Kim Petras is not the first trans person to win a Grammy. That title belongs to Wendy Carlos

Wendy Carlos

Kim Petras made history as the first openly trans woman to win a Grammy, but she stands on the shoulders of “transgender legends” – none more so than Wendy Carlos.

Although Petras is certainly the first in many ways, it was actually Wendy Carlos, a trans woman and electronic music pioneer in the 1970s, who first landed a Grammy win for the community.

Born in 1939, the musician studied music and physics at Brown University from 1958-62, then graduated from Columbia University with a master’s degree in music composition before meeting Robert Moog – whose invention of the Moog synthesizer in 1964 changed the course of her life.

The musician won three Grammys in 1970 for her groundbreaking 1968 album Switched On Bach, in which a compilation of Bach’s works was performed on Moog’s groundbreaking instrument.

The electronic album flung the musical invention into the mainstream, and it was soon adopted by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and The Doors among many others.

And Carlos even developed her adaptations closely alongside Moog within the synth movement, finessing the instrument’s filter banks, pitch-sliding controls, and even a touch-sensitive keyboard.

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Alongside this musical revolution, Carlos was going through a transformation of her own: over the course of the decade, she underwent her transition and came out to the world.

Much like many members of the LGBTQ+ community, Carlos first came out to close friends and family as early as 1968. In the public eye, however, she remained closeted, pasting sideburns onto her face for interviews.

This also meant that she was not yet out when she received her prestigious Grammy win.

In 1979, Carlos gave an exclusive interview to Playboy magazine, reflecting on their identity as a trans woman, their relationship with music and more.

“I remember being convinced I was a little girl, not knowing why my parents didn’t see it clearly,” she told the magazine. “I didn’t understand why they insisted on treating me like a little boy”.

Even though Carlos faced many personal hardships, she continued to thrive within her career, contributing to some of the most iconic soundtracks of the second half of the century such as A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.

A Clockwork Orange was a smash hit success and was lauded as a “giant step past the banalities of most contemporary film tracks”.

It was around this time that Carlos began undergoing her physical transition, unbeknownst to Stanley Kubrick. The musician would later joke that the director was so invested in his film that he didn’t even notice anything was different about Carlos, and that even if she showed up to work “stark naked”, he would have simply asked “if she was cold”.

Carlos also explained how she had come across a book by Dr Harry Benjamin called The Transsexual Phenomenon, which helped her confront her suicidal thoughts.

Wendy Carlos in her recording studio in 1979. (Getty)
Wendy Carlos in her recording studio in 1979. (Getty)

“It gave me a little more courage to accept myself and stop suppressing my feelings,” she said at the time. “It provided me with an explanation for all the feelings I had since my earliest memories.”

Despite her musical prowess, her gender identity sadly end did up impacting her career, from being forced to mask her true self to being deadnamed and exploited within the media.

Even within the Playboy exclusive, the profile devolved into problematic stereotypes [asking if she played with dolls and clothing growing up] and intrusive questions about her personal experiences.

Although much of her work prior to coming out was later reprinted to reflect her true name, she did slowly fade from prominence over the decades.

Carlos’ work is also notoriously difficult to read digitally, with only some parts of her various movie soundtracks available on Spotify.

However, in interviews since Playboy, it’s clear that Carlos cares infinitely more about sharing her knowledge of the music industry and her own innovations rather than discussing her identity.

Now in her eighties, Carlos has slowly re-emerged in the public eye, documenting her life and her true passion, music, on her website. More recently, she has been immortalised in a biography of her life by Amanda Sewell.

Her website provides a rare insight into her fascinating life, with countless of in-depth interviews revealing her pioneering musical journey.

Here’s to the trailblazing Wendy Carlos, who shaped both the music industry and perceptions of the trans community for the better.

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