Roundtable Part 1: Austin LGBTQ musicians talk ‘living authentically’
Editor's note: This story was originally published June 25, 2020.
On June 22, Latin pop singer Gina Chavez, rapper Mama Duke and R&B singer Tje Austin Alldredge joined our weekly Zoom chat show, the Monday Music Mashup, for an in-depth roundtable discussion about the significance of the Pride movement, LGBTQ rights in America and the specific challenges facing Black and brown gay musicians.
These are their stories. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Sengupta Stith: Pride in Austin is generally celebrated in August, but the national Pride Month is in June because it commemorates the Stonewall riots that happened in New York City on June 28, 1969. How are you guys celebrating Pride, and what does this holiday mean to you?
Chavez: For me, I think Pride is about representation. My relationship started behind closed doors. I'm a cradle Catholic. I met my now-wife at the University Catholic Center at the University of Texas at Austin. And we had no one to talk to. We didn't have anyone to confide in. We couldn't be together.
My wife reminded me that when I came out to my parents, I was like, “Don't worry, I'm not gonna be marching in Pride parades and waving my rainbow flag.”
Of course now I realize, like, hell yeah, I'm gonna march in Pride parades and wave my rainbow flag because representation is everything. The reason we had to keep our relationship behind closed doors was because we were ashamed of it, because we were told to be and because it was not celebrated out in the open or by our community. And of course, it's still not really celebrated by our community. But anyway, I think that's what Pride means to me. It's about representation. It's about celebration. It's about positive visibility, positive celebration.
Mama Duke: Pride for me is freedom, right? Freedom for me is being a mixed race, queer female saying whatever the (expletive) I want at all times. My mom told me I was gay at 14. So I've always been able to be myself. I was raised Catholic, but my mom was one of those like, “If you ain't hurt nobody, I don't give a (expletive) what anybody says.”
So giving that power to me at 14, that's why I can be who I am. Yeah, Pride to me is saying whatever the heck I want and being okay with that. Because my ancestors gave me that. So that's why that's why you get this, like, aggressive-ass female. Because I can do that.
Sengupta Stith: Your mom told you that you were gay at 14?
Mama Duke: Yeah, so I had this like little girlfriend, but she was my friend, right? We got to say our friend, right? My mom was like, “I think you like her.”
And I was like, “No, I don't.” She was like, “You do, hon.” And I was like, “Yeah.”
So again, my mom was like, “As long as you ain't hurt nobody, you can do whatever you want.” So when I got in trouble for kissing my girl in the hallway (at school), I had the voice to be like, “But you don't tell (straight kids) nothing, so why are you telling me something? And if you have a problem, you can call my mom.”
So my mom gave me that gift at 14.
Sengupta Stith: Tje, what does Pride mean to you?
Austin Alldredge: It just means living authentically. Being able to see people that I'm familiar with in comic books and video games, in movies and cartoons, everything that I am interested in — in some of my favorite music artists as well, just being authentic with themselves. We all have our insecurities, and this really shouldn't be something to be insecure about.
Sengupta Stith: On June 15, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act does protect gay and transgender Americans from employment discrimination. How did that feel to you guys? Did it feel validating? Or did it sort of underline the frustration that it's 2020 and this is just now happening?
Chavez: I've been really fortunate. I have a part-time job. I work for Every Texan, which is an incredible nonprofit that basically uses public policy to fight for social justice. And so, it's the kind of organization where I was never in fear of losing my job.
But at the same time, you know, I'm not gonna lie, I'm both super excited and also like, about time, like, why is this an issue? But I do feel like the timing of this could not have been cooler. I love that it was an affront, kind of a big middle finger to the current administration. Trump appointed his own judge (Justice Neil Gorsuch, sworn into office in 2017). That, in and of itself, was controversial, since they stymied Obama's pick. (The former president nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016, but the Republican-controlled Senate refused to hold a hearing or vote on the nomination.)
So then for Gorsuch to lead the majority opinion and write, you know, something that was pro-LGBTQ while the current administration is trying to pass other legislation not allowing us health care rights and for people to be able to deny same-sex couples adoption rights, you know, I'm kind of like, “Hell yeah. SCOTUS is, like, saving us this week.” So I feel very excited, and I think it couldn't have come at a cooler time.
Sengupta Stith: For years, homophobia was really rampant and unchecked in the music industry. I want to know how that affected you guys coming up as artists. Let's start with Mama Duke, because hip-hop has a very troubled history when it comes to homophobia.
Mama Duke: All these names that we've been called forever, you get used to that (expletive). Some days, I say that helped me. On other days, it's just sad what we have to normalize to just get through being a female in hip-hop. You hear all kinds of (expletive), but it's just, you almost have to pretend it doesn't faze you.
Now I look back on that, and that's sad as (expletive). But again, I go back to the word surviving. It was normal to me, for people around me. It's like the word dyke. Every day, like you hear the word dyke. And some days it bothers me, and the next day, I'm like, “I'm a dyke, God damn it.”
I don't know, we normalize a whole bunch of stuff. I mean, hip-hop, it's wild. You can't check everybody. I wish I could, but you cannot check everybody. It's not safe to check everybody. So you just have to sometimes pick your battles and swallow that (expletive). So I don't know where I stand with it.
Sengupta Stith: What about you, Tje? I feel like you came out publicly just a few years ago. Was that partly because of your music career?
Austin Alldredge: I moved to Austin in 2001 to go to UT, and I started delving into the music, more the boy band, R&B side at first. When I first moved to Austin, (I was) out, loud, proud, everybody I knew knew I was gay. I wasn't trying to hide it or anything like that, because I was very proud.
And then, when I started getting into the industry, we were working in the industry with a lot of black people. And I think that homophobia in the black community, it's very prevalent. And it's crazy, but they were just like, OK, you just need to tone it down. And I had to, I guess, delete my old Twitter account and all this other stuff, and I got used to it. I wasn't with the boy band for very long, but I just got used to it.
And then, I was like, OK, well, this is the thing to do. So I'm still gonna date, I'm still gonna go to the (gay) club, but most people I know that come to my shows don't go to the club or anything like that. And if they ask me, then yes, I will tell them that I am gay, but it never really came up a lot.
But a couple years ago, I just felt that I was dissatisfied. I wanted to live more authentically, and I wanted to be happy living authentically, so it was just a very calculated move to do the whole social media share. And that was how I told my parents. The same way you found out, my parents found out. And they are very great people. They're white, you know, I'm adopted. They're Mormon. My dad's a Marine. I was like, OK, well, whatever happens, happens. You guys better deal with it, though, because I am the favorite son.
Sengupta Stith: Gina, what was that experience like for you, coming up in an era when homophobia was accepted in a lot of parts of the music industry?
Chavez: You know, I kind of came to my queerness late in life. So kind of after I'd even been on the scene and stuff. I had to kind of figure it out first for myself. I will say that there's different spheres, you know, just kind of what Tje alluded to, and also Mama Duke. In Latinx communities, I think, in a lot of minority communities, being gay, being queer is even harder, in a lot of senses.
You know, in Latinx communities, like most families, you don't talk about stuff. You don't talk about stuff like mental health. You don't talk about stuff like being queer. Especially as a lot of Latinos are very religious, very Catholic. Those communities, because they're already marginalized, you don't get to have a say. You don't get to have a voice, you know, and you just grin and bear it, and you do the thing. They've both talked about how you just swallow it, and you learn how to survive in that environment.
So I think there's different spheres. For me, you know, I'm half Latina, but I look very white. I've had a very privileged experience because of that. I'm well educated. I grew up in, you know, what I would consider more of a middle-class white upbringing. And I think as a result, I carry a lot of privilege because of that. So I think it's just a matter of understanding, like, how I fit into communities, and what having a platform can mean.
I haven't experienced a lot of unchecked, in-your-face homophobia, right? But I play a lot of performing arts centers and theaters often in places that are in Middle America or in small towns, and a lot of what I share from stages is who I am. And I share about being biracial. I share about being a Catholic lesbian, and I sing songs about it.
And so (last year), I'm headed to this small town in Iowa, and the presenter calls me to ask me to focus on the cultural aspects of my music. In so many words, she was basically like, “Don't be gay.”
And I thought about it. I understood what she was saying, because she was like, “We're a new venue. We can't afford to have negative comments,” and all this kind of stuff.
And I was like, I hear you, but you hired me. And this is who I am on stage. And I'm also not going to come out on stage and beat your audience with a rainbow flag. I want them to like me, too. Like it's kind of like a first date, right? And I'm not going to come out of the gate and just be like, ”Yo, I'm gay, deal with it.” That's my approach. I try to bring people along, you know.
I really fretted over the set list and how to craft that evening with people and, of course, after the show, people were losing their minds. They had an incredible time. I had this couple walk up to me and they were like, “We're the only lesbians for 50 miles, and we bought your tickets months ago.” It's those kinds of validations. And the presenter was so happy with the performance. And her board members were happy. And I think helping to change minds a little tick at a time is something I feel like I can do. And so, you know, I don't know, I'm happy.
Homophobia still exists, I guess, is the point. But, you know, I think it's about each of us speaking to our spheres of influence and doing what we can with that sphere of influence.
Mama Duke: I appreciate that. And it's important to say that not everybody will hear Gina, not everybody will hear me. We all are different kinds of people. So it's important that we just remain authentic.
Sengupta Stith: As a country, we’re obviously in the middle of a huge civil rights movement right now. How does the struggle for LGBTQ rights fit into these other civil rights movements?
Austin Alldredge: I think that the current movement is a train. And it is coming fast, and there's a lot of people on it. And there are a lot of people that need to speak up to support Black lives, to protect Black lives, and by protecting Black people, you are protecting everybody else, as well. Because you uplift to one part of your community, the community comes together to uplift everybody else. Black lives encompass everything. Everything, everybody, it's just everybody.
So, while the focus is heavily on Black lives, there are a lot of other people that feel that they are possibly getting left behind in other minority communities, and that's not the case. I think that you keep the focus on what it is, then that makes other avenues open up for everyone else. And again, Black lives encompass everything. It really encompasses everything. I'm serious. I don't know how else to say that to make it more palatable.
Sengupta Stith: Mama Duke, you put an Instagram post up a week or so ago talking to people about when people say Black lives matter, to make sure that all Black lives matter to them.
Mama Duke: Yeah. We all have a sense, we have a role. I feel like the majority of people I hang out with are hip-hop guys, unfortunately; I wish there were more rap women. So I feel like it's my duty to be like, “Yo, you fighting for Black lives, yo, that means Black lives, that means trans lives.”
I feel like our community, Black community, is the most uncomfortable with gay boys and trans lives. And it's all a bit funny, but I posted the video, and I was like, “Yo, don't do the gay community like you hate white people doing us.”
Like you can preach all day, “Judge me by the content of my character, but not my skin color,” but then you judge. Then you go at trans (people), and it's like, well, hold on, we missing some (expletive). You know what I'm saying? So yeah, I just feel like it's my duty to, you know, talk to the guys in my life, to the men in my life, that have these tones that they're not even aware of.
Austin Alldredge: The men, the men, the men. Man, there's a lot of toxic masculinity within the Black community on how men should be. And it's so crazy to me because I know there are so many stories and folktales in a lot of other cultures that involve dual-natured people. When did it stop being something that was normal? And when it did start to become unnatural? That's so crazy to me, that it's not normal, and why is it so hard to be normal?
Sengupta Stith: Do you have any ideas on how your straight allies in the Austin music scene could be doing more to help LGBTQ artists?
Chavez: Again, I do come from a place of privilege. I understand, and I'm learning more and more about what that privilege looks like, feels like and what it means, and doing my best to confront that privilege. I think that's a big piece of it, asking, what tables am I sitting at? Who's listening to me?
First and foremost, you know, see us as artists. We're just artists. We're just musicians. We're people just like you. And again, I think that's kind of what I try to do from stages.
I am Christian. There are a lot of things that I fight against with my Christianity, but when I look at the person of Christ, he did all the wrong stuff. He talked to all the wrong people. He loved too much, and he got murdered for it.
And if so, if we as Christians are really doing our part, or if we as people that love each other are really doing our part, we're doing that same thing. We're putting ourselves out there, we're doing the hard thing. We're asking power the questions that scare them.
That's literally what Christ spent his time doing. He was like, “Pharisees, you guys got it wrong. You guys got it wrong again. Y'all got it wrong again,” and then they killed him.
So I feel like that's kind of where I'm coming from. I'm going to try to meet people where they are, and help them see, look, this is what we do as people who say we're loving people. We're going to open doors for other people. We're going to be champions for other people. We're going to question if we're right. It's not about being right, it's about getting it right. And that may change, like getting it right may look different from day to day. We're having conversations now that we weren't having since six months before, because the conversation has changed.
ABOUT THESE ARTISTS
Gina Chavez is an acclaimed Latin pop artist whose work has been featured on National Public Radio. Her latest EP, “La Que Manda,” dropped in May. It is available on streaming platforms or for purchase at ginachavez.com.
Mama Duke is a rapidly rising rapper who’s been making waves on the Austin scene. Her latest single, “Mad,” is available on streaming platforms, and the video is available on YouTube.
Tje Austin is an R&B singer who was featured on the first season of the NBC singing competition “The Voice.” His latest single, “I Can’t Breathe,” written in response to the police killing of George Floyd, is available on streaming platforms.
A second part of this conversation that deals with diversity in the Austin music scene and the full video of the roundtable are available on austin360.com.