognition. He has used his public platform for the betterment of his community for over a decade now, and has no intent on stopping anytime soon.


He is also a queer artist who creates through it all, so I sat down to speak with him about his art today.


(Ryan Cassata)

 

All right. So just to start us off, who are you? What are your pronouns? How do you identify as part of the LGBTQ community and what kind of art do you make?


(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)


My name is Ryan Cassata. I use he/him pronouns. I identify as queer and trans. And the type of art I make is mostly music. I write songs.


Absolutely. And what's kind of inspired your music career? When and why did you first start creating music?


(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)


Yeah, I would say my entire life is what inspires my music. I write songs that are about my personal life and also about my friends and people I'm around or things I've seen. So it's all based on either firsthand experiences or experiences that I'm having with my friends.

So that's how I write. I also write a lot about like, queer and trans activism and what it's like being a trans person in the United States right now and throughout the last 15 years I've been doing that.


(Ryan Cassata performs at Gender Unbound 2019)


Speaking of 15, thrust into the public eye at 15. Tell us a bit about your experience as an out and proud trans artist. What are the good and bad things that have come from that spotlight?


(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)


Well, I’ll start with the bad (and) then go to the good. The bad things are just like, the bullying, you know, I get bullied online a lot and I've pretty much gotten used to it at this point and also like- being trans, it's just like a little bit harder to, to be successful, to book shows, to find spaces that are safe that other trans people want to go to and feel safe there. So that's some of the limitations of that. The good things- my most favorite thing is that I've gotten to meet communities all over the country and the world. So I have friends that I've met from all over the place and that's really amazing to just feel that sense of community and to bring communities together for a concert and (have) people leave with new friends. It's just a very special thing.

(Ryan Cassata, live in Concert)


Yeah. And on that note of like selecting venues that are safe for trans people. I notice when looking at your tour dates, you have several shows in Texas, a show in Florida even. There's been a move in the community recently to kind of move away from performing those red states. What goes into that choice?


(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)


Yeah. I'm considering that as well- to not perform there, in protest. So that is something that's weighing on my mind right now and I, I will have to make a decision soon but I don't want to let anyone down that's wanting to see me play and there's trans and queer people living in those states, you know? So it's definitely a really hard decision to make. But when it comes down to it, like, I wanna play music and I want to play music that makes a positive change on people and a lot of times that's in those states that are dangerous to be in. So, yeah, it's definitely, it's definitely a weird time right now to be a trans musician. Like, oh, ok. Like maybe I shouldn't play in these 15 states right now and that limits my tour schedule and limits how much money I can make. And, you know, that's how a lot of trans people are feeling right now because, it's- it's hard to survive.


(Ryan Cassata at the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in Washington D.C)


Yeah. and on that note of your music, from “Dear Diary, we don't like you” to, “if you ever leave Long Island”, how has your musical style and skill evolved over time?


(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)


Yeah, I would say, well, my newest song is definitely leaning into the emo rock vibe and I wrote more songs like that when I was younger. So it's almost like a return to that but in a more mature, adult way. But really, I've listened to so many genres throughout my life and there's not really anything where I'm like, “oh, wow. I really don't like that genre.” Like, I really like everything and I'm open to listening to everything. So all of that's like, gone into my music and in a natural way because the way that I write my songs (is) I just (write) when I feel inspired, I don't force myself to write ever. And a lot of times what I'm listening to is gonna be heard as an influence in those songs that I'm currently writing. So that's just how it is. Like right now I'm listening to so much Lana Del Rey, like, it's unbelievable. So (you) might get some slow jams coming out of me soon.


What does making music mean to you?


(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)


 

" Making music is- I think it's why I'm, I'm here."

 

Making music is- I think it's why I'm, I'm here. Like songs mean everything to me. If I wasn't a songwriter, I don't know how I would be coping with what's going on in the world against trans people. Like, songs are, they're my therapy, they're my soul, they're my heart. it's how I express love, it's how I express pain.



(Ryan Cassata, taken by Jared Harrell for Buzzfeed News)


It's how I express anger and it's a healthy way to do all of that. So I feel really blessed that that's who I was born to be because it, you know, it wasn't a choice to be a songwriter. It's just something that is a talent I was born with and I'm, I'm very grateful for that.



Yeah. Absolutely. Going back to maybe one of the first venues that you performed at and posted about publicly- What importance does the Long Island gay and lesbian youth club have to you?


(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)


Yeah. Well, the center, I think they're just about to celebrate their 30 year anniversary, which is awesome. I started going to that center when I was 13 years old. I was getting bullied really badly and I found out that that center was in my hometown, like, blocks away from my house, maybe a 15 minute walk, and I started going there. Probably almost five days a week and got really super involved from the start.



And that's where I met other queer people for the first time ever. And seeing other people like me and- everyone was like, a few years older than me. Like, you know, they were like 16 or whatever. But that was like- that just let me know, like, “Ok, one day I get to be 16 and, and there's other queer people too. I'm not alone.” And, I just, I realized like, ok, there's hope for a future and, and that's why that's really like, one of the main reasons why I made it through my teenage years.


That center supported me through so many things with me (such as) coming out as Bi and queer and as trans and (it) also gave me a safe place to practice my music and put on concerts for people.

(A young Ryan Cassata performs for the Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth Center)


 

Yeah. And you've had that same effect on a lot of younger queer people as well. How does it feel to kind of be carrying that on?


(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)


It feels like a purpose and it also gives me another reason for why I'm here. And it, it feels like important (and) sometimes I feel overwhelmed, like I really want to be the, the person that the queer youth need, you know? And it's like, all I really need to do is be myself because that's also what I'm telling everyone else to do is to be themselves, as we all should, you know, we should (all) express our genders the way we want to and not feel so pressured to fit into stereotypes and (we should) just live in a way that feels authentic to us because that's what brings happiness and joy and that's what I want for all the queer youth. So, yeah, sometimes there's that pressure to conform, but I try to remind myself like, “no” like “I'm telling the queer youth like, stay true, stay you. And I have to do that too.” I gotta be true to Ryan the same way I want, you know, all the queer youths to be true to themselves as well.


(The cover of Daughter by Ryan Cassata, a song that he thought would provoke backlash, but that instead resonated with many people and became one of his highest selling singles.)


I know you're an outspoken activist for queer youth and queer people in general as well. You've spoken at locales like Harvard and the March for queer trans youth autonomy. What do you think is the most important fight that the trans community faces right now? The one that needs the most attention.


(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)


 

" These are life saving surgeries and hormones. These are necessities and the fact that these bills are targeting that is an evil, it's a systemic evil. Because a lot of queer and a lot of trans youth might not make it because of that."

 

Yeah, I would say health care is what I would say is the most important. I was a trans teenager that got to transition medically as a teenager. And I got my top surgery when I was just a few weeks into being 18 and I was counting down the days like- I could not wait another day because I was so gender dysphoric and depressed and I just could not, I could not go on like that.


And the fact that these bills are taking away access to these life saving- They're not just gender affirming. These are life saving surgeries and hormones. These are necessities and the fact that these bills are targeting that is an evil, it's a systemic evil. Because a lot of queer and a lot of trans youth might not make it because of that.


(A map of anti-trans Legislation across the United States. Made by Erin Reed)


I, there's no way that I would have been able to wait until I was 26 I, and I feel that so much now (as) I get to talk as someone that's, oh, I'm almost 30. You know, and I have not one regret about my top surgery. I've never had a regret in my life about it. even though I had, like, complications, (I have) never had a regret about it because it saved my life and I needed it. It wasn't that I wanted it. I needed it and I needed it consistently. And I know that there's a lot of trans youth that feel the same way and deserve to get their surgeries. And if their parents don't accept it, like I had to wait till I was 18 because my dad wasn't cool with it. But as soon as I was 18, I got my surgery and at least (was) allowed (at) 18 and over to get it. And I understand the need for trans youth to get it too. There's trans youth that go on hormone blockers very young and that saves their life. So, it's very, very important.



I know you studied faith rooted, transformative leadership at the Pacific School of Religion. Can you tell us a little bit about the core tenets of your faith-rooted approach to activism and what that means for you?



(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)


Yeah, I consider myself a spiritual person. Not, not very religious. because I, I just do what feels comfortable to me and I don't, I don't follow any rules of any religions and things like that. I like to feel liberated and stuff and sometimes religion keeps us too much in a box. But, spiritually, I feel like there've been a lot of dark days in my life where I've had to rely on a higher power to get me through them.


(The tenets of Ryan's Faith-Rooted approach to activism. You can find his full Manifesto here)


And, and sometimes that higher power is my community. And I- that's how I like, could feel a presence that helps me stay safe and sane, you know? I think a lot of my spirituality revolves around Nonviolence. And I think in school, that's what I have enjoyed studying the most, (taking) a nonviolent approach to social justice work and how that can positively impact people and change the hearts and minds of people that may have been ignorant before hearing me speak.



So that's what I've been studying. And I've learned a lot in grad school. There's a lot more I have to learn. But I could definitely say that I graduate in like two weeks and I could definitely say that I am a better activist because I completed these courses in graduate school and completed this degree, which is a master of arts and social transformation.


We talked a little bit about how your music evolved. Has your activism evolved in any way since you first started at around 14?


(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)


My activism has evolved a lot. I used to just focus on my story and just shared my personal experience and now I've gotten more political and I've also done a lot more research and I bring that into my speeches as well. So, in my speech at Harvard, I did present some research and statistics on trans people. So I think, yeah, there's a lot, there's a lot that's evolved.



I really didn't understand privileges and oppressions and like systemic oppression. Until I was in school, I did not fully grasp that concept. And I had to learn that in school through reading a lot and challenging my brain. And yeah, that's something I really had to learn. So learning that has helped me become a better activist.


Having been in this fight since 14 years old continuing to do it now, what of keeps you in the fight?


(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)


 

"I might not see equality in my lifetime. I might never feel safe as a trans person in my lifetime, but I do this because I hope that those queer and trans youth, they will get that in their lifetime."

 

The youth really. I mean, I, like, I still just get like, all choked up every time I get a message from a young trans person that's struggling and you know, they're saying, like, “I don't know if I'm gonna make it to my top surgery and my parents aren't accepting me” like, I relate and I feel that and I'm, I feel so empathetic and I just want to keep doing this so that one day, you know, our generation I hope is gonna be the generation that like, when we have kids, we're not gonna do that to our kids, we're gonna accept them, we're gonna let them be authentic to who they are and things will change because of our generation. So that's what I'm, I'm really hoping for and I, I just feel so much for, for all the queer and trans youth that are struggling.


(Ryan Cassata speaking the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in Washington D.C)


And that's why I give a lot of time and dedication to the movement for the future. You know, I might not see equality in my lifetime. I might never feel safe as a trans person in my lifetime, but I do this because I hope that those queer and trans youth, they will get that in their lifetime.


Last question here, if you woke up tomorrow, all of the issues that face people around the world, including those that face trans people were gone. What would the next song you may be about?


Maybe about finally being liberated because that's what we want, we want our freedom, we want our liberation. And I think I would feel just a sense of peace wash over me.


(An Audio Clip from my Interview with Ryan Cassata)



 

This article was written by Samira Burnside, Editor-In-Chief of The Queer Notion. You can reach her at Sburnside@thequeernotion.com


You can find Ryan Cassata at Ryancassata.com , and find his upcoming greatest hits record on Bandcamp here: https://ryancassata.bandcamp.com/album/greatest-hits-so-far


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