Tegan and Sara: ‘Being gay in the music industry was tough and lonely’

Tegan and Sara’s new album, Hey, I’m Just Like You, is made up of songs that the twins wrote before they became famous, when they were teenagers growing up in Calgary, Canada.

Now aged 39 (just – their birthday is September 19), pop’s most famous lesbian twins rediscovered the songs last year and, although they initially thought they’d nostalgically “listen, and then be done with it”, Tegan and Sara took the songs they wrote together more than two decades ago and turned them into their ninth album.

“They were really good. Ahead of their time!” Tegan tells PinkNews over the phone. “There’s just a rawness that comes from being young and not self-conscious yet, not playing for the public yet; we were playing for ourselves, and being really honest and raw.”

About half of the songs on Hey, I’m Just Like You are original melodies – “enduring and raw”, Tegan says – that the pair wrote in the 90, on electric guitar. It wasn’t long afterwards that Tegan and Sara released their debut album, Under Feet Like Ours, and began their journey from bedroom grunge band to mainstream success.

Tegan (right) and Sara perform in the semi-final of Garage Warz, a music competition in Calgary, in 1998.

Tegan tells PinkNews that right from the beginning, she and Sara never hid their sexuality, but that she remembers those early days as a “pretty lonely and tough” era.

“We felt so visibly gay that we just embraced it,” she says. “But then, for the first three or four years it rarely came up [in press interviews] and we got a lot of flack from the LGBT+ community for not talking about being gay in the press.”

“It just didn’t happen naturally,” she explains. “We were 16, 17 when we started talking to the media, and a lot of the journalists were men, so us being gay was something that was really awkward for them to bring up – because talking about sexuality felt like talking about sex.”

What’s really sad, Tegan says, is how much they both internalised this. “People fetishise twins, as well as lesbians, so people steered clear of [asking about] it, as it was still something that was seen as perverse.

“We get a lot of credit for being out, but I think it was a pretty lonely, tough era of our career, because we had to internalise who we were.”

Tegan and Sara as children in Calgary, Canada.

It wasn’t until “social media blew up” that Tegan and Sara found a sense of community in other LGBT+ artists.

“When I think back to that early part of our career, the dominant part of what comes back to me is just loneliness,” she says. “I’m thrilled with how things have changed. It was always there – there was a vibrant scene, we just weren’t connected.”

Today, Tegan says that “the scene has just exploded” and she’s inspired by queer artists like Shura, Nimmo and Muna. But there are still “systemic barriers to queer women in the music industry”, she says.

“And there are also hundreds of religious attempts [in the US] to roll back protections for LGBT+ youth, trans people, queer people of colour,” Tegan says. “They are trying to limit rights and that’s really scary.”

Tegan and Sara first became politically engaged during the (failed) campaign to save gay marriage in California, known as Prop 8.

“Marriage equality in America really ignited our activism and we really started to pay attention,” Tegan says. “As we’ve gotten older, got more political, we started our foundation and started fundraising and speaking out. I don’t necessarily believe in my heart that they’re going to take away rights like marriage equality, but they are trying to limit rights and that is really scary.”

The foundation is one way that Tegan and Sarah advocate for the LGBT+ community – another way in which they try and help comes back to the twins feeling a lack of support in their early days of being famous, and prominently gay, women.

“There’s online community now,” Tegan say. “I try and reach out to other LGBT+ artists, too, to see if they need support. Because we didn’t have that support.”

Hey, I’m Just Like You is released on 27 September.