“We’re living in the future!”
I bounced up to an old friend to share this important insight. All around, queer bodies danced and swayed to furiously enthusiastic music. We have always sought refuge in one another, in our in our art, in utopic dancefloors and community care. But something felt different.
The collective energy of the crowd was wild, strong, cohesive. The entire room was dancing – and among us, so so many out, happy trans women and transfeminine people. On stage, a non-binary person sang explicitly about their experiences of gender to an assertive ska beat. It was a joyful moment – but the true wonder of it for me was that it was far from unique.
This was the last in a string of winter tour dates for my band wormboys, at the brilliant Queer As Punk event in Edinburgh. But I’d experienced similar in Dundee, in Glasgow, in Newcastle, in Hull, in Leeds. At every gig, trans women and non-binary people were scattered throughout the audience; at most, there were also several of us on stage through the night. It’s a world of difference from when I encountered just the occasional trans man playing gigs in the mid-2010s; let alone from when wrote a blog post titled Trans/queer rock music back in 2010, in which I desperately sought validation in questionable gender-bending tunes written by (largely) cis musicians.
While trans women (and trans people more broadly) have always been involved in DIY music, there’s a clear change taking place. We have taken our inheritance and run with it. There are more of us making our own art, telling our own stories, and celebrating one another more than ever before. We are more visible, we are more assertive, we are more respected within our scenes, and – collectively – we are having more fun.
The very night we enacted a better future on that dancefloor in Edinburgh, 16 year-old trans girl Brianna Ghey was stabbed to death in Warrington. Two other teenagers, a girl and a boy, have been charged with her murder.
For trans people across the UK – especially trans women and girls – this lethal attack was not unexpected. It feels like the culmination of a vicious hate campaign that permeates our media and politics. It’s also the tip of a vast iceberg of intentional violence and untimely death.
Suicide is endemic among trans youth driven to despair by the socially-sanctioned antagonism directed at them every hour of every day. I am tired of citing statistics. I have lost so many of my friends and peers. Words and numbers are insufficient for the raw anguish of my grief.
This is only compounded by the failures of bystanders who refuse to intervene, schools and employers who try to make us disappear, a National Health Service that inflicts harm upon us. England’s only child and adolescent gender clinic is due to close in a matter of weeks, with nothing ready to replace it. In an extraordinary open letter, the majority of clinical, research, and administrative staff at the clinic note an “increase in deaths related to the service” since the suspension of endocrine treatments in 2020.
Many of my friends have been threated or assaulted in broad daylight. One, for instance, had rocks thrown at her. Another was assaulted in front of the school gates. Another was raped by boys in the school playground. I frequently struggle with feelings of survivor’s guilt, having merely been publicly assaulted, stalked, harassed, and subject to threats of legal action and murder. Relatively minor matters, in the scheme of things.
How to understand joy in the face of so much hate and despair?
This is a question I struggled with throughout our tour. The night before Brianna’s murder, 400 people rioted in Knowsley outside a hotel that houses asylum seekers, spurred on by the fascist group Patriotic Alternative. This horrific event, too, did not occur in a vacuum. Racist and anti-migrant sentiment has similarly been stirred up by cynical politicians and journalists, as asylum seekers, economic migrants, British Black and Asian people, Gypsies and Travellers are repeatedly failed or directly targeted by our authorities and institutions. Patriotic Alternative have also repeatedly targeted LGBTIQ+ communities, through their campaign against Drag Queen Story Hour.
The Sunday prior, a large rally was held in Glasgow by anti-trans group “Let Women Speak”, who have a long history of collaboration with white supremacists and antisemites. This event, supposedly organised in support of “women’s rights”, featured numerous flags in the suffragette colours of green, white, and purple, alongside massive black banners emblazoned with the slogan: “Woman (noun): Adult Human Female”. It was attended by Holocaust deniers, anti-migrant, and anti-abortion campaigners, and was described by supporters as an “undisputed Aryan victory”.
I could say so much more: about assaults on disabled people’s rights and livelihoods, about the demonisation of the poor, about attacks on pay, pensions, and the unions that attempt to defend them (I am writing this post while on strike). About how fascist violence is excused by sexist men in the name of “defending women and girls”. About how oppressed groups are played off against one another, while the effects of all this hateful discourse and action are felt most keenly at the intersection of multiple forms of persecution, such as by migrant trans women of colour.
Ultimately though, my point is this: what we are seeing is both a consequence of historic prejudices in our society, and of rising fascism.
Minority groups, women, migrants, and working class people in the UK have always faced a shared struggle against systemic discrimination and violence. Following a period of mild reform in the 1990s and 2000s, we are now experiencing a significant upswing in bold, blatant hate speech and violence, effectively condoned by every major political party and the majority of mainstream media publications.
This is the context of trans joy in the 2020s – and the reason why that joy is so necessary and vital.
Our tour reminded me that art is resistance, and resistance is collective. In recent days I have felt myself marinading in my own fear, a recipe for passive inaction. If we cannot experience joy, we cannot dream; if we cannot dream, we cannot hope; if we cannot hope, we cannot fight back. In the face of a world that wants so many of us dead, it is vital that we create reasons to live, and to thrive.
In Leeds, wormboys played to a rammed room in Wharf Chambers, a triumphant hometown crowd. We invited the brilliant Punjabi-Celtic-indie fusion trio Kinaara and gorgeous queer folk duo Serin to support us, building new friendships and cementing old ones. In Hull we debuted at the New Adelphi, where now-legendary acts such as Lizzo, Manic Street Preachers, Pulp, Skunk Anansie, and PJ Harvey played before they were famous. We shared the stage with Sandbox Mode – a solo hip-hop artist making deeply honest and funny songs about mundanity and despair – and Baby Flowers, an exciting young grunge group playing their second ever gig. This was the least well-attended, most male-dominated, and least obviously queer gig on our tour. And yet: the mood was vibrant, I noted at least one other trans woman in the audience, and Baby Flowers’ bassist was showing off a well-placed trans rights sticker.
In Newcastle, we found ourselves in the Little Buildings, a venue which has miraculously survived Covid-19 despite being founded just the pandemic began. The event was hosted by new dance party Queer Love. We played alongside the incredible hardcore group Disciplinary with their two bass guitars, and also the feminist dance-punk phenomenon of Fashion Tips. The whole night was amazing, but Fashion Tips were particularly exciting for me. Frontwoman (and Queer Love organiser) Esmé Louise Newman has a long history of involvement in groundbreaking queer feminist punk, metal and no-wave groups, including Penance Stare and Etai Keshiki. The new band were just as brilliant, with aggressive guitars and vocals underpinned by a powerful rhythm section, heralding a new era of revolutionary dancefloor divination.
Next to Glasgow, where I organised a well-attended gig at The 13th Note in less than a week, after our original promoter pulled out at the last minute. We booked the astoundingly powerful riot grrrl group Brat Coven to play with us, along with HAVR, purveyors of gorgeous post-punk soundscapes. The latter band are fronted by Carrie Marshall, author of Carrie Kills A Man, who noted to cheers that she was a different gender the last time she played the venue. This was an event with plenty of trans women present, beaten only by brilliant gig in the same venue the very next night, which I went to see my soulful dyke folk pal Pictureskew play inbetween our own shows. That event might well be the first of its kind I’ve been to where there were at least as many trans women in attendance as anyone else. It was beautiful.
Then to Dundee, where Rad Apples and Make That A Take put anarchist theory into practice by actively working to provide a safer punk venue and events for women, queer people, and migrants, through simultaneously building a welcoming space and promoting a zero-tolerance attitude towards discrimination and abuse. There I had two totally new life experiences. First, I witnessed somebody crowdsurfing in a shopping trolley during a storming set from banjo punks Alldeepends. Then, we were subject to the well-organised chaos of the “crowd surfing machine” by jubilant anarcho-folk headliners Boom Boom Racoon (a variant on the sat-on-the-floor rowing boat dance associated with songs such as “Oops Upside Your Head” and “Rock The Boat”, but with audience members encouraged to take turns in crowdsurfing along the boat).
Through the tour, I’d been carrying a trans flag to drape over my bass amp, and have often said something about trans liberation from stage inbetween songs. wormboys are a political band, but not in the same way as more in-your-face punk groups I’ve previously fronted. I’ve reveled in the ability to just be a musician and make that – rather than my status as a trans woman – the focal point of my involvement, leaving most of the talking to dual vocalists duo Sop and Harry. In the current political environment, that has increasingly felt untenable. It seems important to speak out, make myself visible, be obviously a trans woman making music.
But at Rad Apples I didn’t need to. There was already a trans flag up. There were plenty of other trans people there. There were placards in the bar opposing Section 35. I could just be.
And so to Edinburgh, where I found myself living in the future during a joyous set from opening act Bufandas. A future in which we experience the true paradox of trans visibility, in that we are both uniquely vulnerable, and uniquely strong. No longer hiding in the shadows, we are easier targets for those who hate us, but also have so much more potential to build power together.
Brianna Ghey’s killers may be convicted and jailed, but that will do nothing to stop the violence we face across these islands, and across the wider world. We have learned that we cannot trust the police to save us, or the courts, or politicians, or journalists, or managers, or human resources departments. But we don’t need any of these people or organisations. We owe it to Brianna to continue the grassroots work she did to improve other people’s lives, because another world is possible.
The headliners at Queer as Punk in Edinburgh were the fiercely feminist disco punk group The Red Stains. Their set included several explicit statements of support for trans people and especially trans women and girls, reflecting the attitude of most women active within actual feminist movements. This was an important reminder that anti-trans movements do not speak for all women, and never will.
My experience of sharing a stage with so many amazing musicians, from so many backgrounds, featured many such reminders. I was reminded of the sheer depth and range of human creativity. I was reminded of how much we can be inspired by our differences as well as shared experience. I was reminded of how far we have come, as well as how far we have to go.
There are so many of us. Today, we mourn. Tomorrow, we fight. Soon, we will win.