Punk has changed a lot in the time I’ve been involved in the scene. I started going to Midwest shows as a teen in 1995. Back then the crowds were adorned with metal studs, safety pins and liberty spike mohawks. Unfortunately, at times it could be cliquish, violent and racist (skinheads). It seemed for many that the purpose of a mosh pit was about causing as much carnage as possible.
Punk has mellowed since those days. Now I’m living along the front range in Colorado which has a much larger punk scene than I’m used to. Braces, spikes, piercings and mohawks can still be seen (thankfully), but the scene is also replete with hipsters and beards. Moshing now isn’t just for the brawny, but for nearly everyone. The scene is far more inclusive and welcoming. Perhaps both the aging punks (like myself) and the millennial punks just don’t have time for that shit anymore. Thank goodness for that.
“gathering . . . is an act of defiance in a society that tries its damnedest to eradicate us.”
Somewhere along the line though I started to get the feeling that punk just didn’t have the social impact it used to have. While still political, punk is undoubtedly less political as a genre than it used to be. Bands make entire careers singing about relationships and while the positive side of that is a diversity of songs, the downside for me has been that the social urgency of punk has felt more watered down. I just didn’t know if punk had a grand purpose anymore such as I had imagined it having in the 80’s positioned against Reagan and Thatcher. I began to wonder if it ever had such a purpose or if that was simply my imagination.
And this is where my thoughts had remained for years until one Sunday night. On this particular evening I went to an Against Me! Concert also featuring the bands Mobina Galore and Typesetter (Represent Illinois!). This evening was different in an important way.
You see, generally my evenings are starting to look the same. One could say dismally familiar. Because life is inextricably political with human needs coalescing and contradicting as they do my nights have come to be politically charged. See if you will recognize the scenario. It is one in which the carnage of the day is paraded before me by news outlets. The always deserved and hard fought civil rights of the people of this country are rapidly being eroded. It’s another day in Trump’s America where diversity is seen as something to be feared rather than heralded. The unique among us have become scapegoats for the more vehemently conservative portions of our society.
I know you feel it too. If you’re racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or a bigot in general you sense a surge in pride and excitement that the type of thoughts you nurture are no longer something you need to hide. You finally feel like things are going your way. You also don’t refer to yourself by those monikers but let’s call a spade a spade and move forward shall we. On the contrary, if you’re a Muslim, female, person of color, an immigrant, transsexual/gender, queer (like me), or a member of another historically marginalized group then you feel fear, sadness and anger.
It is in this atmosphere that I realized a punk show is politically alive and well. You see, it’s not that Against Me said anything political outside of their songs (which admittedly have plenty to say). Rather, it was what went unspoken. For those who don’t know, the singer Laura Jane Grace, is a transwoman.* What is beautiful (aside from her glow on stage) is the way she and the rest of the band have just owned this reality from the very beginning. If you’re saying why wouldn’t they, then good for you. However, realize that not all people think this way. This acceptance, coupled with their songs, has created a kind of de facto safe-space. I’ve seen this in action before at one of their shows in Bloomington, Illinois but this is the first time that the gravity of what was happening became clear to me.
“There are those forces in the world that don’t want an open society.”
What I witnessed is awe inspiring and heartwarming. As I stood on a bench at the side of the venue and overlooked the crowd there was humanity in wondrous display. There were people singing their guts out to the band’s songs. The crowd was singing so loud at times that Laura Jane Grace’s voice could not be heard. It was amazing and I wasn’t the only one there who knew it.
In the mosh pit was a woman with “shoulders too broad for a girl” jumping her heart out (for the uninitiated that’s nod to a song lyric from the band about not “passing” as a woman, not me being a dick). The crowd was a smattering of people from a variety of identities and it was awesome (I’m old so I think I can still say that).
When my friend went to restroom she was checking for feet beneath the stalls in order to find a vacancy. In one women’s stall were a pair of feet facing the toilet. No one freaked out, no one cared. No one was checking birth certificates at the restroom door because fuck that noise. This punk show, at least, is a staging ground for how we want society to look and function.
I thought about the opening up of our society that had happened in the last twenty five years. Back when I graduated high school in 1995 I’m not even sure I knew what the term transgender meant. I’m pretty sure a transwoman could have never fronted a popular band without hyperbolic hysteria from a good majority of the public.
Then I thought about all the ways in which society isn’t as open as it should be and how we have so much more to learn. There are those forces in the world that don’t want an open society. They want people like Laura Jane Grace, and others at that concert, to exist in the shadows or not at all. Our presence offends them not because of who we are but because of who they are. We shine a light on their insecurities and make them uncomfortable. We force them to look inward. It’s easier for people to dismiss us, to marginalize us, to increase our disenfranchisement, to harm us and to kill us than it is to undergo personal growth or just be a god-damned empathetic human being. Art generally, and punk specifically, can be a good way to throw your own shortcomings in your face.
As these thoughts and sights paraded through my mind I was brought to tears. Yes, the 40 year old punk near the back was weeping tears of joy. The fact that so many people had gathered to rock their face off to a punk band singing about trans rights and issues was one of the most compassionate and intentional acts I have ever seen. These people and their spirits were beautiful. I realized that gathering in such a way and showing this unwavering acceptance is an act of defiance in a society that tries its damnedest to eradicate us.
Yes, punk rock is still politically relevant. It’s also much more than just apropos. Punk shows, much as they have probably always been, are places where we can come to recharge, to be safe, accepted and in many ways loved. This punk show is our society, our hope and our future. So if you want a place to feel accepted come on out to the show with us. When you’re here you can be and look however you damn well please no matter which way your feet face in the bathroom stall.
*I was going to say that Laura Jane Grace was a woman first and foremost and perhaps a transwoman second, but I don’t know her feelings on the matter. I don’t want to erase a part of her identity. I opted for the term that added context.