Last year, Tegan and Sara had two milestones in what's already been a more ambitious career than most: They released their eighth studio album, Love You to Death—"a queer pop utopia," as Noisey called it—and they launched the Tegan and Sara Foundation, with a mission to "fight for economic justice, health, and representation for LGBTQ girls and women."
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and tomorrow, VICE and Instagram are teaming up for a panel to discuss challenges queer people face in dealing with mental health issues. Together with Tegan and Sara, the Trevor Project, Julia Kaye (creator of UP and OUT, a webcomic where she's been documenting her gender transition), and Instagram public policy representative Carolyn Merrell, we'll be unpacking how each are using social media to combat stigma surrounding mental health issues, and how we can empower both physical and online communities to deal with them. It will be broadcast live at 8:30 PM EST/5:30 PM PST on @VICE's Instagram. It's all part of Instagram's #HereforYou campaign, which is raising awareness about mental health and resources to find support on the platform.
Ahead of tomorrow's panel, Tegan told us more about the coolest things the Tegan and Sara Foundation has been involved with so far, how they changed the life of an uber-dedicated fan, and how she and Sara are fostering a more positive, empowered fanbase.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: You and Sara have had a prolific career in LGBTQ activism. Can you tell me more about what you've been up to lately? What's been your focus?
Tegan: Yeah, we've been at this a long time. Sometimes I'm like, "Holy crap, like, a really long time." But there's always that undertone of all the things we're going to be talking about: activism, our audience of young people, how they use social media—those have been such big touchstones of what we do and what's made us want to keep making music, because it can get really exhausting. We're eight records in, and it's been almost 20 years. Between touring and traveling and self-promotion, lots of bands can burn out—any job for 20 years can become a lot. So Sara and I set new objectives and goals, we try to keep it fresh. Setting up the foundation was a huge part of how we wanted to change our latest record up.
Between our work with young people and the LGBTQ community and the rest of our career, we're just trying to smoosh it all together and redirect some of our visibility, power, and privilege. And it's been a cool year. I feel like we have two jobs now. It's good, though, because when one becomes too much, there's always the other to push back on, and Sara and I are really lucky because we have each other. We balance the world together.
When we launched the Tegan and Sara Foundation, we spent the entire first year really just educating ourselves, using our touring operation to meet with social justice and LGBTQ organizations around the country, to sit with our audience and think about what our community needs and where the gaps are. We don't want to redo the work that anyone else is doing, and we certainly don't want to steal from organizations that are already working really effectively. But there are gaps. There is so much need in our community—and specifically from people like us, who have access and the ability to get in the door.
What have been some of your proudest moments so far?
When we were on tour, we met with a lot of really great groups; one of the first partners we funded was this really cool organization out of Orlando called the Zebra Coalition. They're an LGBTQ center that provides free counseling on site. We were able to get them a grant right away, which helped a lot of their youth get bus passes and transportation.
But our biggest initiative so far was a hackathon we funded in DC last week, with an organization called Lesbians Who Tech. We came together with 150 innovators across the tech world and pitched apps. I pitched a national mentoring app—I have 20 years of experience in the music industry, and I'd love to mentor a young person getting started in the music business. I don't necessarily want to give eight hours a week, though, so we thought that an app would be a great place to have even just a five-minute conversation.
We're going to talk about this more on Thursday, but you and Sara obviously have a huge, passionate fanbase, with vibrant online communities—how do you guys nourish that community and discourage some of the nastier side effects of online discourse, especially for young people?
Right from the beginning of our career, our fanbase has been really active online—in chatrooms, fan groups, and then into social media. We saw how much support they got from one another—how it was about friendship and music and seeing the world, and we really embraced that and encouraged it.
A few years ago, we started our first fan club, and we called it the Superclose Society, and one of the reasons we did it was for that community. We thought we could use a more streamlined place to communicate with them, with merch items and badges so they could pick one another out at shows. A lot of people who became friends online haven't ever met one another in real life, so we wanted them to be able to organize themselves, because we've heard these tremendous stories.
There was this one woman on our last record cycle who saw us on TV and became a new fan, then she went online, explored, found out a ton about us—and this is a woman who never left her state before. She had never been a social person, she lived in the suburbs, went to work, that was it. Within a year, though, she went to shows on three different continents and had a vibrant, huge group of fans from the Tegan and Sara world that were her closest friends. She was in her 30s and imagined a very small life for herself, and then because of the music and community, she had this incredible growth of confidence and friendship and passion to see the world. It's a very significant thing to encourage this community online, and I hope we're able to do that with the foundation too.
Our mission is always to fight for the things we think are important for our community, but also to amplify positive stories. Often when it comes to LGBTQ stuff, there's a lot of focus on the things that are happening that are sad or bad or wrong or unfair, and I think that's important. But for Sara and I, in order to rise up a new generation of LGBTQ leaders, especially women in our community, we need to amplify positive stories.
Sometimes I hate social media, you know—it can feel like the end of the world. But I hear stories from other bands who hate it too and hate the negativity. We try to amplify positive and empowered things, to encourage community and be sure that we're giving resources to any fans who are struggling. We want them to find a community away from the assholes and TERFs that clog up your feed. Nothing is worse than when I post something and people start commenting and calling people out—I am an advocate for comments, and I do think they are a great place for people to meet, but when I encourage our fans to go on, I say, "Don't argue with each other. These trolls coming on here are not worth it, we don't need it. Amplify the positive messages, respond to the positive messages, ignore the trolls. They'll get bored and go away."