INTERVIEW-Bieber's songwriter - LGBT+ school bullying strikes wrong note

by Hugo Greenhalgh | @hugo_greenhalgh | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 15 November 2019 12:00 GMT

Canadian pop singer Justin Bieber (R) performs during his world tour concert in Beijing, China September 29, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

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Justin Tranter co-wrote Sorry as well as hits for Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Selena Gomez

By Hugo Greenhalgh

LONDON, Nov 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Gwen Stefani.

The chart-topping names come thick and fast as Justin Tranter recalls the medley of global hits the U.S. singer-songwriter has written for a roll call of pop stars.

As co-writer of Bieber's mega-hit "Sorry", at one point in 2016, Tranter had three songs in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 of best-selling hits in the United States.

"It was so surreal, I can't really explain it," Tranter said in a phone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Los Angeles.

Yet it has been a long journey to reach the pinnacle of the music business, Tranter said. And not always easy.

"In 2016, I was 35, and I know that is young, but in the music or entertainment business, it's pretty late.

"People, they start counting you out. So for me to finally find that success and to find it in such a crazy big way, it was almost so overwhelming that it's hard to explain."

Sunday marks another landmark for Tranter.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California will present the songwriter with its Bill of Rights award, the first time such an accolade has gone to a gender non-conforming person – or someone who does not dress or act according to gender stereotypes.

For Tranter, 39, who uses the pronouns 'they' and 'them', being gender non-conforming has always been part of life – even before the term became more widespread.

As a founding member of Semi Precious Weapons, a rock band that achieved some success in the noughties, Tranter's stage look was "full make-up, 5-o'clock shadow and 6-inch heels".

It was a look some heterosexual music executives found hard to handle.

"I faced blatant homophobia and transphobia… on the streets all the time," Tranter said. "But in the business it was presented as because, 'We care about you; we are trying to help you succeed.'

"Which is kind of hard to hear that the only way you will succeed is if you be something that you are not."

Justin Tranter. Credit: Christopher Patey

Lady Gaga was a huge fan, as was British supermodel Kate Moss, but the band's success began to falter, and Tranter came close to leaving the music business altogether.

Being "luckily and delusionally positive", Tranter narrowly avoided a switch to shop work and stuck with songs.

A hit written for band Fall Out Boy - "Centuries" - opened doors and Tranter now works regularly with chart-topping stars Selena Gomez and Britney Spears.

Tranter feels at home writing for women.

"I can relate to the feminine strength and the feminine power. But I don't know what it's like to walk down the street as a woman; I have my own experience, which has been met with lots of positives and negatives."

And the negatives began early.

As a child, Tranter had hair ripped out on the school bus and was assaulted at high school.

"In the middle of class, two kids counted down from 10 and when they got to zero, they stabbed me in the neck with two very sharp pencils."

Tranter was the one who ended up in detention.

"The vice principal said to me I should think about what I'm doing to cause this, and that the detention might help me with that," Tranter said.

"So basically telling me to stop being so feminine or so gay – whatever word she would have chosen, that's what I felt she was saying to me."

Tranter recently performed at Spirit Day, an event organised by U.S. LGBT+ media monitoring organisation GLAAD to highlight bullying of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender young people.

"Over 80% of LGBTQ students experience bullying," Tranter said, looking back on the difficulties of youth.

"How life changing Spirit Day would have been to me; to know that during those situations when I was being blamed for my bullying, that there were people out there that supported me, would have changed my entire life in an instance."

(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

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