After a three-year hiatus, the heavy metal band Life of Agony will hit the stage at Belgium’s Alcatraz Hard Rock and Metal Festival on August 8. This is welcome news to heavy metal fans who have loved Life of Agony’s unique blend of metal, rock and hardcore music since their 1993 debut album, “River Runs Red.” But this event is special for another reason. Life of Agony’s singer, Mina Caputo, is heavy metal’s first openly transgender star and one of the most prominent transgender musicians in the world. This show will be her first live performance with Life of Agony since she came out in 2011.
This event is not only another milestone for LGBT rights and acceptance, it’s also an opportunity to examine how a form of music routinely dismissed as socially unredeemable continues to produce and support openly LGBT stars.
The best way to challenge any stereotypical thinking about a given group of people is through exposure. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected public official in the country, famously said: “I would like to see every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let the world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine.” His words turned out to be prophetic, as recent times have seen more and more prominent people come out as gay, lesbian and bisexual, and the tremendous victories for the LGBT community in repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, as well as legalization of gay marriage in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
Mina Caputo’s coming out adds to a growing list of prominent transgender people from various walks of life, such as Laverne Cox of “Orange Is the New Black” and mayor of Silverton, Oregon, Stuart Rasmussen – the country's first openly transgender mayor. Perhaps related, attitudes towards LGBT people have changed. Recent polls suggest that 73 percent of the country supports protection from workplace discrimination for transgender people. Further, this openness is translating into laws like the California law allowing transgender people to have equal access to school-based facilities.
But Caputo also provides an opportunity to challenge long-held beliefs about heavy metal musicians and fans. Heavy metal music has been dismissed as aggressive and even dangerous. This sentiment was highlighted in 1985 by the Parents Music Research Center (PMRC), which put heavy metal on trial accusing heavy metal and its musicians of undermining family values and even encouraging suicide in children.
One stereotype is that heavy metal as a culture supports anti-LGBT sentiments. And history suggests that some heavy metal musicians and fans have fit the closed-minded stereotype. In 1989 Skid Row's Sebastian Bach infamously sported one of the most horrible t-shirts in history spouting anti-gay sentiment. More recently, Bradlee Dean of the heavy metal band Junkyard Prophet has come under fire for reportedly making anti-LGBT statements.
But other events suggest an evolution. Caputo's coming out has been widely supported, and is part of a long lineage of prominent LGBT musicians in heavy metal music. Perhaps most famously, in 1998, Rob Halford of the legendary band Judas Priest was one of the first heavy metal stars to publicly come out as gay. And the heavy metal community has been extremely supportive of Halford, who is often considered the reigning god of metal and historically metal’s most revered singer. Other openly gay heavy metal stars include Doug Pinnick of King's X, Otep Shamaya of Otep and Gaahl of Gorgoroth.
Further, anti-LGBT sentiment is now generally criticized in the metal world. For example, when Gwar’s David Brockie (who recently passed away) made an anti-LGBT rant at a concert, it was widely reported that rather than cheer, the crowd fell silent, and the follow-up press from the metal community criticized the incident. Greg Puciato of the Dillinger Escape Plan has been very outspoken against anti-LGBT bias and in favor of gay rights.
This evolution makes sense; people who like intense and rebellious music such as heavy metal actually demonstrate a high level of openness to new experiences and intelligence. They’re also more likely to engage in civic activism. In fact, research suggests that heavy metal musicians and fans are “gifted outsiders” with feelings of low self-esteem that develop from their sense of alienation. They turn to heavy metal for inspiration and support. This is perhaps one of the reasons that heavy metal musicians and fans are so dedicated. Pop bands may come and go, but a Metallica fan is a fan for life.
Further evidence of open-mindedness of musicians and fans of aggressive music comes from the world of punk rock. Early hardcore punk rock icon Bob Mould of Husker Du is openly gay; Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day has come out as bisexual; more recently, Laura Jane Grace of the punk rock band Against Me! has come out as transgender. Legendary Bad Brains was famously excommunicated from the hardcore scene because of their incendiary comments directed at openly gay hardcore band Big Boys. And hardcore legend Henry Rollins is an outspoken LGBT advocate.
So horns up for Mina Caputo and all of the musicians and fans who continue to break down stereotypes of LGBT people and aggressive forms of music.
Because at the end of the day, metal is metal. Nothing else matters.
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Mike Friedman @ DrMikeFriedman and EHE on Twitter @EHEintl.