As part of our Music Made Us campaign, Rocco Kayiatos discusses being the first openly transgender man to release an album. He recounts how he found music as a teenager, and how he sees it as a tool that saves lives.
I was a kid that never fit into societal expectations for normalcy. In 1991, I was in junior high, where my differences were being scrutinised and pointed out in specific insults on a daily basis.
Since this was a time long before social media, I had to work harder to find my people. I understood there was a social hierarchy that was arbitrarily built around blonde girls named Julie or Kristy that all looked and dressed similarly, whose mothers also were former popular girls that all continued to preen and foster this desire for useless social status in their offspring.
These 13 year old girls had the power to destroy lives, if you cared. Thankfully, I did not.
Since I was having an obviously different experience of gender, I was immediately not eligible for this tier of popularity. I wasn’t blonde or shopping at the Gap and my mom was never popular, so I was further discounted. All of that coupled with the fact that I didn’t actually like any of these kids made opting out easy. The Julies and Kristys had no power over me because I didn’t want anything they had. This made them crazy.
“Music defined who you were as a person.”
When I found Grunge, I found God. I was the first kid at my middle school to wear a Nirvana t-shirt to school. I donned this shirt with pride and defiance. I started wearing nothing but flannel and t-shirts of bands, that none of these bland people would ever discover, as a way to communicate that I was not interested in their social system. Before Instagram and Hot Topic, you had to dig to find your teenage rebellion in the pages of Maximum Rock and Roll or through word of mouth from cooler older kids. You couldn’t just walk into a mall and buy your cool card, you had to carve your own path. Music defined who you were as a person.
Music and subcultures built around bands saved my life and gave me a community of weirdos, queers, outsiders and misfits. I couldn’t imagine a future for myself, until I saw heshers and grunge musicians. I understood the power of self expression and communicating the existence of lives lived outside the mainstream.
For us, this music was so much more than something to dance or passively singalong to, it was a tool for saving lives. I had been in the school band since age 7 and had always loved playing music, but now I really felt I had to make my own music to reach an audience of others like me that needed to see and hear their lives and stories reflected back to them in a positive way. I started a band.
In the year 2000 at age 20, I began my medical transition from female to male. It was the darkages for transgender people. There was little access to care or information and only a scant few trans men of note that could serve as potential role models. Most transgender men that transitioned in that era did so with the desire to assimilate.
Having never been anything but outspoken and completely unapologetic, I decided I would not assimilate. I decided I would use my struggles and challenges as fodder for my music. I wrote through the most difficult parts of navigating early stages of transition and made an album dealing with it. I became the first openly transgender man to release an album. I connected with a global audience and became many other trans guys’ lighthouse to a possibility.
Our Music Made Us campaign is told through the students, graduates, journalists, experts and passionate people who have been shaped by music. Discover their stories here.