Justin Tranter is "not sure I’d still be alive" without the Chicago Academy for the Arts.
The queer, gender-nonconforming songwriter — known for working with music icons like Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Kesha, Kelly Clarkson, and Demi Lovato — was bullied in public school before transferring to the independent performing arts high school in 1995. There, they found the tools they needed to blossom as a creative as well as find safety as a queer young person.
For these reasons, Tranter is donating $500,000 to their alma mater, as announced at a Friday event at the Academy. "I’m making this donation because I wouldn’t be the songwriter and creative I am today without the Chicago Academy for the Arts. But more importantly, I’m not sure I’d still be alive if it wasn’t for this school," they tell Out.
"The bullying I experienced in public school was a threat to my heart, my mind, and, right before I left, a threat to my actual physical safety," they add. "The Academy provided a community in 1995 that would still be considered a utopia in 2023. It is diverse in every sense of the word. It is loving in every sense of the word. I am nothing without this place."
In addition to supporting the Academy, Tranter hopes their donation sends a message to schools — and the politicians overseeing them — that institutions of learning should create safe spaces for students rather than stigma and censorship.
"Let us exist without fear," Tranter says. "Let us learn about LGBTQ+ history without fear. Let us say gay. And let the bullies know their behavior will not be tolerated. Every anti-LGBTQ+ bill that is put forth by some monster in our government emboldens another batch of hateful crazies to think their hate is justified. Stop using our youth as pawns in your elections."
Tranter also wants to tell the world "that arts education is vital. That safe schools are vital. And that every other Rich Bitch Richie Rich out there should be putting their money where their mouth is. I’m not announcing this donation for clout, I’m doing it to raise awareness for this gem of an institution in the Midwest that deserves a lot more love than it’s getting."
Tranter is a living testament to the power of an arts education. In addition to penning songs for music's biggest names, Tranter is the executive music producer and songwriter of Rise of the Pink Ladies — the Grease prequel series set to debut on Paramount+ in April. Tranter created 30 original songs for the first season.
"Once I read the brilliant Annabel Oaks’ amazing script for the pilot, I harassed everyone I knew to get the job," they confess. "The pink ladies were always my favorite part of Grease, and the origin story she’s created for them is chock-full of Grease-y love while still feeling relevant."
"I’m so grateful to pop music, and always hope to be a part of it. But my early roots are in musical theater, and it’s nice to be back," they add. "Grease has been so impactful because it uses really great pop-rock songs to shine a light on a time when teens were pushing culture forward and causing moral panic for the older generation. And luckily, teens are always doing that. So even though the movie is filled with nostalgia, it always feels current.
And Tranter is dedicated in other ways to giving a platform to young people. Tranter runs their own record label, where they promote other LGBTQ+ artists like Jake Wesley Rogers, an Out100 honoree who last year performed alongside Brandi Carlile at Elton John's Oscars party.
"I’ve been having a blast lately working on Jake Wesley Rogers’s debut album, doing some magical sessions with the iconic up-and-comer Reneé Rapp, and really digging in with new songwriters at my publishing company Facet," Tranter says. "Chasing the megastars is cute, but the next gen of talent is what keeps me going."