Tegan and Sara Found Their Root in Queer '90s Movies

The Canadian pop duo share the pop culture that helped them come out and why the new crop of gay TV is so inspiring.

tegan and sara, ani difranco, when night is falling
Design by Mallory Rosten for Thrillist

The Quin twins, Tegan and Sara, have spent a lot of time over the past few years reexamining their youth. First it was for their 2019 memoir High School, for which the two dug out old journals to write. Lately they've been heads-down working on a slightly fictionalized TV adaptation of High School, helmed by their old friend, Happiest Season director Clea DuVall, and penned by Insecure writer Laura Kittrell. Starring TikTok twins Railey and Seazynn Gilliland, the show wrapped filming a few weeks ago and is due out on Amazon's Freevee in the fall. "I can't wait for people to see it. It's really queer, it's really beautiful," Tegan says.

"This is the first time Tegan and I are involved in making something that is related to us and our band and our legacy, but we are not necessarily in the driver's seat," Sara says, who was on set for all but a few days of the three-month shoot. "It's a little bit scary. It's definitely a trust exercise."

It's a new feather in their artists' caps: Since they started making music at 15, they've released nine albums, ranging from scrappy folk punk in their early days, breaking out with the 2007 indie rock record The Con, and naturally evolving into more of a synth-pop band, with their 10th record due out sometime this year. "We had a career where we talked about being queer the whole time, but I didn't always want to have to talk about being queer all the time," Tegan says. "I would prefer to be known as a musician, not a 'queer musician.' I'm happy for people to know I'm queer, but I can do that—you don't need to do that. Especially when you're talking about us in context with other people—the most famous example of this is when Rolling Stone was talking about the best Oscar performances and in our blurb, it said, 'lesbian duo Tegan and Sara performed with The Lonely Island.' And it's like, why did our sexuality have to be brought into it? It's really weird."

It's definitely weird, a nonchalant negligence that downplays their lived experiences wrestling with gender and sexuality, which they detail intimately in High School, and each with their own distinctly different journeys to self-enlightenment and -acceptance. Of course, having a twin helped. As we talk about their earliest queer pop-culture touchpoints, they're graciously open about their ever-shifting understanding of themselves, gush about the movies, musicians, and TV shows they love, and marvel at the newest queer generation.

all over me
'All Over Me' | Full Line Features

Queer '90s cinema

Tegan: For Sara and I obviously growing up in the '90s, there wasn't a ton of gay representation out there, so I think what gay representation collided with us, it sparked joy and excitement and nervousness. We both always joke that our... what's the word, Sara, that you always use about what's your first gay, when you meet somebody—

Sara: Your root?

Tegan: Your root. Our root is Anna Chlumsky from My Girl, that was a big one. And I had a friend who kind of looked like her and was definitely my first crush in third grade. My mom was a social worker, feminist, really alternative, although she kind of had a very typical parent response to us being queer later on in life. She did bring a lot of queer stuff to us because we had queer friends, so I think that she was trying to create a safe space for us. She rented us this movie, When Night Is Falling, which was queer '90s cinema, peak of '90s cinema.

When All Over Me came out in 1997, it was just like, Is it the best movie on Earth? No idea. But did we think it was the best movie on Earth? Absolutely, because there were queer people and there was a queer storyline and it was so profound. Sara and I had such different experiences as queer people. Sara was so tortured about it and I was kind of just excited and then put it off and was awkward about sexuality and sex, so I didn't really want to talk about it. In terms of queer culture, it was very similar but probably had very different impacts on us. I think I'm a deep person. I read a lot, I was raised in the same house as Sara, but Sara's journals are dark and brooding and deep and existential. And mine's like, "Today, me and Sara and dad went and saw Chasing Amy. The movie was so rad. It was awesome. It had a gay story in it, it was so cool."

Openly lesbian musicians

Tegan: When we discovered The Murmurs and Leisha Hailey and heard that she was gay, that was a huge deal. We just listened to The Murmurs because we love them, we love their music. I have no idea if we loved them and loved their music because I can't separate it from how fucking thrilling it was just to know that there was a gay person involved.

Ani DiFranco, same thing. Didn't even question when we discovered her. The fact that she was gay, I didn't feel a desire to hide that I loved her. I didn't feel any uncomfortableness about it. It's a very confusing thing. We were closeted and not ready to come out. A lot of '90s gay people have the same experience. We have this friend who had a huge rainbow flag in his room and when people would ask about it, he was like, "It's about community and joy." We're all the densest gay people on earth because we were so proud of it and we were so excited about it, but we assumed nobody else understood how gay we were. So we're like, "We love Ani."

tegan and sara 2000
Tegan and Sara performing at the Shoreline Amphitheater in October 2000. | Tim Mosenfelder/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Feeling out their gender expression

Sara: To be fair, at that time in culture, I didn't feel like I was radiating queerness. If I was radiating queerness and I was afraid of being caught out as a gay person, then I wouldn't have cut my hair like a boy's haircut, with a single earring, and dressed from the boys' side of the department store. I think I did not understand that the way that I was physically manifesting what was happening for myself in terms of my sexuality and gender expression, I did not necessarily think that those things were being broadcast externally. The disconnect between what I wanted to appear like on the outside and what I was feeling on the inside, I had not made that connection. And I know that for people now, that feels very difficult to comprehend because that is so embodied in social media and our culture now. Everything is about like, "on the outside you're this and that means on the inside you're this."

Back then, if you had asked me, "What is the point of your external appearance?" I would've been like, "To make sure that everyone knows I'm not a fucking straight, square, douchebag, prep person." I was like, "I'm alternative." Why did I dress the way that I did when I was a little kid? Because my dad had short hair and I thought he was cool. I didn't make the connection. Even when I got out of high school and I came out and I was super scared and I was uncomfortable and fumbling through it and closeted in some relationships and out in others, I had no problem basically shaving my head, bleaching my hair, and wearing Teva sandals and a PolarFleece. Everyone was like, "You're so gay looking." And I was like, "Really?"

I didn't see it necessarily as liberation; I project that value or that experience now as a liberated moment. When I watch the video Tegan and I took at 18 years old of our haircut, we went to the salon on our birthday, I think it's a very moving part of our story. And it was certainly a significant and very moving climax to the live show that we did. We showed this video of ourselves being liberated from just so much fucking hair. And we have assigned this as kind of like, "Oh, this was the moment where we really came out." No, I was super still conflicted for years, and it really didn't sink in for me until I probably was 23 or 24 where I was like, "Oh yeah, no, I'm really gay and I'm going to tell everyone and I have to constantly come out because I don't want to be closeted ever." That was a blooming process that took a long time.

Twin solidarity and the comfort of other weirdos

Sara: I think the only thing that saved us from being targeted in that way or singled out in that way was we were not single—Tegan and I were doing it together. And so what could have been, "What is that weird lesbian child doing?" became a trend. We were trendy. We were like, "We're both doing it, so fuck you." We both have short hair, we both wear these weird hammer pants and have one single earring, if you're not into it, you're not cool, you're not in our club.

When I meet people who were queer or figuring out they were queer at that same time, it's really delineated into those two buckets. There were the people who had some other weirdo on the playground, they're like, "Yeah, my friend also did these things and thank God we had each other." And then there's the people who were just like, "Yeah, no, I was truly the only one and I was a freak and everybody made fun of me." And I hate that about humans. I hate that we see the weak, vulnerable outsider and prey on them, whereas I think because there was two of us, we were not as easy to bring down.

Tegan: What's interesting is we have a friend from high school who actually ran a [Gay-Straight Alliance] the last five years. She's a teacher and now a vice principal and she's not queer but obviously hangs out with almost exclusively queer people, but she had really interesting insight about GSAs, which was it's not all the gay kids at school that go to the GSA. In fact, a lot of them don't because for them, whether it's a non-issue or they're uncomfortable, young people have their own process. She's like, "There's kids that have girlfriends or boyfriends and people know about it, and there's some that are still closeted because they feel uncomfortable." I really relate to that. They're just uncomfortable talking about sex so they don't want anyone to know how they feel either way, straight or gay.

And she was like, "The GSA is sort of similar to when we were growing up [with] the drama society." It's kind of where the weirdos go. The kids that are like, "I'm weird and I want to be around other weird people. I don't want to be in the main part of the school. I don't want to hang out with all the straight, preppy people." But things have really changed. I think that you can see it in the pulse of what's happening culturally. There's just so many massive queer and trans artists out there now.The world is changing; look at how many queer shows are getting made. It's a fraction of the culture compared to straight culture, but still, it has changed and it's been exponential in its growth in the last decade. But being an adolescent is gross. Being a teenager feels like shit sometimes. And figuring out who you like, even if you are straight, is awkward as fuck. And a lot of kids don't want to talk about it. But I think the fundamental truth is that just being young is hard, and so figuring out who you are and what you like and what you're into and what culturally matters—that's really, really, really, really hard.

sex education season, Ncuti Gatwa
Jerry Iwu and Ncuti Gatwa in Season 3 of 'Sex Education' | Sam Taylor/Netflix

The new crop of gay TV shows and movies

Tegan: I'm watching the one on HBO, Irma Vep. That's really great. There's so much great queer stuff that's happening and it's so exciting.

Sara: This is going to sound really strange because we just participated in making a memoir and now a TV show about our high school years. But actually, a lot of the content I consume is not... it's nothing against the genre, I haven't watched any of these young queer shows. I've popped in and out, just to familiarize myself, but I find myself watching the more brainy, cerebral adult stuff, like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, just because I feel like my genre of watching is so much more tailored to that.

Tegan: And me too! But I definitely will say that it is really inspiring now making a queer youth TV show. Heartstopper was, I thought, so beautiful and well made. Sex Education blew my mind with how appealing it was to adults—

Sara: Yeah, Sex Education is a nice hybrid of when you have the adult story and the adjacent adolescent story. Those kinds of shows really appeal to me too because they remind me of shows that we would've watched with our parents when we were growing up, like My So-Called Life or Life Goes On. They're slightly mature and they're a little more sophisticated than shows for younger people, but they're still within the realm of being interesting to both sets of people. 

Tegan: Did you watch The Secret Life of College Girls? So fucking good, I loved that. And I will say, I think that show and Happiest Season too, some of these shows are still living in that world where they're talking about being closeted and hiding your sexuality, which I know triggers some queer people because they're just like, "Get over it, why are we still talking about that?" But lots of people are still closeted and are living in the shadows, if you will. And so I think that it's still really cool to see those conversations happening.

This is going to seem real dense, but perhaps now my perspective has changed so much because of my experience making a TV show, but the TV shows for teens are written by adults. Again, to find the parallel to music, it's the same as when people write off Harry Styles because his audience is young or writes off Billie Eilish because her audience is predominantly female. It's absolutely the stupidest argument ever, it doesn't make any sense. First of all, young people are amazing. And if young people like it, I don't know—I was a rad young person. I liked really cool shit and I liked some shitty shit too, but I liked cool shit, so why not trust me? To me, teen shows have that too because they're written by adults so you're having adult thoughts and feelings and opinions and reflections in a show that's aimed at kids. There's the two layers, there's two highways happening at the same time. I think it's really cool, so fuck Sara.

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Leanne Butkovic is a senior entertainment editor at Thrillist, on Twitter @leanbutk.