[This is an article I wrote for a website I previously worked for, You & Me & Us. It’s a compilation of my feelings, as well as friends of mine, on the concept of being a minority in the punk scene.]
Punk has always been a scene known for celebrating diversity. As a musical genre, punk encompasses all sorts of sounds; from power pop bands like The Nerves, to blistering d-beat, crust punk, and power-violence. Punk is also full of all different kinds of people with different backgrounds and is meant to be supportive of anyone and everyone involved. However, though it may seem like an inclusive scene, a lot of people seem to be marginalized by what some call a “straight white boys club.” Women have always struggled finding themselves a place within the scene. Even in our modern punk culture, homophobia can occasionally still be an issue, and these marginalized people may feel excluded due to their race, gender, or disabilities.
I identify as non-binary and look like a girl, so that’s what I feel the most comfortable talking about. I can’t speak on behalf of a person of color, a person with disabilities, or most people who identify as queer, so I’ve gathered stories and information from friends in the scene. Everyone has their own individual experiences, and while it’s not the norm, some local scenes are run by people who may feel excluded elsewhere. There have been plenty of cities whose scenes have welcomed others and me with open arms, but just as many that have turned me away or made me feel inferior. It sucks: we’re fucking living in 2015 and still seeing sexism, racism, and homophobia everyday, but why should we have to see it in the punk scene where we’re all supposed to feel welcome?
On being female:
It’s hard enough to be a woman, period, but I’ve noticed in the punk scene, a lot of dudes don’t accept women right away (if at all). Hardcore is overrun with “bros,” and there’s some sort of unspoken test you have to pass to be able to hang with the dudes. I’ve always felt like I had to prove myself to be taken seriously, but there’s also a certain line you can’t go over. If you try and talk too much about certain bands or ideas, you’re trying to “show off.” I really get excited about music and so it is one of the few things I can actually hold a conversation about. Doesn’t mean I’m trying to show off or be some “punk guru,” it just means I give a shit. I’ve been looked down on, ignored, and passed over by the same dudes who claim to be feminists.
Female musicians may be looked over when dudes are looking to start bands, who may instead opt for a guy who is probably already in four or five bands. Women have to fight for recognition, no matter how good they are. As a female musician, I’ve heard these things that were supposed to be compliments:
“Whoa, this band has a girl in it! Cool!” (When was the last time you heard someone say “neat, there’s a dude in this band!”) “She’s a really great guitarist, for a girl.” “I don’t typically like girl singers, but I like your band!” “You remind me of [Bikini Kill/The Slits/Punch/other female fronted band]!”
The few “compliments” they get come down to them being recognized as “female musicians” as opposed to “musicians.” Guys seem to be surprised by the fact that chicks can actually play instruments, and even more shocked by the fact that they’re good at it. They may mean well, but these kinds of statements make women feel abject and reinforce the idea of women as “the other.” It’s great that women are being recognized, but we want to be known for our talent, not for our gender.
A lot of women also don’t feel safe at shows. My friend Kara, for example, doesn’t feel comfortable wearing dresses at shows anymore because she’s been felt up so many times. She’s had dudes literally lift up her dress and give the excuse, “well if you don’t want me to get hard then don’t wear a dress.” After having random dudes grind on her, she quit wearing dresses and skirts to shows. My friend Anna has also been groped at shows, and the dudes have defended it by saying they were just being friendly or it was an “accident,” citing that they ran into them in the pit. When I saw Spraynard in October, I was literally fingered while I was crowdsurfing. I felt so uncomfortable that I walked out. Beyond feeling inferior, feeling violated discourages a lot of women from attending punk shows. A lot of girls have learned that if a dude actually holds a conversation with you at a punk show, he probably just wants to fuck you. And that’s fucking depressing.
On being queer, nonbinary, or trans:
I think the punk scene really wants to be supportive and welcoming of queer and trans people, but a lot of it is all talk. A lot of people will say they aren’t homophobic and that they support gay marriage, but will turn around and stare at and harass trans people who come to shows. My friend Mikey has on multiple times been called a “faggot” for wearing dresses to the shows they attend. They also said that they have had experiences where people have called them a “PC fag” for talking about gender issues and social responsibility. I’ve had friends, like Jamie, who have been jumped for being a “faggot,” things you usually only hear about or see in movies. Jamie was singled out for not conforming to the “bro” uniform at a Slapshot show and physically punished for it. Punk is about challenging social norms, but it doesn’t accept its own kind doing that. It’s not a place a lot of people feel comfortable being themselves.
However, it’s not all awful. A lot of people have been starting communities to make progress for punk queers. Queercore has been around since the mid 80s, and as a scene works towards making punk a safe environment for queer and trans punks. There’s a collective in New York City called Brooklyn Transcore that cultivates a welcoming scene, hosting events featuring local queer and trans bands. My friend Pierce is a queer, nonbinary punk and their band has started aligning with other queer bands in the city, which makes everything a lot easier and better for them. However, in many places they are still forced to codeswitch when they shouldn’t have to in a place that’s supposed to be about acceptance.
On having a disability:
On a different spectrum, having a physical disability can also make you feel inferior at punk shows. A lot of disabled people find that others feel “sorry” for them, even if they’re perfectly capable of holding their own. I have a friend, John, who has been going to punk shows for longer than most of the kids in the hardcore scene where I live have been alive. He’s seen how rowdy they can get, yet people try to “protect” him in the pit. While it’s well intentioned, it’s misplaced. He, and many other disabled people, don’t like the special privilege he seems to get for no due reason. He doesn’t like being treated like a special case, facing some of the same parallels POC, queers, and females deal with. He just wants to do the same dumb shit as other people without having to question other people’s interactions with him.
Mental illness, on the other hand, doesn’t have a physical appearance like being a girl or trans or a POC, but it still can make you feel left out. A lot of punks face anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders that make it hard to be around a lot of people and feeling unwelcome because of their physical attributes just makes it worse.
On being young:
While being a kid doesn’t necessarily make you a minority, a lot of scenes are hostile (or at least uninviting) to younger fans. Obviously, it’s hard to fit in anywhere when you’re a teenager. However, sometimes shows, a place youths should feel welcome, can often make them feel excluded. Sometimes, it’s just because the venue is 18 or 21 and up. Other times, it’s because the older fans think they are better or smarter than the younger kids. I always felt like I had to be three times as cool as the people around me when I was going to shows when I was a teenager, even going so far as lying about my age for three years. I felt like I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I was actually fifteen. However, some scenes are accepting of younger people. I went to Damaged City Fest and saw more younger kids in one room than I had than when I was going to shows in high school. Personally, I think teenagers should be encouraged to create and take part in the scene. Who’s going to carry the torch after we get jaded?
With all of the negative shit happening, there’s definitely progress happening. Sites like Is This Venue Accessible make it easier for disabled punks to attend shows, and the rise of queer communities within the punk scene have made it safer and more welcoming. Bands like RVIVR have encouraged queer youth to feel safe at shows and make an effort to promote gender equality. It wouldn’t be fair to talk about trans punks without mentioning Against Me!, a killer band fronted by a badass transwoman named Laura Jane Grace. She’s been an incredible influence on trans (and non-trans) youth, and is basically the perfect role model.
To make the scene better and easier to be a part of, there’s tons of progress we need to make. However, there’s one thing everyone can do, and that is just to be nice to each other. Having a tough guy attitude at hardcore shows is “cool” and all, but it’s not too hard to be welcoming and inclusive. Be kind. It’s 2015, and being a dick is decidedly unpunk.