More on celebrity (with a nod to Beth Ditto)

Days after writing my piece about Canadian trans musicians, I was thinking about celebrity and the possibility I didn’t give it the thought it deserved. Because I inherently don’t believe people should idolize celebrities, my first reaction to the CBC piece on Demi Lovato’s coming out as non-binary was contempt. The musicians I was celebrating, however, while not in the Lovato stratosphere, had their own small degree of fame. I wrote about them because I like when trans people get on with their lives and do stuff they’re passionate about, but I was of course also holding them up as a source of inspiration.

As if on cue, I stumbled upon a piece written by musician Beth Ditto which highlighted the lack of nuance in my thinking about celebrity. Ditto grew up in a small town in Arkansas with a Christian college that largely influenced the town’s thinking. When she saw Boy George on MTV – videos that were soon removed when the college pressured the cable company to cancel the channel – she saw possibilities: “I had a tiny window into queerness in my little developing brain. I took those moments and ran with them. They shaped my idea of what gender is and what music is.”

Photo: Sofia Sanchez and Mauro Mongiell / Trunk Archive

I tried to imagine myself in her situation. I grew up in the 1970s. They were very transphobic times and the idea that anyone in music would come out as trans was highly improbable. It was the era of glam rock, of course, but only a fool would think glam rock meant anything to trans people. Perhaps if I had a role model for queerness at the time, I would not now be so dismissive of the power of celebrity. It’s not going to change the world, but if it gives one queer person hope that they can escape their stifling world, then of course it has value.

Ultimately, however, you still have to put in the work. Beth Ditto had to go out and find people like herself. Boy George gave her an insight into possibilities, but she wasn’t fooled by the mirage of celebrity: “The media are giving us breadcrumbs to reflect the change they see in the world or to react to our activism.”

Beth Ditto is a smart woman. Her astute insights are from a book titled We Can Do Better Than This: 35 Voices on the Future of LGBTQ+ Rights, edited by Amelia Abraham. Her chapter is excerpted in an article in The Guardian.