Award-winning singer-songwriter, actor, writer, LGBTQ+ activist, and motivational speaker, Ryan Cassata began his musical career aged just 13 and has since released seven critically-acclaimed albums. His video for Daughter, a powerful and moving song about his transition and his transformed relationship with his father, has racked up over 1.4 million views on YouTube, and over 1 million streams on Spotify.
Ryan was the focus of the 2014 documentary Songs for Alexis, and co-starred in the 2016 indie Collective: Unconscious, which premiered at SXSW and landed him with a Best Breakout Performance award from the Victoria Independent Film Festival. Last year, Ryan starred as Jalin in Outfest’s Closing night film Two Eyes opposite trans non-binary trailblazer Kate Bornstein and appeared in the Billy Tipton documentary No Ordinary Man directed by Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, and co-written by Amos Mac.
Now 27, Ryan’s work as an activist, trans advocate, and public speaker began as a teenager in and around his hometown of Long Island, New York after joining The Safe Schools Team. He went on to become the youngest keynote speaker at the Philadelphia Trans Heath conference, was the first ever recipient of the Harvey Milk Memorial Award and has been recognized by the United States Congress.
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Ryan Cassata about his latest single, I Met Jesus at the Gay Pride Parade (released today, Friday March 12th), how his queer and trans identities come through in his music, working with Kate Bornstein, the importance of sharing trans history, the music that’s got him through tough times, and his favourite LGBTQ+ culture.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Tell us a little about how you first got into music. How did it first manifest itself in your life?
Ryan Cassata: “Music has always been a part of my life thanks to my mom always having the classic rock station on in our house. I have great memories of singing and dancing to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and more. I started to play guitar when I was around six-years-old after begging my parents for guitar lessons.”
How do you express your identity in your music?
“My music has always been my truth. It is an extension of my soul, poured out, ready for anyone to listen to. My identity has come through in many songs, not just as a queer and trans person but also as a sober person, a son, a friend, a performer, a student, and more. I write about my personal experience—most of the time—so my music feels like my identity.”
Who are the musical artists you most admire or who inspire you?
“Currently, I am very inspired by Justin Bieber and Bruce Springsteen. Two very different artists I know, but they both have catchy songs and a whole lot of charisma.”
Have any particular albums or artists helped to get you through tough times?
“The album that gets me through tough time is Something To Write Home About by The Get Up Kids. It’s been my go-to since I was a young teenager. It has successfully gotten me through every heartbreak.”
I love your new song, I Met Jesus at the Gay Pride Parade, what inspired it and what did you want to say with it?
“I wrote the song because I see so many Christians using the image and name of Jesus as a vehicle to justify hatred. I believe that Jesus Christ would have welcomed all at his table. That includes his trans and queer siblings. I was inspired to write the song after the insurrection at the United States Capitol. How sad is it that people are using religion to justify hate? That feeling is what inspired me. I would say it’s more of a protest song than a religious song. It’s about spreading peace and love. It’s about creating community. It’s about being welcoming.”
How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t heard it yet and did you collaborate with anyone on it you’d like to mention?
“It’s an acoustic folk protest song that advocates for the marginalized and oppressed. I wrote and recorded the song, lyrics and music. Jason Hiller helped to mix and master it.”
Last month you released Steadfast Love which is really beautiful, when did you write it?
“I wrote this song during my first week in graduate school. I am in seminary studying transformative leadership and theology in hopes to become a better activist plus work in ministry one day. Some of the song is from Psalm 94:16.”
“I would say it’s an acoustic lullaby sounding song. It is meant to feel raw and authentic, but also calming and peaceful.”
Last year we got to see you in Two Eyes, which you were fantastic in. Why was it a film that you wanted to be part of and what was the experience of working with Kate Bornstein like? Was she someone you’d known about before the film?
“Thanks so much for the five star review by the way! I wanted to be part of the film because when Travis Fine sent me the script I saw my younger self in the story. It felt like I could honor where I came from. I loved the script and wanted to be part of the beauty and magic. It was an incredible experience.”
“Working with Kate was so much fun and she is so easy to work with. We had a lot of very intense scenes and we always took a moment to pause together either by touching hands or by hugging. It was a magical experience. I’ve known Kate throughout my entire transition. She is a legend in the trans community and to anyone reading, if you haven’t heard of her yet, you should! Go read Gender Outlaw. The book is life changing!”
You pick your films well because you were also in the fantastic documentary No Ordinary Man which reframes and reclaims the story of trans masculine jazz musician Billy Tipton. Why was it something that you wanted to be involved in?
“Transgender history is extremely important to me and needs to be preserved. If we don’t preserve it who will? I am willing to do, mostly, anything to help preserve our community’s rich history. The documentary film honors and remembers Billy Tipton. I really hope we see more documentary films popping up about trans history.”
As an activist what currently concerns you the most for trans folks and what would you like to see the larger LGBTQ+ community and allies do to support trans and gender diverse folks?
“The violence that the transgender community faces, especially trans women of color, is what concerns me the most. It’s dangerous still. We need solidarity, we need policy change, we need shifts in thinking, so we can have the safety that we deserve.”
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“I’m going to have to say Rent. I saw it when I was 13 in New York on Broadway. I think that was the first time that I saw the LGBTQ Community in lights. My queer friends and I had memorized all the songs and would constantly be singing them.”
By James Kleinmann
Join Ryan Cassata, along with Skylar Kergil and Niko Storment for a special Zoom on Transgender Day of Visibility March 31st 2021 to celebrate the lives and accomplishments of the Transgender, Gender Non-Conforming and Intersex Community through performance and conversation. Email: TDOV@trans.health for Zoom information and sign up on Eventbrite.