“It’s not gay punk; it’s queer punk. There’s a difference,” says drummer Candace Hansen. “I think being queer itself is inherently political and inherently anti-capitalist.”
Her band, YAAWN, along with fellow Get Better Records label mates the Groans, are at the forefront of what seems to be a national movement of self-identifying queer punks. Through their music, these artists are fighting to claim space, not just in often-masculine punk scenes, but in a world that would rather silence their voices and erase their history.
“[Queerness] is confrontational as well,” continues Hansen. “If you look at the history of queer art and queer activism, when you’re channeling the word queer, you’re channeling Stonewall and fighting cops. . . . You’re channeling the ACT UP AIDS activism that happened in the 1990s, calling out the Reagan administration for letting people die because they were gay. It’s calling in a lineage that goes beyond just who you want to fuck or what your fucking gender is.”
Most queer punk bands embrace this aggression while utilizing the freedom to express a multitude of other feelings and ideas. “Yeah, we do release our anger in some songs, but then it’s also kind of positive,” says Annie Padilla, vocalist and bassist of the Groans. “I think queer punk [brings] new emotions.”
The Groans’ latest album, Earth Dweller, released last month, is a perfect example of the multitude of perspectives and issues that are addressed in queer punk. From “Rigged,” a riff-heavy call for revolution, to the uplifting and melodic “Colors,” the songs span a wide spectrum of sounds and sentiments. “What I think, looking back, what punk was rooted in was just anger,” Padilla says, “but now it’s being happy as a way of resistance.”
Although there has been an increase in the number of queer/identity-driven bands recently, Hansen, who teaches courses on pop culture, punk history and feminism at UCLA, points out that queerness has always had a place in punk culture. “One of the things that’s always obscured about punk is that this is a new trend or something, that queer people and people of color and women are part of it,” she says. “But if you look at all the earliest punk bands, even the earliest hardcore bands, they feature a lot of women, a lot of queer people, and a lot of people of color.”
Even Orange County, home to more “tough guy” hardcore and straight-white-male-centric punk bands than most other places in the country, is part of that history. Just look at Robert Omlit, the queer hardcore icon who inspired countless local bands with his shocking stage antics and raw sound.
But things changed in the early ’80s, when the Los Angeles hardcore scene became notoriously violent. Hansen attributes this shift to hypermasculine bands such as Black Flag becoming the international ambassadors for American hardcore. “[The year 1981] is basically when punk turns white, turns male, turns aggressive,” she says. “But before that, it actually was very queer. It was very femme, it was very gay, it was very multi-identity. So, I think, for being in a queer punk band today, it’s nice that people are paying attention, but we’ve always been here.”
Despite this history and that they’re as pissed-off and loud as any other punk band (maybe even more so), YAAWN and the Groans have had trouble fitting into predominantly straight-white-male punk scenes. “We tried pretty hard to stake some place and show that we’re harder and louder,” says Jessica G.Z., YAAWN’s vocalist and bassist. “And we still really don’t find that we fit into that or get invited to that.”
The band’s sound is so heavy and punishing that it’s easy to forget there are only three band members. G.Z.’s voice will jump seemingly with ease from a tongue-in-cheek singsong to a gut-wrenching, gravel-lined screech. Her bass playing, along with Hansen’s precise, powerhouse drumming, make for a freight-train-from-hell rhythm section, over which guitarist Josh Santellan plays angular chords and bone-breaking riffs. Their latest single, “Ax,” is proof that YAAWN are harder and angrier than most of today’s punk bands.
However, like many other queer punk bands, YAAWN haven’t had the greatest experiences playing on otherwise cis-white punk lineups. “We were trying to do more bills where we were playing with all these guys, and consistently, guys would not understand us,” says Hansen. “We would be just as heavy, just as aggressive, just as smart, and writing cooler music. Multiple times, we’ve had people come up to us and be like, ‘Are you guys a joke band?’”
As a result, many queer punks prefer to play queer-centric shows. Such bills provide safe and supportive environments for both the bands and fans to thrive in. “My first show was a Sum 41 show, and I literally got picked on by some dude. I mean, I was wearing a green man suit, but that’s beyond the point,” says Dewie Hernandez, guitarist for the Groans, with a laugh. “So, I remember I was so scared to go in [mosh] pits. And then, once we started playing music and going to shows, I was like, ‘These pits are nice. People don’t just stomp all over you and leave you on the floor. It’s not a contest; it’s so fun.’”
The Groans’ live shows typically carry a lot more good vibes than one would usually associate with a punk show. The trio emit so much passion and pure emotion that it’s cathartic to even witness. It’s also not uncommon for them to throw fundraisers for organizations they support, including Inland Empire Harm Reduction. Plus, the Groans donate a large portion of their music sales to associations such as Black Lives Matter and House of Ruth.
Of course, neither band is opposed to playing shows and spaces that aren’t queer-centric—so long as they and their fans feel safe and comfortable. “I think it is important to do both [types of shows] simply so that you are constantly growing,” says G.Z. “I think it is important to expose people to things I wish they would think about. But at the same time, you have to protect yourself and realize that you’re not on Earth to explain everything to everyone.”
According to its website, Get Better Records is a “personal effort to reverse the constant underrepresentation of the . . . queer arts community, with a specific focus on punk, hardcore and alternative rock music.” Over the past decade, the label has supported countless releases from queer punk bands, booked tours and thrown festivals.
“I think the bulk of their work comes from the rhetoric they want to adamantly put out, which is strongly against so much of the rhetoric that is just the music industry in general, which inherently is sexist, homophobic and racist,” explains G.Z. “That’s the work that Get Better has been doing, and that’s the work that we’ve been doing and that we’re all doing.”
The label also labors to establish an international network of like-minded artists, so bands such as YAAWN and the Groans can easily connect with other queer punk groups for out-of-town shows and collaborations. “It’s just a beautiful community vibe,” says Hansen. “Every show we play on the East Coast, somebody will come up and be like, ‘Hell yeah, you’re on Get Better!’ It feels very family-oriented, which I love.”
“It’s poppin’, and I feel like not enough people are paying attention,” adds Groans drummer Nadine Torres. “Everyone’s on this ‘rock is dead; guitar music is dead’ kind of wave, and it’s not; you just don’t care to listen to queer voices. I feel like we freaks are doing it the best. All my favorite bands are my friends. In this era, there is some really good punk.”
The queer punk movement continues to grow, as more bands and queer-centric shows pop up around the world. As both bands have toured the country, they’ve found their shows are beacons of safety and hope in states such as Oklahoma and Arkansas. “That’s all I fucking care about,” says Padilla. “If you come to any of our shows, you’re going to feel fine. You’re going to feel accepted. You’re not going to feel weird or out of place.”
Queer voices have been silenced and overlooked for centuries, but the efforts of Get Better and others are changing that. “We’re always going to have rage because the world doesn’t want us to exist,” says Hansen. “At least through these moments, we can create; we can have joy in ways that are collective and wouldn’t really be able to exist without the punk show.”