Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Gavin Rayna Russom


LCD Soundsystem band member & composer on trans visibility

Gavin Rayna Russom DJs a recent solo set.
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When LCD Soundsystem appeared as musical guest on Saturday Night Live this past May, there was a distinctive shift in the mise en scene. With his 6' 1" frame, graying hair, and lumbering blazer-clad stage presence, founder and frontman James Murphy has always been the band's Dad-dancing visual hallmark.

But during the SNL performances, it was hard to keep from shifting focus to the intense energy emanating from synth-player Gavin Russom, dancing with a sense of abandon.

Abandon, thoughtful and decidedly unreckless, was indeed underway.

"The whole SNL thing was a really interesting moment for me. I wasn't out yet, even to the band," recalls Russom. "But I'd been feeling very uncomfortable presenting as male. I knew that this performance was a high visibility situation. And it was going to be documented, a permanent record. I knew that a year from then, I'd be able to look back and see myself on that night. I realized that the performance had the potential to be a real platform for trans visibility. But as much as I knew it could be a situation for activism, I also needed to feel safe. So there was a lot of nervousness for me. That may have come through in my movement."

Russom changed into a trans rights T-shirt for SNL's closing group shot.

Now, just months later, following years of therapy and time spent with transgender women at home in New York, she introduces herself as Rayna Russom and has opened up as transgender to friends, family and the press.

Currently on a breakneck fall tour with LCD, Russom is experiencing the latest phase of her transition while literally in transit. When Bay Area Reporter reached her by phone, she was in Austin, Texas heading to catch a flight to Detroit.

"It's pretty intense. I find myself tireder than normal. I'm moving forward, but I have to deal with logistical things. Going through airport security over and over and still having to use my legal name is a real identity challenge."

Notions of gender fluidity, and a sense of herself as female, have been on Russom's mind for most of her life. Now 43, she grew up in Providence, close to the open-minded campuses of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

Gavin Rayna Russom

"I come from an academic background and both of my parents are pretty hardcore nerds. So I inevitably have an intellectual bent, and that has value in terms of finding different ways to think about things."

But growing up in a largely progressive, feminist, socially conscious environment added elements of complexity to Russom's path toward transition. The difference between gender roles as a social construct and the personal nature of one's gender identity can be challenging to parse.

"One of the very sad things for me about navigating a transgender experience has been that our culture didn't have a framework for it. Twenty years ago, if you talked about being transsexual, it was taken to mean wanting to change from being a man to being a woman in that society .

"That idea was one of the obstacles I struggled with. I have a letter about it I wrote to my Mom in 1997, after moving to New York with a suitcase full of women's clothes: For 22 years I'd had this very complex inner experience of my gender. To suddenly try to have to subscribe to very traditional societal ideas wasn't working.

"For many years I created instability in my life, through moving, mental health crises, using substances, to avoid the feelings I had. But I do think, largely as a result of work that trans women of color have done, that the way we see trans experience is changing and developing. I can retain the complexity of my own experience, not just becoming a woman, but becoming who I am."

Gavin Rayna Russom (third right) in a promo shot for LCD Soundsystem's Saturday Night Live appearance in May 2017.

In retrospect, Russom believes that her attraction to music as an art form has been closely tied to her evolving understanding of gender. In addition to working sporadically with LCD for more than 15 years, Russom has become well-known in the electronic music world for designing and building electronic synthesizers. She's also released solo work under names including Black Meteoric Star, Black Leotard Front, and Crystal Ark.

"The fascinating thing to me about music," Russom says, "is that it creates structure over time, using sound. A painting has an objective presence in the world. Music is like gender. It only exists within the realm of experience."


LCD Soundsystem performs at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, November 14 & 15. $85 and up. 7:30pm. 99 Grove St.

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