Heavy metal has been a haven for me for as long as I can remember.
Twisted Sister, more than most other bands, was a lifeline throughout and beyond high school. I spent hours drawing their logo in the margins of notebooks. I quoted them relentlessly. And in my late teens, when I struggled daily with gender identity but did not yet understand that I was trans, I found refuge in their lyrics. I remember writing a line from “SMF” (yes, it stands for sick motherfu**er) all over the place: “and if they think that we’re sick, then sick is what we’ll be.” When I finally came out as trans, I faced everything from warm acceptance to brutal rejection. The music of Twisted Sister and other metal bands kept me going.
You might say that I found myself in their music, the same way that many of my fellow trans folks found themselves in JK Rowling’s writing.
So I was more than a little disappointed when I learned that Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider had decided to weigh in – badly – on youth access to gender-affirming care.
It all started with a tweet from KISS’ Paul Stanley. Titled “My Thoughts on What I’m Seeing,” Stanley’s tweet offered a paragraph‘s worth of fear-mongering around a supposedly “sad and dangerous fad” in which adults were “encouraging participation in a lifestyle that confuses young children.”
Snider, whose music had made such an impact on me in my years as a gender-questioning and then openly trans youth, responded: “You know what? There was a time where I ‘felt pretty’ too. Glad my parents didn’t jump to any rash conclusions! Well said, @PaulStanleyLive.”
I wasn’t that surprised.
As much as I have found my home in heavy metal, I’d be lying if I said that the culture was always welcoming. I’ve faced some of the worst harassment of my life at metal shows and festivals, ranging from nonconsensual sexual groping to anti-semitic death threats. I’ve heard more than a few homophobic and transphobic comments from musicians and crowds, so I’ve learned to navigate those spaces carefully. I often go to shows alone, and when I do, I rarely share my name with anyone.
Sometimes, I’ve gone so far as to use a fake name or lie openly about my identity. But there was something about Stanley and Snider’s comments that hit hard. These men had been unapologetic about their own gender transgressions, wearing loads of flashy makeup on stage, for decades. And they were practically deities in the spaces that mattered most to me.
Both musicians have since faced criticism. In another tweet, Stanley expressed general support for “those struggling with their sexual identity while enduring constant hostility” and noted that “a paragraph or two will remain far too short to fully convey my thoughts.”
Snider, who had historically been known as a supporter of LGBTQ rights, has been dropped from this year’s San Francisco Pride celebration. He has also released a statement entitled, “So, I hear I’m transphobic. Really?” in which he emphasized his continued allyship and cautioned against “reject[ing] people who are willing to march.” He stated that “I, Dee Snider, will continue to support the Transgender community and their right to choose even if they reject me and, moving forward, I am open to educating myself so I can be a better ally.”
Stanley, I appreciate your walking back those earlier comments, and I hope that you’re open to other perspectives. Snider, I appreciate your previous allyship and your willingness to learn. As a transgender metalhead – someone who exists in both of the worlds that seem to be colliding here – I want to offer you both a place to begin that learning.
When I read your responses to the backlash, it seemed that both of you felt that critics were being needlessly harsh. Snider, you went so far as to suggest that trans folk expect “fealty” from our supporters. I disagree. But I can see how it might feel that way.
From your perspectives, the two of you were simply weighing in on a public controversy. You probably felt like you were offering reasonable, thoughtful commentary and standing up for kids. And I certainly wouldn’t fault you for wanting to weigh in if you genuinely believed that kids were being harmed.
Here’s the thing, though – there’s a larger context here. The points that you both made in your original posts were not accurate reflections of transgender healthcare and politics. Instead, they read to me (and, clearly, to many of your critics) as anti-trans talking points.
And those talking points are everywhere. Within the last couple of years, anti-trans activists and legislators have spread dangerous misinformation about our community. This includes, among others, the perception that gender-affirming surgeries are being made available to young children (they are not), that transgender identity is a “social contagion” among youth (it isn’t), and that a majority of individuals who medically transition wind up regretting it (only a substantial minority ever express regret, and many of those who chose to detransition do so in response to societal transphobia).
Beyond that, transgender communities are facing an unprecedented attack. The ACLU is currently tracking more than 400 anti-LGBTQ+ bills proposed in 2023 alone, many of which specifically target trans people. These range from bans on gender-affirming care for youth to bans on gender-affirming care for adults to bathroom bans to vaguely worded restrictions on “male and female impersonation” (often referred to as “drag bans”) that have the potential to restrict all transgender individuals’ access to public spaces. We’re under constant attack. As a means of survival, many of us have become skilled at identifying anti-trans talking points and are swift to react when we encounter them.
I want to call you both in. I want to assume that you were both acting in good faith and are open to understanding why your comments were so harmful and garnered such critical responses.
The next time that either of you feels compelled to weigh in on trans issues, I hope that you’ll take a moment to find out what individuals in the trans community have to say. I do not expect fealty. I do not expect you to silence yourselves. I do not expect you to become experts on trans lives and experiences. I do expect you to recognize that there is more going on here than you probably realize. If and when you decide to weigh in on these issues again, I expect you to at least consider the perspectives of those most affected – trans people – rather than simply repeating the arguments of anti-trans activists.
Ethan Levine is a researcher, educator, and award-winning speaker on interpersonal violence and LGBTQ+ communities. His writing has been published in numerous academic outlets. He has been attending heavy metal shows and festivals for more than 20 years and will continue doing so for the rest of his life.