NEW YORK — Lucas Silveira wears his heart on his tattoo sleeve.
The frontman of Toronto rock band The Cliks bares a turbulent tapestry on his arm: a dragon leaping through flames and waves, two guns bearing wide wings, and the word “Survivor.”
“This is all to commemorate what I went through,” says Silveira, who is transgender. He notes that transgender people are more likely to commit suicide than others — and he knows the pain involved: “I went to that place, and I know where that comes from. I felt so lucky that I got through it that this was to commemorate the entire ordeal.”
Silveira is the first out transgender artist to be signed to a high profile label, Tommy Boy’s gay-friendly imprint Silver Label. These days he is trying to build a career as he rebuilds his life as a biological female who identifies as male.
The Cliks were featured on the recent gay-oriented “True Colors Tour,” playing alongside Cyndi Lauper, Erasure and Debbie Harry. This spring they released “Snakehouse,” an emotional, guitar-driven album. Their single “Oh Yeah” spent several weeks atop a musical countdown on Logo, the gay-themed cable network.
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings Performers who defy the status quo face a unique challenge: living up to the hype on an artistic level that their unique identities generate. Sometimes, these acts rely on novelty alone for sales and popularity. Conversely, Silveira hopes his artistry will eventually outshine a gender identity that has become edgy in the pop mainstream.
At first glance the singer, who declines to give his age, looks like a petite tomboy with stylish, cropped locks and thick, lush eyelashes. While shopping for sneakers in downtown Manhattan (“I love shoes, man,” he gushes), salesmen offer him women’s sizes even though he asks for men’s. Silveira knows he looks more female than male; on his records he sounds like it too. He sacrificed the male attributes hormones offer to maintain his singing voice. Instead, he underwent a double mastectomy to feel more comfortable in his skin.
“People are like, ’How opportunistic of you. Is this a gimmick? Do you think it’s stylish to be this way?” he says of skeptics. “And I am like, ’Yeah, I am really, really into having a double mastectomy for fashion.”’
In recent months, the transgender community has gotten a surge of exposure on television (“All My Children,” “Ugly Betty”) and in film (2005’s award winning “Transamerica” and documentaries like “Alexis Arquette: She’s My Brother”). These works have banked on the characters’ transgender experience to draw audiences. However, The Cliks’ work is more vague. They deliver the standard rock fare of emotional songs that express trials that are not transgender so much as they are human.
“I think that authenticity is reflected in their particular single and I can only theorize that is why it has caught on,” says Brian Graden, president of Logo and of entertainment at MTV Networks Music Group. “I don’t think it’s because of any hook of being transgender.”
Graden adds that being transgender is “one of the last frontiers of non-understanding in our culture.” But of late, more people “exploring that subject refused to be coded or denied.”
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Born in Toronto as Lillia, Silveira spent much of his childhood on the small Portuguese island Pico. He moved back to Toronto’s suburbs when he was ten, thriving on pop and then heavy metal. With paper route funds he bought an electric guitar. Struggling with male inclinations, Silveira entered what he dubs his “uber feminine” phase, donning heels, nylons and skirts in an attempt to fit in.
By his early twenties he was a singer/songwriter, doing open mics and solo acoustic gigs and identifying as a lesbian. Back in Toronto, he named his band Lillia and supported his art with government grants and dog walking. Then two years ago, a six-year relationship ended, Silveira’s grandmother died, his father had a stroke and a friend was rediagnosed with cancer. Then, his bandmembers quit.
“I fell apart and I started looking in,” remembers Silveira. And what he found was his true gender identity. “It started coming in dreams and one day I just woke up horrified because I just saw the answer. I had known since I was a kid, but sometimes when the truth is there it’s too scary to deal with and you suppress it. I was like, ’Oh my god, it’s sink or swim.”’
Silveira dived right in — and his music flourished. He formed a new band called The Cliks with drummer Morgan Doctor and bassist Jordan B. Wright. The songs he wrote became harder, louder, and to Silveria, more authentic.
“I just felt I didn’t have to suppress another part of who I was,” says the self-taught musician. “My identity as a female hinged on the fact that I would be tame and feminine and subdued. Coming to terms with the fact that I was trans made me feel more liberated to go to the core of my songwriting and what I loved about music.”
Rosie Lopez, then head of A&R at Tommy Boy Entertainment, heard the shift. An earlier Lillia album left her unmoved but when The Cliks’ record — which includes a cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” — arrived, she signed them. Since the April release of “Snakehouse” Lopez, now vice president, estimates they have shipped 5,000 albums and scanned about 1,200 copies. The label keeps the band touring to connect them with fans. It’s the music, Lopez insists, not Silveira’s gender, that will draw in the most dedicated listeners.
“No one is going to run out and buy this album because of that. That’s the reaction audience. If we try to make this a marketing angle then that is all it is over going to be,” she says of Silveira’s transgender status.
Interestingly, some of the band’s biggest supporters aren’t even aware of Silveira’s identity. Willobee, the operations manager and program director of Albany, N.Y.’s alternative rock station WEQX, saw the band perform at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas this spring. He then began playing them on the radio and added them to the lineup of the station’s upcoming concert.
“When I saw them I was like, wow, they got something here,” says Willobee. “I didn’t know about the transgender thing until two weeks ago! I don’t know if the whole gender identity is going to help or hurt them. ... For me, it doesn’t matter. We are a radio station and all people can hear is the music.”
Silveira understands that he is a pioneer, and that eventually the novelty of his gender will wear off.
“As a human being I feel a responsibility to myself to be who I am,” he says. “I can’t take on this, ’You are the poster child for trans men or trans people’ thing because people in the trans world are totally different. To me, it’s just about acceptance, about things that are different, and being able to normalize that. If I can be out in the world and have people treat me like everybody else, that would be cool.”
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