Punking Gender

By Tyler Adams

Between the seven-billion-plus of us on this planet, we’ve managed to come up with a pretty sizeable range of ways to oppress each other. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, classism, homophobia, downright ignorance — the list goes on.

Thankfully, we’ve also managed to come up with a pretty sizeable range of ways to fight it — and one of those ways is punk. From Afro-punk to riot grrl, today’s punk is the inheritor of a proud genre that sonically developed based on a lot of noise and yelling — generally quite intimidating tactics, and with good reason.

Punk, in part, exists because the world sucks in a lot of ways and people are angry about it. The consensus that vocal cords and e-petitions alone can only go so far in fighting back is actually very ideologically inclusive.

The ethos of punk today is built on concepts of community, equality, and a pushback against the establishment, whether that means #GirlsAgainst, a collective focussed on making gigs safe and  spaces for all women, or protesting the unethical meat and dairy industry by becoming vegan.

Sadly, like the rest of the world, punk communities aren’t always so idyllic — a fact brought sharply to the attention of the music world in October, when all-male shoegaze band Whirr targeted trans-feminist punk band G.L.O.S.S with nothing other than some good ol’ small-minded transphobic tweets pertaining to lead singer Sadie Switchblade’s gender identity, for example: “misogyny is hating women. g.l.o.s.s. Is just a bunch of boys running around in panties making shitty music” and “My mom committed suicide why can’t all these trans kids get it right?”

Whirr’s label, Run for Cover Records, responded by dropping the band entirely. “We will not be working with Whirr from this point on and do not support that behaviour in anyway,” they tweeted. “G.L.O.S.S. is awesome and crucially important and we need more bands like them.” Violence — whether from thumbs tapping on an iPhone or fists smashing into a face — is nothing new to many trans or gender nonconforming members of the community. According to a December 2014 report by The Guardian, the Metropolitan Police saw offences against transgender people soar by 44 percent in 2014, with 95 crimes reported – up from 66 last year. Nearly a dozen other police forms around the country reported similar rises in transphobic hate crimes in the past year.

Punk communities are no exceptions to this transphobia and misogyny. Punk trans and cis women experience harassment daily, from being mansplained to by sound engineers to being sexually assaulted and objectified.

For musicians, the challenges of gender-based discrimination and violence are particularly acute: taking on the role of the performer often almost veers into becoming a musical object for the audience. More often that not, all the audience knows of the artist is their musicianship and their physicality — which is hard enough for cis musicians, such as Lauren Mayberry, Grimes, and Kate Nash, who have spoken out against the physical objectification that all too often seems to come hand in hand with being a musician who identifies as female.

Only thirty years ago, The Runaways, an all-female punk band, got a spotlight in music magazine Crawdaddy. The reporter who profiled them wrote that after seeing them perform ‘Cherry Bomb’, the band’s biggest song, he was “overcome with the urge to jack off against the stage”.

Being “too feminine” in an overwhelmingly masculine space is undoubtedly challenging enough — but being neither accepted by hyper-feminine female beauty standards nor hyper-masculine male beauty standards makes existing within very aggressively male-dominated spaces even more difficult for many trans musicians and fans.

“Punks like me, and those unlike me – punks of colour, working class punks, disabled punks – struggle to get what most men in our scene are all-but automatically granted: not just power, but meaning,” trans musician Alyssa Kai wrote in a 2014 Guardian piece.

“They get to be their whole, authentic selves on stage and off, they get to decide what’s punk, they get to ‘let’ the rest of us in. To break into their scene doesn’t feel like a success; rather, it feels like being given permission to play along when I shouldn’t have needed to ask. Not in punk – and not anywhere.”

The greatest irony of all is, though, how much of the punk movement is built on defying society’s expectations — which is to say, pretty much all of it. Punk is about recognizing what society expects of you and saying “fuck that” — whether it’s getting a 9-5 job, buying into consumerist culture, or not expressing your true self. When your true self is radically different from one you were assigned at birth, one you had no control over, taking control back and saying “fuck that” to a society ridiculously polarised by gender is one of the most punk things of all.

“I liked that punk was about fighting back, as opposed to just taking it,” Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of punk band Against Me! told Cosmopolitan this year, in an interview discussing her transition at the age of thirty-one.

But it’s not just the foundations of punk which have such a long-running relationship with trans issues, whether personal or political — the history of punk does, too. Many of the most influential and earliest punks didn’t conform to societal gender norms either, whether in terms of self-expression onstage or a deeper personal identity offstage.

Needless to say, a cis man dressing in traditionally feminine or androgynous clothes on- stage is absolutely not the same at all as identifying as gender-fluid, genderqueer, or trans. The overlap is in their resistance to be caged by society in the face of self-expression.

Punk musicians — and people from all walks of life — have been pointing this out for years by challenging gender roles and gender-based discrimination. Lou Reed, singer of revered rock group The Velvet Underground, routinely annihilated interviewers who pressed points about his gender presentation and identity. The stylistic reverberations of Poly Styrene’s defiantly feminine punk wordplay are still felt today in artists like M.I.A.

“I’ve used rock-and-roll history as a reference for [explaining my transition to my daughter] Evelyn,” Grace said to Cosmopolitan. “Every morning, we watch music videos or look at record covers. The New York Dolls, Boy George, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury—Evelyn has seen many rockers blurring gender lines and has taken amazingly well to referring to me as ‘she’ and ‘her’.”

With increased trans visibility in the punk scene, these questions, and the beautiful, powerful, punk- as-hell voices asking them are getting louder.

The fury of the marginalised has existed for so long, and with musicians like Switchblade and Grace and Lucas Silveira and Antony Hegarty channelling those screams and shouts over raw guitar and crashing drums, their messages are taking on a melody of their own.

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