In the 1960s, a young Columbia graduate met Robert Moog, a man who she would then work with to develop the world’s first commercial synthesizer. This was Wendy Carlos, the first transgender woman in electronic music. She was a two-time Ivy League degree holder by the time she recorded her first album, Switched-On Bach, a record that went on to win three Grammys and sell a million copies. In a Playboy interview, Moog gave Wendy all the credit for the invention- “[Wendy’s deadname] used techniques that had been available for years— but used them better”.
Carlos publicly came out as transgender and spoke of her recent gender reaffirmation surgery in the same interview. She had dealt with gender dysphoria and suicidal ideation for years before she could finally live authentically. Although this was a remarkable announcement to make at a time when queer discourse was mostly limited to within the community, she was surprised at how tolerant the general public was, remarking, “There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place. It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life.”
Years later, queer artists in the electronic music industry think of Carlos as something of a trailblazer, someone who answered invasive and hurtful questions so they wouldn’t have to. Lorelei Kretsinger, co-founder of Un/Tuck, the queer and transgender music collective, holds that there is an “interesting tie” between electronic music and trans and non-binary identities. Indeed, the history between trans identities and the synthesizer has also been pointed out by Shonalika, one half of the two-piece trans synthpop band, Powderpaint. Kiran Gandhi, a POC electronic music artist and activist in Los Angeles, credits Carlos for paving the way for other marginalized creators. “[Wendy Carlos] made folks who are booking festivals more intentional about reaching out to gender-nonconforming and queer folks…that I don’t think would have happened had she not been one of the biggest contributors to electronic music,” Kiran spoke to NewNowNext magazine.
Being the first transgender person in any field is more evolutionary than it might appear on the surface. In her Playboy interview, Wendy explained what it means to be trans-sexual (to an interviewer, who, bear in mind, could very well have done their own research) and why the label ‘transgender’ is better applicable to her. Trans people have had to explain the very basics of our identities time after time to people who had access enough to resources to know better. Her answers and patience helped make space in public discourse for queer artists who came after her. In fact, she spoke of how the stories of famous trans people who came out in the public eye before her, such as Christine Jorgensen, helped her make sense of her own experiences. It’s interesting to think how she might have played a similar role in the lives of other queer persons.
Perhaps that is part of why community elders are given a great deal of respect within the trans community. They fight so that our resistance is less unwelcome. Their gender nonconformity in the streets helps ours blend into the crowd better. They share their experiences so that we can have the vocabulary to understand our own.
It’s not an exaggeration by any means to say that Wendy Carlos changed the face of synth pop, whether she ever planned to, or not. When remembering her brilliant inventions, we must also remember that society’s norms made it almost impossible for her to succeed, or even continue to live. Trans erasive history would like exactly the opposite- to take the talents and labours of persons from marginalized communities in isolation from their identities. Regardless, we will continue to find pieces of our own selves in their stories.