When Transgress Fest organizer Drew Arriola-Sands is on stage singing in her band Trap Girl she is a woman possessed. Behind long black locks she emits witchy magic with the transfixing might of a gorgon, she screams, falls, thrashes, and bleeds while feeling connected to something larger than herself. Their sound is urgent; their aesthetic can be described as nothing less than sheer power, and it’s with that same forward charging, electric energy she has managed to become a doula for an event unlike any other in Southern California hardcore history.
Taking a nod from trans and queer festivals like Chicago’s Fed Up Fest and Homo-A-Go-Go, Transgress Fest will be an all-ages, day-long celebration of the voices and music of trans, genderqueer, and non-binary musicians in punk and hardcore on November 12th at the LGBT Center on 4th in Santa Ana.
The recent popularity of bands like Against Me! and G.L.O.S.S. have moved trans issues to the forefront of some conversations in punk and underground music, but unfortunately this interest has not materialized into much for trans punk musicians and fans seeking better representation on line ups and more genuinely inclusive environments at shows. Trans and non-binary musicians remain underrepresented and some even report that promoters have booked them in tokenizing ways.
“Trans and queer visibility through performance continues to exist on the margins no matter how much the organizers or spaces a show is being held at aligns with us,” says LA based electro punk performance artist Sepehr, aka Bedroom Witch who will be playing at Transgress Fest on Saturday. “Our nuances as individuals are compromised [when] we become just the “queer” act of the night. [Trans artists] are still being tokenized in environments that cater to and are dominantly occupied by art bros who think you’re “cool” or “interesting” for being a weirdo so they add you to the line up. I’m not interested in my own visibility in performance becoming a spectacle.”
Arriola-Sands believes that community is important for trans people, especially since so many queer and trans musicians often feel isolated and alone, something she has grappled with since coming of age as a queer punk in a scene where she never really felt at home.
“I didn’t know there were queer punks,” she laughs, remembering her days playing in a folk duo as an awkward outlet for her to find her voice as a performer still finding her footing in the world as a plus size trans chicanx. “Playing with Trap Girl, I quickly realized from touring that I wasn't alone and met lots of trans people who identified with me and shared the same frustration of the lack of representation of trans people in punk festivals and even queer punk spaces.” After returning from tour earlier this year, Arriola-Sands felt called to organize the fest. “It was a no brainer for me to put this together.”
Transgress Fest will bring trans performers together from Southern California as well as other parts of the state and country, creating a mini manifestation of a movement much bigger than any one band or region on its own. In many ways Transgress Fest can serve as a metaphor for that invisible yet omnipresent power Arriola-Sands taps into when losing herself in Trap Girl performances. It’s a physical manifestation of the spread out international network of queer and trans punks creating music and art as resistance that is simultaneously isolated, salient, transcendent and powerful.
Aside from being an event steeped in timely political roots, the bands playing are some of the most interesting and exciting punk and experimental acts currently around. All elements of punk are present from brutal hardcore like Maladjusted to the poppier solo punk stylings of Aunty Trust. Trap Girl play powerhouse old school punk rock equally inspired by Darby Crash and Divine.
Bedroom Witch combines visuals, movement, sound and art, creating performance art set to infectious electro goth. San Francisco’s self proclaimed queer slut rockers Spray Tan play Velvet Underground meets Gravy Train anthems for anyone who's ever wanted to get freaky near a jukebox or have a special place in their heart for leather and French fries. Queer powerviolence collective HIRS are flying in all the way in from Philadelphia bringing their tough-as-fucking-nails heavy grind vibes to Southern California for the first time ever.
“This festival is really important for us to be able to come together in this region and be reminded that one another exists,” says Sepehr who hopes that her personal songs connect with queer and trans people who don’t always feel safe being themselves outside of their homes. “In a city as big as LA, it’s easy to feel isolated as a queer or trans person, with Transgress Fest coming up, I feel like coming together will feel like finally being able to take a breath.”
Trans punk musician Emily Williams of Axis Evil is making the trek from San Diego for the occasion even though her band isn’t performing. She’s looking forward to making new friends and seeing new bands, overall Williams believes that “Transgress Fest is important because our stories need to be told.”
Much like the language surrounding gender and sexuality, "music is constantly evolving,” says Dan Lu of the LGBT Center OC, the organization behind the LGBT Center on 4th which opened in 2015 with hopes of providing space for OC’s creative LGBTQIA community to thrive. The Center is thrilled to provide the space for Transgress Fest and especially excited for OC locals like Bellhaunts, Popsical, and Aunty Trust to have a space to play and connect. “We are excited to give our local trans and gender non-conforming community a place to express themselves freely.”
In addition to creating a space for trans musicians and fans to enjoy music, Transgress will be paying attention to little details to minimize some of the anxiety trans folks may experience going to shows. There will be a queer security and door crew sensitive to the needs of the trans community, an all gender bathroom on the premises, and sliding scale admission. Transgress Fest hopes to create an environment where trans musicians and fans don’t have worry about scenarios that could potentially be dangerous or anxiety inducing, where people can enjoy themselves and the music without being tokenized or harassed, even if it is just for one day.
“I’m doing this for the person I was years ago that people were rejecting, people didn’t like and people didn’t even want to listen to,” says Arriola-Sands reflecting on why organizing Transgress Fest is so close to her heart. For trans musicians who have been too anxious to go to shows, she hopes that the fest will serve as respite and that it will continue for years to come. “This is where you can be showcased. This is where your audience is. This is where your home is.”
Transgress Fest will be held Saturday November 12th at 5PM at the LGBT Center on 4th in Downtown Santa Ana. 305 E 4th St. Santa Ana, CA, 92701. $10-$12 sliding scale.