Why Safe Spaces in Underground Music Are Necessary For the LGBTQ Community

Drew Arriola-Sands
Drew Arriola-Sands
courtesy of Trap Girl

After playing a midweek show at a nearby venue, queer musician Raul P. and friends decided to catch up over a post-show beer at a local watering hole they used to love before moving away from Downtown LA. “King Eddy’s was always our go to place,” Raul remembered fondly, “we thought we’d go there and have fun, but, for me, it was quite the opposite.”

The historic King Eddy’s has a 100 year reputation for being a Downtown home for outcasts of all kinds, cherishing its Skid Row location and legacy of patrons from all walks of life including Charles Bukowski, as well as drug dealers, queer dance parties, and everyone in-between; a history Raul was familiar and enamored with before encouraging his friends to meet there on the night of June 2nd. Of all the things that warrant being kicked out of this legendary bar, he never expected that being gay would be on the list.

While inside the club with his friends, Raul pulled out his geisha style fan and with an exaggerated, flamboyant flip of the wrist, he started fanning himself. “And all of a sudden the bouncer walks up to me and said ‘Can you NOT do that in here?’ I looked at him and said, “Are you serious? Are you being for real right now?” and he said, “Yeah. I’m being serious.” When I asked him why, he said, “Because. It’s fucking annoying. We don’t want that shit in here, take that shit somewhere else.”

A statement like ‘Take that shit somewhere else’ is commentary usually reserved for the worst of the worst in public spaces. Excessive drinking, theft, or sexual harassment, would be understandable, but fanning oneself on a warm summer night didn’t sit well as a justification for a bouncer to eject anyone from a bar, Raul feels that the bouncer’s judgment call was based on homophobia.

When Raul momentarily stepped outside the bar to get some air, the bouncer refused to let him back in. “Before I even walked back up to the door, he saw me coming and started shaking his head at me, and I asked if I could please go back in the bar to get my friends, and he said ‘no.’ So I asked, “Why?” and he just said ‘NO. You can go somewhere else.’ Another man standing with the bouncer also pressured Raul to leave, telling him “Go somewhere else, get out of here!” without either providing a legitimate reason. Raul was floored, upset, and shocked. “I have never experienced discrimination [like this] in my life, especially in a place that I had been going to over and over for the last 3 years. I’m never going there ever again.” When reached for comment, The King Eddy Saloon informed the Weekly that they only eject patrons for causing problems, and that they are investigating the matter.

With increasing visibility in media and after the 2015 SCOTUS ruling in defense of gay marriage, many people believe that discrimination against the LGBTQ community is a thing of the past, but recent events have made it clear that homophobia and transphobia are still dangerous and potentially deadly threats, especially against queer and trans people of color in public spaces, and even in some designated as safe spaces run for and by the LGBTQ community. Just this weekend there was a mass shooting, the deadliest in American history, in which 50 perished and 40 more were wounded at a gay club in Orlando, Florida. And locally a transgender woman was shot in the back in Santa Ana on Friday at the corner of Harbor and Westminster who is fortunately expected to recover. Besides brazen violent hate attacks on LGBTQ people, there are thousands more silent, less deadly ones that build the foundation for the very ideology that breeds violent attacks, which bystanders often ignore. The unfortunate reality is that in dark clubs, bars, parties, and shows, homophobia and transphobia often rears its ugly face without fanfare or concern, leaving many LGBTQ community members feeling unsafe and alone. For queer and trans musicians, the conversation surrounding culture, safety, and physical space is experiencing a heightened state of prominence.

Two major battles are making 2016 a tense time for DIY musicians and music fans alike, especially those who identify as members of marginalized communities: the dislocation and destruction of physical spaces which are often safe spaces, and the fight within DIY and punk scenes over whether safe spaces are necessary, or an over extension of what some opponents have coined “PC Culture.” 

Pehrspace and The Smell’s respective vacating orders, delivered within 10 days of each other.
Pehrspace and The Smell’s respective vacating orders, delivered within 10 days of each other.

Gentrification has made it difficult for safe spaces in Southern California to keep their doors open, and over the last year alone, the local DIY music scene has suffered some serious blows. In 2015 the queer and woman centric underground safe haven Heart of Art Gallery shut its doors, as well as the Inland Empire’s Blood Orange Infoshop. 2016 isn’t looking much better for Los Angeles after The Smell and Pehrspace were both served with papers threatening the closure of their spaces in the near future. These four venues have served as landmarks, clubhouses, and launching pads for local queer bands from all over Southern California who faced difficulty being booked on bills outside of safe spaces because of their gender and/or queerness. Orange County has been without an explicitly defined DIY safe space venue since the closing of Koo’s Café in 2001, but fortunately spaces like the LGBT Center on 4th and Programme Skate and Sound have hosted safe space events by groups like South County’s OC DIY who is set to open a physical location next month. 

Why Safe Spaces in Underground Music Are Necessary For the LGBTQ Community

The other issue wreaking havoc in DIY scenes is the battle over whether safe spaces are necessary interventions or the overreaching of “PC culture.” Safe spaces are generally driven by music and ethics, commonly promoting principles that attendees and performers must adhere to like “No racism, no homophobia, no sexism, no transphobia, and no violence,” promoting fair treatment, respect, and participation for everyone. Recent debates have ignited nationally after a collective of Bay Area punks issued a full boycott of what many people consider the first safe space DIY venue in the world, 924 Gilman Street, alleging that collective members at Gilman have abandoned their ethics. The turmoil came to a head after collective members resisted adopting a fully inclusive transgender bathroom policy, and after collective members voted to keep a show booked featuring Fang, a band whose lead singer murdered his girlfriend in 1989 and has since been released from jail.

Some community members believe that safe spaces are not necessary and condemn “Political Correctness” in the name of protecting their right to free speech, but for many local LGBTQ musicians’ the lack of concern over safety has created hostile environments at shows, places musicians and music fans hold sacred.

Drew Arriola-Sands
Drew Arriola-Sands
courtesy of Trap Girl

Drew Arriola-Sands of local queer hardcore band Trap Girl is grateful for safe spaces, especially the now defunct Heart of Art Gallery which provided Trap Girl a place to grow as a new band. But even with a safe space to cut her teeth in, Arriola-Sands encountered threats, receiving hate voicemail, comments, most recently a private Facebook message from a stranger asserting “once she just realizes she’s a man and gives herself to God, the attacks will stop.” Arriola-Sands believes that most people at shows are loving and sweet, and is grateful that the transphobia she has encountered as a performer has largely been in digital spaces, unlike experiences off stage. “When you’re queer you quickly come to terms that discrimination can actually happen to you when you're just trying to support a coworkers birthday dinner or just trying a new bar in your city, the reality is scary sometimes but we must continue to talk about it and find some kind of understanding for everyone.”

In addition to swatting away pesky transphobic critics, Santa Ana bassist and frontperson of local band Popsical Josie Wreck has had to defend herself physically from male attackers at shows in Orange County on multiple occasions. One local man from the Santa Ana arts scene attempted to assault Wreck in 2008. Wreck was able to break free from his grip after being pressed against a car by playing into his sexual advances, grabbing his hand and threatening to break it if he didn’t let them go. In 2009 Wreck was harassed at a house show in Santa Ana by a stranger who followed them from the backyard and into a secluded space.

"He wouldn't stop talking about how disgusting I was for dressing and being the way I was,” says Wreck. “I stood up for myself, told him he had no power here, to go ahead and try something or to fuck off! And, well, he pulled out his dick, and commenced urinating all over my skirt. I patiently let him finish, looked him dead in the eye, and socked him square across the face. After some friends and I chased him out of the house, I walked myself to my car, I sat in it, and just cried." Worst of all was the incident in 2014 when a Rosemead club hosting a Goth show refused to let Wreck use the women’s restroom without providing identification, proving that accessible bathrooms for transgender people is just as vital of an issue in music spaces in California as it is in the post HB2 North Carolina political climate.

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When Anaheim based gay punk Jonathan McKenna enthusiastically showed up at a pizzeria that hosts ska and punk shows earlier this year, he got more than the good time he bargained for after the crowd started repeatedly chanting “faggot” at the top of their lungs. McKenna reports that the singer of the band went on a drunken rant about “PC Culture,” complaining about how he can’t be offensive anymore, and quickly devolved into the crowd chanting “faggot” along with the frontman, solely in the name of his right to do so. “People were just chanting “faggot” at the top of their lungs!” McKenna says, noting that he had never felt so unsafe at a show, especially a ska show. “Nobody at that show said anything! The whole time I was looking around, and everyone was just laughing while chanting faggot! If you were there, you saw it, and you stayed quiet.”

McKenna believes he was one of the only queer people present for the show. Not being a confrontational person, he had no idea what to do, as he stood entrenched in a circle of dudes screaming a word that has come to represent painful memories of violence and rejection for him and so many members of the LGBTQ community. Not wanting to single himself out during the melee, he entered the adjoining pizzeria and took a seat, trying to make sense of what happened.

“I will never see this band again because of that,” he said, “You’re not being chased out of someone’s house, or having your boyfriend’s parents make him stop seeing you because they don’t want ‘faggots’ in their house. When I heard about this new ska scene I was so excited, it just bummed me the fuck out after thinking it was going to be fun and experiencing this in the same city where family members turned their backs on me for being gay and told me I was going to Hell.“ McKenna grew up going to ska shows in Orange County at Koo’s, where bands and fans, gay and straight, embraced the idea of a safe space. “What’s fucked is that dude had his safe space where he could spout that bullshit and not be called out for it.”

Some members of the queer community have reservations about the potential for LGBTQ safe spaces. “I'm not sure having safe spaces is helpful in the long run,” says Jill, an OC based musician with over 30 years of experience playing in local rock and punk bands. She was recently heckled on stage at a punk bar for being transgender, and was not helped by the staff as a man screamed at her to leave the stage during and between songs. “It's nice for people to get their feet wet but ultimately the world isn't safe, I think the answer is visibility, unity, and education and it's obviously a long term thing. I think safety is a matter of perspective.”

Part of what perpetuates discrimination and acts of aggression and violence against the LGBTQ community is the silence that surrounds instances of homophobia in public and private. Silence from those who experience discrimination out of shame, silence by non-LGBTQ bystanders whose silence around their peers allows for the un-checked continuation of homophobic language and behavior, and silence by media who rarely cover LGBTQ artists and musicians, often opting out of exposing the very circumstances that make many public places like music venues, bars, and nightclubs unsafe. One publication I approached in LA opted out of reporting on Raul’s story, but were interested in stories about queer digital safe spaces. It is a shame that most outlets primarily report on LGBTQ people, musicians, artists, organizers, and activists during Pride season or after one (or 50) has been murdered.

Although Raul is still devastated about being thrown out of King Eddys because of his sexual orientation, he’s grateful for the supportive music community in the Inland Empire, and the response he has received from peers in Southern California LGBTQ music scene, especially The Da Arts Center which is one of the last standing safe spaces in the Inland Empire which boasts more LGBTQ and female centric line-ups than most local venues.

The underground can be a lonely and exclusionary place for LGBTQ musicians and fans. Walls themselves can’t fully protect anyone from the ignorance and hatred that exist beyond them, but publically acknowledging that discrimination has real consequences is a step towards combatting homophobic and transphobic tendencies in mainstream and DIY scenes. Here’s to spaces that proudly promote inclusion, dialogue, understanding, and safety for the most vulnerable in our community, rather than silence. 


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