Keep the Underground “Open To All”

Interview with Avi Ehrlich of Silver Sprocket, show promoter Scott Myers, Doomstress Alexis of Doomstress, and Rachika Samarth of MALLRAT

The threat against queer and trans folks in the U.S. right now is real and it’s scary. With a president in office who isn’t interested in protecting the rights and freedom of marginalized people, and a vice president who has actively spoken out against the LGBTQ community, it’s no wonder that the same people who were talking about moving forward and making progress a year ago are now worried about their fundamental rights.

The Supreme Court case involving Masterpiece Cakeshop presents a frightening situation for queer people. The defendant is a bakery whose owner refused to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple. If the baker wins the case—which you can track here—it will set a precedent for legal discrimination. It could even open the door for reversing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

So, what can underground music communities do about this? There’s no easy answer, but it’s clear that solidarity and standing with the oppressed is necessary. Small businesses across the U.S. have started the Open To All campaign in response to the exclusionary practices demonstrated by Masterpiece. We posit that the music scene in general should do the same thing—and many of its members already have been.

Our Duty as an Alternative

Many feel that the alternative music community, which doesn’t necessarily follow the rules of the mainstream, has been doing the work of creating “open to all” spaces for longer than the rest of the world.

Underground culture and community, by definition, has to create its own spaces outside of the formal or legal systems that could not give less of a fuck about it,” says Avi Ehrlich, founder of the comics publishing house, art crew, and record label Silver Sprocket. “If polite society is just now finally talking about the concept of respecting gay people’s needs for wedding cakes, just think about how backwards everyone still is about institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the rest. These are not new forms of discrimination; the cake case just shows how vital our community-built, deliberate spaces are for us to try existing better.”

Keeping Music Queer

Still, many see room for improvement. One way to make scenes safer for queer folks is to create spaces that completely center the voices of LGBTQ people. Scott Myers, who just started a queer punk night in Denver, did so because he craves a place where queerness and counterculture can come together.

“In my experience, Denver has a great and overall very queer-friendly punk scene, but most venues and shows remain spaces where queer people can feel isolated because we are the ‘minority,’” he explains. “Meanwhile, Denver also has a large and thriving gay scene, but those of us who are into punk and other forms of counterculture don’t really connect with the music and aesthetics of those spaces. I want a queer punk night to bridge this gap, a space for those of us who have spent much of our lives feeling like we have to choose between two scenes that offer varying levels of comfort for different people, but which definitely leave us feeling that something is missing.”

By curating this type of environment, those who love underground music but often feel like second-class participants can finally take center stage.

Curating Safer Spaces and Staying Vocal

Of course, not all venues and events are going to be queer-centric, and for those who play in bands or follow certain genres, it’s not realistic to expect every place to have a queer majority or be overwhelmingly radical. Although she hails from Texas and plays many shows in the South, Doomstress Alexis of the metal outfit Doomstress has had overwhelmingly good experiences as a trans woman in these spaces.

I’ve been playing metal and touring various parts of the U.S. over the past three years and have been treated great by venues, bands, staff, fans, and attendees alike,” she relates. “I’ve played the Deep South, all over my home state of Texas at places [from] The Deadhorse in San Angelo, The Lost Well or Barracuda in Austin, and Walter’s or Rudyard’s in Houston to Birmingham, Alabama, at The Nick Rocks or White Water Tavern in Little Rock, Arkansas.”

Despite the negative stigmas sometimes associated with certain regions and scenes, it makes a huge difference when the people involved treat everyone with respect. As long as awareness is spread and advocated for, even spaces that are not predominantly queer can be safe.

Keeping It Intersectional

While it is extremely important to embrace queerness and make space for LGBTQ folks in underground music spaces, it often only serves to make the white and otherwise privileged members of these scenes feel welcome. As Rachika Samarth, drummer for the radical queer band MALLRAT, points out, it’s important to focus on being holistically inclusive when encouraging queerness to flourish in the underground.

I think, especially in rapidly gentrifying cities, it’s important to redefine or dismiss ‘inclusion’ as the fundamental value venues seek to center,” she explains. “For instance, in Brooklyn, ‘diversifying’ indie rock bills at DIY venues as the primary means of redressing racial violence can often feel like a meaningless neoliberal gesture by largely NYC-transplants—because it often only means expanding the racial diversity of gentrifiers playing and frequenting these spaces rather than actually redistributing these resources and allocating these spaces back to the local low-income Black residents these scenes stole those spaces and resources from.”

* * *

There’s no one right way to promote queer and trans inclusivity, but it seems that the best thing to do is be conscious and deliberate and really listen to those who have been marginalized in the underground. Whether that means instituting an LGBTQ record night, radicalizing the underground as an alternative to systemic inequality, or promoting a more intersectional understanding of what these spaces can look like, it is important to center the voices of queer and trans people in our alternative music scenes.

jenn woodall

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