An interview with Tegan and Sara

Inspiring a generation of LGBTQ+ and feminist fans at home and abroad

By CMHR Curatorial Team
Published: December 18, 2023 Updated: February 16, 2024

Two people with long hair in high ponytails wearing winter coats pose in the corner of a grey-painted brick room. Partially obscured.

Photo: Red Light Management, photography by Pamela Littky

Story text

Tegan Quin and Sara Quin, identical twin sisters hailing from Calgary, Alberta, have been performing together as Tegan and Sara for more than 25 years. 

Together, they have produced ten studio albums and won numerous awards, including three Junos and two GLAAD Media Awards. They have also been nominated for two Polaris Prize awards and one Grammy. Since the beginning of their careers, the sisters have openly identified as queer and as such, their music has motivated, encouraged and inspired a generation of LGBTQ+ and feminist fans at home and abroad.

They’ve toured extensively, performed at some of the largest music festivals in the world and were featured in Amnesty International’s Bringing Human Rights Home concert. In recent years, the two have expanded their creative outlets beyond music, co‐authoring a graphic novel about their middle school years, Junior High (2023), as well as a memoir about their high school experience High School (2020), which was adapted into a television series. To help honour, support and give back to their community, they created the Tegan and Sara Foundation, an organization that supports women and girls within the LGBTQ+ community. 

In this exhibition, we wanted to shine some light on Tegan and Sara for their work in speaking out on contemporary LGBTQ+ issues throughout their career, challenging narratives and giving visibility to queer artists. We asked them to reflect upon earlier experiences in the music industry and how they remained focused on human rights issues, activism and the important work of their foundation. They start out by telling us about the artifacts they chose to be included in Beyond the Beat: Music of Resistance and Change.

A question for Tegan: Thank you for lending the CMHR the jacket you wore in the “U‑Turn” video. What can you tell us about this jacket? Who designed it? How is it significant to the song and video?

We collaborated with the incredible musician, designer and visual artist Seth Bogart to make “U‑Turn.” We were thrilled to get to step inside Seth's wacky world. As the director, Seth was the mastermind behind the music video and was the one who suggested that super genius, artist, and designer Peggy Noland hand‐paint our leather jackets for the video! Seth was passionate the video be colourful and cartoon‐like. Similar to his style, he wanted the video to feel eccentric. And he based our make‐up in the video on the cover of Love You to Death!

A question for Sara: We really appreciate you lending us your air organ. Can you explain how you acquired it? How have you used it during your career?

I moved to Montreal in January 2003. It was an especially frigid time in the city and snowbanks lined the streets. It wasn't uncommon to see black garbage bags, or pieces of broken furniture sprouting out of the tops. One evening, I spied a plastic air organ amidst other discarded objects outside of a Salvation Army in NDG [Notre‐Dame‐de‐Grâce]. I pulled the instrument free from the mound of snow by its frayed electrical cord and boarded the metro. In my dingy one‐bedroom apartment, I carefully wrapped the cord in electrical tape, plugged it in, and turned the knob. It worked! I had written a number of songs for our new album, but the organ inspired a round of demos that immediately stood out from the others. The melancholic, plasticized sound it produced, seemed to match the turmoil of a recent, tortured love affair. I brought the organ with me to Vancouver in the spring and used it frequently during the recording of our seminal album, So Jealous. I attempted to include it in the live show, but it was finicky and was too cherished an object to risk further damage.

How have human rights issues impacted your career?

Tegan and Sara: Growing up, our mom was very political and invested in social justice. She worked at different social agencies, as a social worker, so we grew up with a deep understanding of human rights. She took us to pro‐choice marches, Take Back The Night and other rallies from a young age. It felt very natural when we started our career to continue her work in our own. As our profile has grown, our investment in causes that matter to us has too. As women, and queer people we have fought tirelessly to raise awareness and money for LGBTQ+ organizations and women's issues.

Two people wearing white shirts and black blazers pose against a black-painted cinderblock wall.
Photo: Pamela Littky

One of the major themes on your latest record Crybaby is empowerment, especially in how it relates to being vulnerable. Can you expand on that? What is the intersection between vulnerability and empowerment in your music?

Tegan: I hoped by naming our album Crybaby we could reappropriate the word to have a new meaning. When I see a young child cry or have a meltdown at the airport, to me it looks quite empowered. To be so in touch with your feelings feels like a gift. As adults, we stuff and bury and ignore so many of our complicated feelings and emotions. As a musician, I am encouraged to write about my feelings and emotions. Some of my sadder and more tortured work has been rewarded with more listeners and support. So, not unlike a child, I feel quite empowered to explore the darker, more complicated emotions I have, and write about them. And in doing so, I end up having a lot of feelings. I don’t often have a meltdown in the airport, or cry openly in public, but pouring my heart out on an album is the adult equivalent, and I think being a crybaby is a sign of strength.

In interviews, you have both spoken about the misogyny and homophobia you have experienced as musicians. In what ways have you addressed these issues? In general terms, how do you feel the music industry is responding to misogyny and homophobia at present?

Tegan and Sara: We have always been super outspoken in our press and interviews about what we have experienced. We certainly never ignored the outright misogyny and homophobia we experienced. Sometimes people responded, amended, or apologized for these incidents. Sometimes not. We have called out the press, radio stations, and our label when it was necessary to do so. And even if they didn’t retract things, I think we were part of a wave of artists that stood up for ourselves to insist on better and more fair treatment. 

We have also encouraged other artists and been mentors to countless young queer women coming up in the industry to do the same. We have called out institutions like the Junos and The Grammys publicly for having so few women nominated in technical roles, and major categories. We pledged to have at least 50% of our team on the road to be women and to always strive to have women in technical roles. We pushed others in our position to do the same. 

I feel like it’s slowly changing. We launched the Tegan and Sara Foundation to access more funds and redistribute our wealth to LGBTQ+ organizations raising up the most vulnerable in the community. And twenty‐three years later we just continue to advocate for change and equality in the music business. I think it is changing. Slowly. I think the old guard is dying off, retiring or adapting to the new world, and the press and industry are getting better. It’s changed a lot. For sure. It’s not fixed. But it’s better than it was when we launched our band in 1998. That’s for sure.

Two people with medium-long hair pose against a black backdrop. One wears a black sweater with a white sheep on the front, the other wears a white sweater with a blue mermaid.
Photograph by: Eluvier Acosta

Early on in your career, was it common for music journalists to ask you about your sexuality or was this something that they avoided? Was being open about your sexuality always important to you? How do you feel you’ve contributed to queer representation in media and music?

Tegan: I don’t feel many people avoid asking about our personal lives, or sexuality. But in the first ten years of our career, there was an awkwardness to talking about sexuality and identity that I don’t feel now. On both sides. I’d also be remiss not to point out that a lot of journalists – especially when we first started out – were more interested in understanding us as twins, and sisters and so many of our early interviews had more to do with the sibling rivalry they saw, or wanted to see, and less to do with our sexuality. 

I think we were awkward talking about our identity early on, as we were just teenagers. And the majority of journalists we spoke to were men in their 40s and 50s. It felt weird to talk about our girlfriends, or how we felt about coming out with them. That really started to change between 2010–2014. I remember tracking that we started to talk to a lot more women, queer people and younger folks then. Or at least people closer in age to us. 

The press started to talk more openly about LGBTQ+ rights as Prop 8 was just such a huge part of the conversation in America then. I think from day one we never lied or covered up who we were, but like anyone else, it took time to grow into our role and to get comfortable talking about who we were. We never felt comfortable representing ALL LGBTQ+ people. We were aware that our experience was ours, and that we couldn’t possibly speak for everyone. So I think even now, though we appreciate that so many young artists, fans, and people we speak to are open about how much influence we had on them, and how much change they felt we were a part of inspiring, the truth is, we were just doing what we had to do to have a career and be ourselves. 

I’m grateful we had so much support, and grateful for the many LGBTQ+ artists who were there before us, and around us when we were coming up. We worked together to make change. We were just a small part of that.

Two people with long hair in high ponytails side by side. One wears a black and white patterned shirt under a black leather jacket, the other wears a solid black shirt under a black-and-white patterned jacket.
Photograph by: Eluvier Acosta

Why is activism important to you? Do you consider it an extension of your music? 

Tegan and Sara: We have one life. We are not all born equal. Opportunity is not something we are all given. We have always been committed to helping, giving back, and fighting for what is fair and right. We were raised that way. We still believe in that now. As a band, we have a platform, and an audience, and the ability to help, so we do. 

With the onset of social media – which we hated from the start – we saw the only positives being that we would be able to speak to our audience directly, and we would be able to share our platform and raise awareness for things we cared about. While our music has never been political, we believe that standing on stage and being open about who we are and what we believe for twenty‐five years was a form of activism. 

Were there other musicians and artists whose activism inspired you? 

Tegan and Sara: We grew up in Calgary in the 90s. The punk scene was vibrant then. We would go to shows on the weekend and entry was canned food. Food Not Bombs was the first organization I remember “discovering” as a teenager and that was my first opportunity to see that music and activism went together. We loved Ani DiFranco in our teens and she was so outspoken, which inspired us. We loved Nirvana and the alternative music scene and understood they were all political and cared about human rights, so we automatically assumed responsibility when we became professional musicians. 

Two people with long hair in high ponytails pose against a beige backdrop and sit on a pale lavender coloured floor.
Photograph by: Eluvier Acosta

What led you to establish the Tegan and Sara Foundation? 

Tegan and Sara: After the success of Heartthrob, our sixth studio album, we were asked to help raise money a lot. The variety of organizations and causes was overwhelming. As we prepared our seventh album – Love You To Death – we started to talk about a way to give back with more efficiency and focus. Through a series of meetings with a team that helped artists like us create foundations, we decided to launch our own foundation with a focus on improving the lives of women and girls in the LGBTQ+ community. 

Organizations that focused on raising funds for women and girls were underfunded and underrepresented and we thought we could help raise awareness and funds. We also commit $1 from every concert ticket we sold to the foundation. While many different kinds of people have supported us, we felt the LGBTQ+ community had been a massive support to our career, and this was our way to give back.

Tell us about your foundation. What support does it provide LGBTQ+ women and girls?

Tegan and Sara: The Tegan and Sara Foundation’s mission is to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ women and girls. This mission is founded on a commitment to feminism and racial, social and gender justice. This work is critically important because LGBTQ+ women and girls face greater socioeconomic and health disadvantages compared to their male, heterosexual and cisgender counterparts. 

The Foundation raises awareness and funds, fights for equality and justice through our flagship programming and supports of grassroots organizations, activists and communities that often go unrecognized by major funding institutions. Some of our favourite programs are: 

LGBTQ+ Summer Camps! We sent over 100 kids to LGBTQ+ summer camps each year. 

Queer Health! We helped launch a healthcare directory for LGBTQ+ health practitioners and patients to find quality, competent healthcare! 

Community Grants! We move money quickly and efficiently to fund small grassroots LGBTQ+ organizations that are focusing on the areas of the LGBTQ+ community that need it most. 

Two people with long hair in high ponytails. One stands behind the other and leans on their shoulders, wearing a black and white patterned shirt under a black leather jacket. In front, the other wears a solid black shirt under a black-and-white patterned jacket.
Photograph by: Eluvier Acosta

Dive Deeper

Stories that move us Beyond the Beat

Historical and contemporary stories of how music, musicians and audiences move society towards greater justice.

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Beyond the Beat: Music of Resistance and Change

Music can be a powerful force for social and political change. Explore stories of artists who have used their voices and platforms to advance causes and advocate for change.

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Suggested citation

Suggested citation : CMHR Curatorial Team. “An interview with Tegan and Sara.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Published December 18, 2023. Updated: February 16, 2024.