Is Kim Petras the First Trans Woman to Win a Grammy? Well, Actually… 

Let’s talk about Wendy Carlos

Sarah Bricker Hunt

When openly trans woman Kim Petras took home a Grammy for best pop duo/group performance alongside openly non-binary queer musician Sam Smith, it was a historic moment. Few openly trans artists have even been nominated, and here was Petras at the podium — the first trans winner!

Except… she actually wasn’t.

Petras herself never made the claim — the German pop singer was quite clear when she said in her acceptance speech that she was the first trans woman to win in the pop duo category, not the “first transgender woman to win [a] Grammy Award,” as The Village Voice (and many other outlets) proclaimed.

The honor actually goes to electronic musician and Moog synthesizer pioneer Wendy Carlos, whose “Switched-On Bach” album took home three Grammy Awards in 1970, for Classical Album of the Year, Best Engineered Recording and Best Classical Performance - Instrumental Soloist or Soloists. In electronic music circles, Carlos is highly regarded as one of the first, and best ever, synth programmers. You might see her referred to as the “Grandmother of Moog.”

At the time of her wins, Wendy was credited as Walter, but was already causing a stir by presenting as her true self. Get this crazy but true anecdote: When Carlos appeared on a BBC program in 1970 to demonstrate the new Moog synthesizer, producers were so uncomfortable with her “crossdressing” that they made her apply fake mutton chops and dress as a cis man.

Nevertheless, she persisted, and when the album was re-pressed a few years later, she was credited as Wendy.

In 1979, the typically media-shy Carlos granted a deeply personal interview to Playboy magazine, describing her early confusion. "I remember being convinced I was a little girl, not knowing why my parents didn't see it clearly. I didn't understand why they insisted on treating me like a little boy," she told the publication.

While “Switched-On Bach” focused on classical music, Carlos found more mainstream success when she composed scores for classic films like “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining” and “Tron.” These days, the 82-year-old musician and amateur astronomy photographer (her photos of eclipses have appeared on the NASA website and on the cover of Sky & Telescope magazine) mostly stays out of the public eye and still lives in her hometown of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Petras (and Smith) certainly deserve their dues, and “Unholy” is a fine pick for best pop duo/group performance. It’s a banger, as the kids say. But while we’re singing praises, let’s not forget to give it up for Wendy Carlos, the badass electronic music pioneer who was busting down doors (and bringing home Grammy Awards) 53 years ago.