By Sam L. Marcelo
Associate Editor, High Life
To celebrate Pride, BusinessWorld is bringing out an article first published in December 2013 about Tegan and Sara’s first and (to date) only concert in Manila. Excerpts from BusinessWorld’s interview with the twins — who are both gay — are also being published for the first time. While this conversation took place in November 2013, the Quins’ answers remain relevant. Listen to Tegan and Sara as they talk about how a country’s attitude toward sexuality affect where they tour, whether people in the public eye have a responsibility to come out and be more visible, and the propriety of using the stage as a venue to lobby for LGBTQ rights.
Since the time of the interview, Tegan and Sara released Love You To Death, their eighth studio album, and established the Tegan and Sara Foundation, an organization that fights for health, economic justice and representation for LGBTQ girls and women.
[This article was published in BusinessWorld on December 20, 2013]
Asymmetric haircuts were everywhere when Tegan and Sara Quin made a two-day stop in Manila for their first-ever concert in the Philippines. A meet-and-greet with the Canadian twins, organized on the night before their November show, approached boy-band levels of barely contained giddiness. Upon arriving at Greenbelt 5’s Fashion Walk, the Quins were welcomed by tears, requests for hugs and kisses (graciously granted), and camera flashes going off at a blinding rate.
“We show up at this gigantic, beautiful mall and there are hundreds of people screaming and cheering. There’s police and security. They take us backstage and I’m like, what the fuck is going on right now?” said Tegan during a lull in the Quins’ two-hour set in the NBC Tent. “We were like the Backstreet Boys for, like, a minute. We’re like gay One Direction.”
FREAKS, GEEKS, AND QUEEN BEES
The sisters Quin — both 33, both lesbians — are changing the face of mainstream music. Heartthrob, their seventh studio album, has landed on several “Best of 2013” lists collated by influential music publications such as NME, SPIN, and Rolling Stone.
Their breakthrough pop record has allowed the twins to perform with the likes of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, perfectly coiffed queen bees with millions of fans (Twitter popularity comparison: Taylor Swift, 37,000,000+ followers; Katy Perry, 48,000,000+ followers; Tegan and Sara, 383,000+ followers).
They were also invited to the recent Billboard’s Women of the Year awards, where they honored Pink with a cover of “Just Like A Pill.” The Quins showed up in suits and walked the red carpet in Doc Martens. Soon after, they were spotted in New York’s Madison Square Garden — a prestigious venue with a capacity of 18,200 — backing Macklemore in “Same Love,” an anthem for equality.
The self-described awkward geeks — lady-loving ones, at that — have finally been granted a place at the popular table, to the delight of fans who see themselves in the twins and share their victories.
“Heartthrob really opened up that door for us,” said Tegan in an interview that took place in the middle of their Asian tour, which had dates in Malaysia, the Philippines, China, and Hong Kong.
Visiting places for the first time can be tricky for gay artists like them. Tegan admitted they declined a previous offer to go to Malaysia because its laws criminalize homosexuality (Malaysia also issued a fatwa against tomboys in 2008. According to a Reuters report, the Islamic council decreed that tomboyish behavior and lesbian sex are forbidden in Islam): “We felt really uncomfortable about going to a country that didn’t respect gender politics but things are changing.”
“It would be a lie to say that it [a country’s attitude toward LGBT] hasn’t, in the past, impacted where we traveled or where we toured. A big part of that was safety,” said Sara. “When we were considering, say, China five or six years ago, it just didn’t feel right. Now, it feels completely different. We don’t feel any sort of nervousness and that’s indicative of change — while it hasn’t reached the legislative level yet, I do believe that socially, it’s there.”
Tegan, who was nodding along to Sara’s mile-a-minute monologue (both twins are capable of Aaron Sorkin-like hyper-articulation), jumped in: “We also don’t want to punish the fans. We’re invested in exploring more territories. First and foremost, we are musicians and we want to bring our music to as many places as possible.”
When Tegan and Sara started as a duo in 1999, there was no hiding their “difference.” Their music video for “The First,” a spoken-word-esque single from the album This Business of Art, opens with a hedgehog-haired Tegan remarking “This is kind of a boys’ set. Did you know we were girls?” and Sara following up with “Where are all the flowers and shit?”
In the early days of their career — at a time when same-sex marriage wasn’t legal anywhere and Ellen DeGeneres had yet to become the darling of daytime TV — the Quins were open and matter-of-fact about their sexuality. There was no fanfare about it, being gay was like being twins or being Canadian. “We had to accept right away that people were going to know about who we were and we were fine with it,” said Tegan.
“There’s a privilege and a freedom in being ourselves,” Sara added. “I am constantly inspired by the strength of our audience. These are normal people with normal jobs and normal lives who have the strength to come out and be visible. It’s the smallest gesture on our part to be there with them and to stand with them.”
Although the twins are vocal about LGBT rights, they have no desire to shame or bully closeted celebrities into supporting the cause and flying a rainbow flag. “I feel really sad for people who are unable to come out but I think that whatever’s keeping them in the closet — whether it’s safety or vanity or whatever — that’s their battle, not mine,” said Sara. “Although, on a personal level, I do think that if you’re not in danger of getting hurt, it’s important for the LGBT movement to be visible and to be out.”
Their slow climb to fame has allowed the Quins to get used to the idea of being gay icons, roles that were thrust upon them by a queer community desperate for its own heroes. “At 18, 19, 20, I don’t know that I would have been as comfortable with people wanting to talk to us all the time, take photos of us all the time, hug us and kiss us all the time. There was a little bit of coolness — we were still figuring it out. Cognitively, we weren’t even adults yet,” said Sara. “Fame can be such a distortion of ourselves but we’re so fully cemented in who are as people now that…”
“It’s different,” Tegan said, finishing the thought for her sister.
THE STAGE IS A SACRED PLACE
On Nov. 25, hardcore T&S fans were lined up in front of NBC Tent as early as 6 a.m., more than 12 hours before doors opened. Taguig City transformed into a mini Isle of Lesbos, prompting one concert-goer to comment on the abundance of “ladies in plaid.”
About a third of the way into the 21-song set, Tegan shed her jacket and exposed her tattoo-covered arms. Older than Sara by eight minutes, Tegan hammed it up that night, playing to fans who held up signs with statements like “Tegan and Sara saved my life.”
There was a bit of banter, a lot of rocking out, and no soapboxing.
“We’re very conscious of the fact that people buy our records and tickets to our shows to hear music. We tell this funny story of our parents going to see U2 in the late ’80s and coming home and complaining about Bono being too political onstage, especially out of context. He was talking about Irish politics and everybody was, like, ‘what the fuck’,” said Tegan during the interview.
“Our job is to play music. Although the music that we’ve written isn’t political, the foundation of who we are is very much so — being women, being out, being assertive and writing our own music is a political statement. Every time we step out on stage is a political statement. When I look out into our audience, I see a lot of people who need direction — and they want us to speak for them. We do our best.”