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What Does It Mean to Be an Apolitical Trans Pop Star?

As a teenage girl living with some real deep dysphoria, I took up an air of digging alternative dude music to prove a point about my gender transgression. I hadn’t figured out I was trans yet, and knowing that wouldn’t have changed the fact that there weren’t many trans role models in the early 2000s for me to look to anyway. Attaching myself to bands like Death Cab for Cutie and the Shins seemed like the line of best fit.

Something about the pop music my female friends listened to had always felt enforced, like I was expected to like it because it was mainstream and I was a girl. But I also couldn’t deny that what brought me true joy in this era was blasting Top 40 radio while driving around rural upstate New York. I felt a twinge of those moments the first time I heard a Kim Petras song, a sensation that only intensified with the release of her most recent single, “Heart to Break,” on Valentine’s Day. This gravitational pull towards her music is only heightened by the fact that, just like me, Petras is transgender.

I fell in love with the lightness and total danceability within Petras’ small handful of singles (and her cameo on Charli XCX’s “Unlock It”) in a time that feels increasingly heavy with political turmoil, especially for trans folks. But, as I dug deeper into the world of Petras, I was forced to grapple with some of the decisions she’s made. My affection for her music has been mired, as most things are these days, with a question of politics.

The German-born 25-year-old first entered the international spotlight in 2009 after becoming one of the youngest people to ever undergo gender confirmation surgery at age 16. She had been sharing her story for several years at that point, including a German TV series that documented her transition. From the outset of Petras’ career, being transgender was at the forefront of her public image. But music has always been her greatest passion—what she wants to be known for. Finally, after years of start-stop momentum as both a behind-the-scenes songwriter and a solo artist, Petras scored a viral hit last summer with “I Don’t Want It At All,” a sugary sweet bop that extols the thrills of making boys pay for all your fancy stuff.

Hearing the song’s Katy Perry–esque sheen, perhaps it comes as little surprise that one of the producers behind “I Don’t Want It At All” (as well as other recent Petras singles) is Dr. Luke. But considering he’s been the subject of high-profile allegations of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse by Kesha, Dr. Luke’s affiliation with Petras did legitimately shock me. To make matters worse, she has been somewhat dismissive about the concerns that have been raised regarding her producer. “I would like my fans to know that I wouldn’t work with somebody I believe to be an abuser of women, definitely not,” Petras told NME, suggesting that she’s sided with Dr. Luke on the issue—in the era of #MeToo no less. As a survivor who has never not teared up during the high note of Kesha’s “Praying,” my heart sank reading her vague defense.

I also feel sad and conflicted about the ways in which Petras has distanced herself from the trans community. “I don’t care about being the first transgender teen idol at all,” she told the New York Times in March. More recently she’s suggested that while being transgender made her who she is, her idea of success involves eliding her trans identity—making it an afterthought rather than a point of pride.

This space between Petras and the trans community shows. November’s Trans Day of Remembrance and March’s Trans Day of Visibility came and went without a word from Petras on her fairly active social media accounts. That she has remained silent on the travesties currently devastating the trans community, especially as a white trans woman who’s had access to medically necessary trans-related healthcare, is disappointing. Trans people, particularly trans women of color, are being killed at alarming rates. Trans women and trans femmes have been facing an estrogen shortage for years that appears to have no end in sight. And our nation’s politicians, on both sides of the aisle, are rolling out legislation that actively harms trans people.

Still, I have to be honest in admitting that it was precisely Petras’ carefree, upbeat, and markedly apolitical vibe that had me blasting hits like “Faded” through my headphones at the gym. When you live a life that feels inherently politicized, the moment of respite found in unapologetically frivolous pop music can feel like a necessity.

To that end, I’ve known many trans folks who’ve looked to pop divas as a means of actualizing themselves—of attaching our own fantasies of living to the fierceness of our favorite pop stars. When I think back on the early years of my own medical transition, there’s always a Robyn song playing in the background. I’m dancing and swerving bigots on the street and becoming myself to the sounds of Body Talk.

But we’ve never, to our knowledge, been able to experience that kind of elation from someone who was trans just like us, from someone who had been through the same shit and come out the other side a full-blown pop princess. “I just write pop songs that I want to live in,” Petras recently told V Magazine. Her music is so full of the exuberance that I, too, want to live in that I can’t not be compelled by it, especially as I slog through the challenges of trans life.

Now just as much as ever, we need trans joy. We need the world to know that trans people can be silly, we can have crushes, and we can forget about all the heavy stuff that’s weighing us down. If nothing else, Petras gives us that. Her aesthetic isn’t meant to be political, and I think it’s important that trans people are given the opportunity to temporarily eschew the rampant politicization of our daily lives just like anyone else.

But 2018 is a strange time. With more people thinking critically about allyship and intersectional advocacy in a moment of turmoil for so many marginalized people, we’re being forced to reconsider the distinction between an artist and their politics. The two were never separate, but their overlap has come into sharp relief in recent years. With our lives perpetually recorded online, everyone is bound to fuck up at some point, especially those in the spotlight. This dynamic has made the 2010s the age of the problematic fave.

Can we, for example, keep rallying around RuPaul even though the “Drag Race” icon recently said that trans women who have medically transitioned likely wouldn’t be allowed to compete on the show? I wonder sometimes whether we’ll just keep taking queer and trans figures down until there’s no one left to look to, while normative cis people skate by on significantly lower expectations. Last year, Katy Perry released a song with Migos, whose homophobic lyrics and quotes have made headlines, mere weeks after she won an award for her LGBTQ allyship from the Human Rights Campaign. Who knows what the rules are anymore.

I think a lot about what it means for many of us queer and trans folks to participate in a culture that would dispose of queer and trans people who are imperfect—and the art they’ve given us—rather than give them a chance to take accountability and do better. It should be considered that Petras has not only experienced the trauma of being a transgender person—she also went through it in a very public way. Burnout is real, and a lifetime of being a role model for your own identity can be a lot of emotional work.

This empathy isn’t to suggest that we can’t want more from someone like Kim Petras. I don’t expect her to talk about being trans all the time, but if she could open up a fraction of her public image to speaking out on behalf of trans issues, to uplifting trans artists like Ah Mer Ah Su, Macy Rodman, Michete, and KC Ortiz who haven’t had access to the platform she has, she could make a big difference in the lives of many trans folks. As Petras preps her debut LP, I hope she’ll also recognize that her continued relationship with Dr. Luke is going to alienate some who might otherwise be her biggest fans.

There’s a delicate balance to be found here, one that I’m not sure has ever really been achieved. What would it mean for a trans pop star to serve their community while still creating a politics-free space for us to fool around, do drugs, and fall in love? And is Petras the one to give us that, or is there someone more qualified out there who’s still giving shows for pennies at some dive bar?

What I dream of is a world where being visibly and vocally trans feels less like a burden and more like a badge of honor, where we can be loving advocates for ourselves and for others while still having the capacity to do all of the silly, sexy, and sassy stuff that makes us what we are: human.

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The world famous Red Rose Mafia girls international online magazine. Hand picked with the latest music, news, fashion, tech, health and more for their viewers. Originally created in East Los Angeles- Hollywood the Red Rose Mafia sisterhood/ membership has grown from a local sisterhood to a worldwide sisterhood. Founder Adela Delgado and members of RRM has been responsible in influencing southern Californias street trends and today's generation worldwide.

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