Eli Conley's Music Opens Spaces to Connect the Queer and Trans Communities

03/16/2015 03:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

One of my favorite blog features, unexpectedly, has been my occasional series of interviews with musicians traveling through Pittsburgh. I'm not a huge live music fan, but I do enjoy the chance to engage performers around issues that matter to my readers. And those encounters have in turn given me a greater appreciation for live music performances. Read my conversation with Joe Stevens and my reflection on Sleater-Kinney.

Eli Conley came to my attention through a conversation with a mutual friend. I was immediately struck by his words and his awareness of the issues that matter to me. Then I listened to his music. I had to talk with him and he was gracious enough to make some time for me.

Sue Kerr: Tell me about your first visit to Pittsburgh and your most vivid impression of our City.

Eli Conley: When I was in college at Oberlin, I spent a lot of time driving back and forth to Pittsburgh because my boyfriend at the time, Noah, lived in Squirrel Hill. One time we were driving together near Duquesne and we got stopped by the police at a drunk driving check point. Noah and I are both trans, and he had only recently started taking testosterone, so a lot of people read him as a teenager even though he was 29. I remember the cop looked at his license and was very surprised to see that he was born in 1977. He asked Noah if he'd started shaving yet! We laughed nervously as we drove away, relieved that the cop had been so surprised at his age that he didn't notice the big "F" for female on his license.

That's the biggest moment that sticks in my mind, but I also remember lots of good times in Pittsburgh. I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but there was a Chinese place right around the corner from where Noah lived that had the best vegan dumplings. I'm going to have to find it when I come back to play in April!

Kerr: Are there any Pittsburgh performers (based here or born here) who influence you?

Conley: I actually just saw an amazing ballet in San Francisco the other day set to the music of Philip Glass. It was called Hummingbird, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, and it was very angular for a ballet. I don't know that I would say my own music is influenced by Philip Glass' compositions directly, but he's certainly had a profound impact on American music as a whole, and that probably seeps in even for roots musicians like me. I'll admit I had to do a little research to answer this question, and I discovered that so many visual artists who I love are from Pittsburgh, including Romare Bearden and Mary Cassatt, as well as queer artists like Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, and of course the writer Gertrude Stein.

Kerr: You mentioned the epidemic of violence against the trans community, especially trans women of color. How does your music contribute to the cultural shift that's necessary to stop the epidemic?

Conley: I'll admit that despite taking part in Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremonies over the past ten years, it has only been in the past couple of months that I have become aware of just how frequently queer and transgender people of color are murdered. That for every name and story I know, there are so many others I don't. Reading the Pittsburgh Lesbian just now in preparation for this interview, I was so saddened to hear that Andre Gray, a Black gay man from Lawrenceville, disappeared in October under troubling circumstances and his family has not been able to find out what happened to him.

Being a white, professional class, trans man means that this is not something I have had to know in my bones. I could choose not to see it if it felt too painful to look. But I see it now.

Queer and transgender people of color have been resisting violence and organizing for liberation for as long as there has been oppression. Black queer activists like #BlackLivesMatter founders Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza and the women of Millennial Activists United in Ferguson are leading the movement to end state violence against Black people. Black queer people and transgender people of color took the podium at the national Creating Change conference recently to demand that mainstream LGBTQ organizations take concrete action to end the murders of LGBTQ people of color. A movement is growing.

I think it's important to remember that we all have a choice. In this moment, will we white LGBTQ folks focus only on the issues that impact us directly? Or will we stand with Black people and other people of color for an end to anti-Black racism and white supremacy in all its forms, understanding that no one is free while others are oppressed?

I think we all have roles we can play in building a more just society, starting where we are. I'm in a trio with two other queer songwriters called Sugar in the Salt, and we've put together several benefit shows for Ferguson organizing. I helped organize a Black Lives Matter singing flash mob in a mall where I live, and I'm working on a song about police violence, the finality of death, and the power of people acting together for justice. It's not done yet, but hopefully it will be by the time I come to Pittsburgh. I believe that the more people who take action, the more the culture will start to shift, and artists are an important part of that.

Kerr: You come from Virginia Appalachian country. Pittsburgh is often described as the "capital of Appalachia" -- do you see any commonalities in terms of LGBTQ culture?

Conley: I grew up in Richmond and Ashland, Virginia, which are in the central part of the state, but my dad's family has been in Appalachia for many generations, so I definitely have deep roots there. I think one thing about LGBTQ culture in smaller places like the small town where I grew up and even smaller cities like Pittsburgh is that LGBTQ people have to learn to connect across difference. I've lived in the Bay Area for the past seven years, and if I wanted to I could attend a gay sci-fi book club, play at a queer open mic and go to a queer dance party every week! There are things about that that are great. I'm very thankful to be able to make my living leading singing classes for LGBTQ people and allies, for example. But it can also lead to insularity and not knowing how to connect with people who are different from you. When I've lived in smaller places, it's caused me to build community with LGBTQ people who are different from me because there just weren't that many of us. And it caused me to build strong relationships with straight people as well. I definitely experienced that visiting my college boyfriend in Pittsburgh, seeing how broad his community was.

Kerr: Joe Stevens was here in September and comedian Ian Harvie has been here twice in the past two years. I think they may have been the first openly trans male performers to book shows here. Whom else in the queer music/performance scene should we book in our local venues (of any size) and why?

Conley: I definitely recommend the band My Gay Banjo from New York/Philly. I think they played in Pittsburgh sometime in the past couple of years, but they're another musical act who are unapologetically gay and unapologetically country. Geo Wyeth is a Black trans musician and performance artist from New York whose music I just adore. Years ago a friend of mine gave me a burned CD of some of his early songs when he was going by the name Novice Theory, and I listen to his newer album Alien Tapes a lot. A couple of other queer performers I love include Imani Henry, Naima Shalhoub, Namoli Brennet, Humble Tripe and Ellis. I encourage you to look them up if you don't already know them!

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Kerr: I'm particularly drawn to the song "When God Sets His Sights On You" -- please tell me more about it.

Conley: I wanted to write a song about the complexities of being a queer kid in the South that didn't give simple answers. I tell the story of a young queer woman and who lives with her single mom. She comes out about having a girlfriend and her mom freaks out because she believes the teachings of her church, that homosexuality comes from being possessed by demons. But before she has a chance to get used to the idea and come around, Jean steals her truck and runs away. The song shows them both grappling with how to reconcile their spirituality with queer sexuality. I think that's a question that a lot of queer people raised in more fundamentalist spiritual traditions have to face -- how can I be true to who I am and stay connected to my tradition, if I still find parts of if resonant? I wasn't personally raised in any particular spiritual tradition, but I grew up around a lot of queer kids who were wrestling with those questions.

Kerr: Who was the first LGBTQ person that you met and how did that impact you?

Conley: Several of my mom's cousins are lesbians. I'm not sure when I actually realized that their "friends" were their partners. It was kind of an open secret in my family. I think everybody knew they were romantic partners. I remember when I was a kid the partners would come to family gatherings, but wouldn't pose in the group family pictures like other people's spouses. I remember being at a family event when I was in my teens and talking with one gay cousin who actually worked for the Washington Blade, which is a gay paper. She teased me about a boy I was friends with and when I told her he was gay, she shushed me. I was hurt. I was hoping that we could connect about being queer, but I think we were from different generations and had different comfort levels with talking about our sexuality around our family. Of course, now she sends me lots of articles about queer stuff. I think my coming out as transgender to my whole family in my early twenties opened up space for us to connect as adults.

The first trans person I knew was actually my high school best friend. I remember being totally amazed that it was possible to identify as a gender other than the one you'd been assigned at birth. He was someone who'd known he was male from the time he was very small, so our experiences were very different. For a long time I compared myself to him and decided I couldn't possibly be trans, because my experience didn't fit with the whole "born in the wrong body" narrative the mainstream media likes to present in the way that his did. But by the end of high school I had started identifying as neither a man nor a woman but genderqueer, and he was one of my staunchest supporters. He was one of the first people to start calling me Eli. I'll always be thankful for his example, helping show me that there were gender possibilities I hadn't dreamed of.

Kerr: Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character in television, film or literature?

Conley: I'd have to say Jess Goldberg. When Leslie Feinberg passed, I re-read Stone Butch Blues and was struck by the power of the story. I love the way it shows Jess making mistakes and learning and striving to hold onto tenderness even through all of the abuse. And I love the way that Leslie wove in threads of so many different social movements of the era, even when Jess Goldberg wasn't actively involved in them. It's really an incredible book.

Kerr: What is one simple thing a reader can do to support the LGBTQ community?

Conley: Find out about people of color-led LGBTQ organizations in your community and volunteer, donate money, support them however you can. One organization you might connect with in Pittsburgh in Project Silk, a program for African-American and Latino young men and African-American and Latina young transgender women between the ages of 13 and 29.

Thank you, Eli, for talking with us. You can learn more about Eli by visiting his website and following him on Facebook. His most recent album, At The Seams, is available for purchase via iTunes and bandcamp.

Eli performs in Pittsburgh on April 15 at Biddle's Escape in the Regent Square neighborhood.