Pamela Littky/WBR

How Tegan And Sara Turned Heartbreak Into A Foundation For LGBT Girls And Women

Jen Richards goes beyond the music with pop's twin powerhouses.

Tegan can talk.

I’m seated across from her at Cliff’s Edge, a spot in Silver Lake with the kind of hard-to-find entrance that cements its coolness. At least I think it’s Tegan.

Before I left, I googled “How to tell Tegan and Sara apart,” and found a visual guide full of helpful tips for spotting differences in hair, piercings, tattoos, and wardrobe. And yet I still got confused when Sara came to say hello—because I thought I had just been talking to her.

As it turns out there’s a much simpler way to tell them apart: If she’s talking, a lot, it’s probably Tegan.

TORONTO, ON - JUNE 19:  Tegan and Sara pose in the press room at the 2016 iHeartRADIO MuchMusic Video Awards at MuchMusic HQ on June 19, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Sonia Recchia/Getty Images)
Sonia Recchia/Getty Images

I’m with about two dozen other people casually chatting and eating on a cozy back patio. Mostly women, mostly queer. Artists, academics, nonprofit leaders, a veritable “who’s who” of people unburdened by celebrity, but adored for their work. That is, my people. I’d normally be coming alive in a space like this, but after weeks of unusual grey and rain in Los Angeles, I’m nursing a cold and my normally Olympic level conversational skills are being challenged.

Or maybe Tegan is my match.

It’s a pre-convening dinner, but I confess to Tegan that I don’t know what we’re convening about. I know I’ll be on a panel with her and Sara, to discuss representation of queer women in media, but little more than that. She tells me, with enthusiasm and comprehensive detail, all about the genesis, planning, and launch of The Tegan and Sara Foundation.

I’m impressed. Deeply impressed. This was no casual celebrity involvement with a pet cause. The sisters did their homework, met with leaders in the fields, and proceeded slowly. The convening was the culmination of that process, a chance for the community they want to work with to come together and start the long work of solidarity.

I had a chance to talk with Tegan more while she was on the road for the duo’s “Love To Death” tour.

What prompted the idea of launching a foundation?

Tegan: LGBTQ rights and activism have always been a focus. When Canada passed marriage equality, we were in our early 20s and not really thinking about things like marriage or adoption rights. Oh to be young!

But when California passed Proposition 8 in 2008 we, like so many, were horrified and heartbroken. By then, we were in serious relationships with Americans, and had so many friends in America. To see our partners and friends be actively stripped of their rights truly activated us in a big way.

We realized during the last few years that a foundation would allow us to raise more money than we could with our standard “t-shirt drive” type fundraising. With a foundation, we can also make sure that the funds and programs are reaching people in who need support.

You often hear that people want politics out of their art, but it seems like those complaints almost always come from people who aren’t negatively affected by the political climate. Were you ever concerned about possibly alienating fans?

We were aware that was a possibility, but the pros vastly outweighed the cons.

Throughout our career, our audience has been so great. They keep us motivated to continue fighting for LGBTQ equality. We hear their questions, concerns, aspirations and hope; and we share many of them. We had the luxury of building our audience the old-fashioned way, one fan at a time. I think, for them, it’s just a big part of who we ar—that coupling of music, art, politics.

But regardless of the reaction from the public, we have always felt a responsibility to speak up for those without power, privilege, or a platform. We just lucked out that the people listening to us and supporting us get it.

SEATTLE, WA - NOVEMBER 11:  Tegan Quin (L) and Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara perform on stage at the Paramount Theatre on November 11, 2014 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images)
Mat Hayward/Getty Images

You’ve written that the foundation’s mission is “to fight for economic justice, health, and representation for LGBTQ girls and women.” How did you arrive at those three areas?

Before we launched The Tegan and Sara Foundation, we used the first half of 2016 to better understand the challenges within the community and what our foundation’s role would be. The data and conversations showed us that LGBTQ girls and women are underfunded, underrepresented, and under-researched.

The barriers we hope to address are areas that many don’t think about or take for granted; for example, the discrimination LGBTQ girls and women experience at concerts, while watching television, or trying to get a checkup. We want to see studios promote positive storylines and narratives for LGBTQ girls and women, because there are badass LGBTQ women in history and today. Let’s tell those stories!

We want to see every doctor in the U.S. and Canada know what questions to ask, and use the correct pronouns when speaking to their patients. We want to see LGBTQ women bring their significant others to company holiday parties without fear of losing their jobs.

I was happily surprised that both the convening and your website acknowledge the disproportionate impact these issues have on women of color and transgender women. Was that something you learned as you started talking to people working in social justice, or was this an issue you were already encountering on the road or in your lives?

It was a little of both. I think on one hand we had, or thought we did, an understanding of what the community needed, or was facing. But looking at statistics or reading the news is not the same as sitting in the company of community organizers and activists who work in social justice every day. It became overwhelmingly clear that women of color and transgender women were the most marginalized and there was no question that our focus needed to center them.

I know the foundation just launched, but do you have an idea of how the money will be spent? For example, will it fund other initiatives? Start its own? Give out grants?

It’s still early, but we hope to start announcing partnerships and initiatives soon. Specifically though, donations to the organization fund programs centered on research, public education, support services to build long-term well-being, and advocacy.

How involved will you and Sara be?

We are very hands on. When we took this on, we realized that it was going to be a lot of work. We take it very seriously. We joke that we might have to break up the band there is so much work to do with the foundation!

tegan and sara
Getty Images

Despite being in its infancy, the Tegan and Sara Foundation has already undertaken an impressive list of efforts.

* Brought together influential LGBT women in technology, government, entertainment, finance, other industries to develop a coordinated plan for equality in economic status, health, and representation in 2017.

* Partnered with Zebra Coalition and the Orlando LGBTQ Center to expand their counseling services in response to recent spikes in calls to suicide hotlines by young LGBT people.

* Rallied against anti-LGBT legislation in North Carolina by supporting Equality North Carolina

* Educated concertgoers with materials about healthcare options for LGBT women and had partners on-site to answer questions

* Hosted LGBT youth at performances in Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Orlando and other cities.

While it would be a great gain to the world of social justice for Tegan and Sara to become fulltime activists, let’s hope they keep making fun music we can all happily dance and sing along to.

With all the work ahead of us, we’re going to need it.

Jen Richards is a Los Angeles-based writer, actor and producer.