By Jamie, Sin Vergüenza
“Don’t feel bad for wanting community or family. Get rid of the ppl who will destroy you in the name of that.”
– Lenee V via her twitter account, @dopegirlfresh, 2/17/15
*all names have been changed
“Well, that’s subculture,” Lucy* said, or rather, typed. She’d messaged me over tumblr that evening, after I’d published a short post where I’d written that a conversation from earlier that day had triggered my “ ‘I’m gonna be friendless and alone for my whole life because I couldn’t get any of the queer feminist punks here to like me, much less want me around’ intrusive thoughts.” I’d written about this anxiety before. Lucy had contacted me afterwards on one other occasion.
Lucy is a well-known zine writer, illustrator, and journalist at a long-running popular music magazine. We’d met five years ago while volunteering at our local girls’ rock camp, gotten acquainted while chatting at shows and over social media, and had spent some time together during group hangs. I liked her because she was engaging, talented, and driven, an outspoken critic of male and white supremacy in punk, and a staunch defender of assault and abuse survivors. She also happened to be a fellow light-skinned Latin@ and wlw, one of the very few I’d met at shows in my city. I both enjoyed and felt deeply grateful for her work, and I admired her as a person. I never thought we were ‘friends’, exactly, but I was never bothered by this. I was happy to see her around at zine events and shows and to trade puns and gifs with her over the internet.
That night, talking over tumblr, Lucy pressed me to elaborate on what I’d written. She said that she was confused that I was feeling unwelcome in our local queer feminist punk scene because she’d reached out to me previously. I tried to explain that I had been manipulated and in some cases emotionally abused by several different young queer women we knew. She asked who I was referring to. But since she knew all of the abusers and apologists I was referring to, I figured it would just make me more vulnerable and cause her more stress if I named names, so I refused. She asked me when these incidents occurred, and when I said that some of them had happened a few years ago, she said that people change and grow up. I struggled to explain that I just didn’t feel good around these people anymore, because so many of them had tried to minimize or outright ignore my experiences.
Lucy was unmoved. “Well, fine then. I hope you find people who you can be friends with then, Jamie,” she snapped. She said that she needed to go to bed and signed off abruptly. I’m pretty sure she unfollowed me on a lot of sites the following day. I haven’t talked to her or seen her since.
It hurt, but it didn’t entirely surprise me. It felt like the latest in a long string of similar confrontations and uncomfortable conversations with many of the self-identified feminist punks I know. It felt, in some way, like the final straw, like a bell signaling what might really be the end of my time in punk subculture. I sighed, and tried to accept it.
Truthfully, I never fully ‘identified with’ punk, or believed I’d fit into the subculture. I think there are 2 major reasons for this, the first of which is that I was raised in a loving but very strict household. My mom and my abuela raised me to be kind and respectful, to get good grades, go to college, and have a good, lucrative career as a lawyer or journalist, to put my family first, and to be calm and agreeable and to dress simply and modestly. My first exposure to punk was through a documentary about the history of rock music that my mother bought for me when I was 11 years old. I was immediately drawn to The Clash and to The Ramones, and I was able to get into their music, but I just couldn’t see myself with green hair or a safety pin in my face. And while my mom might have eventually gotten over me getting pierced or dying my hair without her permission, so long as I stayed in school, we never would have heard the end of it from my abuela.
The other reason I couldn’t see myself as a punk was that I couldn’t really see myself as part of any friend group or subculture. I was painfully introverted even as a kid. I was already lugging around baggage from my parents’ divorce, my dad’s emotionally abusive behaviors, and the racial and class dynamics of his relationship with my mom. My mom and I lived with my abuela in a quiet, very middle-working middle class suburb far from the Bronx housing project where my mother had grown up. We didn’t have a car, and we didn’t know any of my (mostly white) classmates or their parents, and my abuela didn’t encourage us to try and make friends. I spent my afternoons with my grandparents, and I spent my weekends with my dad, who lived in a different town. I didn’t socialize very much with any of the other kids I knew, and it didn’t occur to anyone that that might be necessary for my development. I always felt like an outsider around my classmates, and even though I’m technically an adult now, I still haven’t managed to shake that feeling.
That’s the thing about punk subculture, though: it seems like a place where people who don’t fit in are accepted and even celebrated. When I finally saw an opportunity to be involved in punk – it happened relatively late in my life, while I was home for the summer from grad school, doing that volunteer work at the girls’ rock camp – I grabbed it. I’d been listening to feminist punk since the 9th grade, when a girl at my high school made me a mix tape with a lot of well known (and overwhelmingly white) riot grrrl bands on it. When I finally found young women who were starting bands, making zines, and putting on shows and benefits through rock camp, I decided to finally unlearn my self-consciousness and feelings of mild inadequacy and join in. It was hard at first, but I doggedly kept on showing up at my fellow volunteers’ shows. I went to their events, I bought their records and zines, and I made myself talk to them, even though I didn’t think they would want to be friends with me. I devoted myself to supporting their art and activism, and tried not to worry too much about how I’d never look as cool as they did.
I had already been writing for a long time, so I started a blog, where I wrote about gender and sometimes race in punk, and documented what my new social group was doing. Their work felt important, and hearing other young queer women talk and sing about problems like domestic violence, the prison industrial complex, and gentrification made me feel like less of an alien. I’d found other people who were worrying about the same sorts of things I’d been worrying about for what felt like my whole life, and it was a huge relief. It took me a long time to feel comfortable at queer feminist punk things, partly because I was away at school for most of the year. But I showed up as often as I could, and I blogged about my friends’ bands and zines several times a week, even while I was at school. It took a couple of years, but I did eventually start to relax, and feel like I’d been somewhat accepted by my feminist punk peers.
But just as going to shows and hanging out with my friends and acquaintances from rock camp was starting to feel natural-ish to me, an unexpected death happened in my family. My stepfather, who was one of the only men I’d ever fully trusted, died after a short illness, while I was at school. I was devastated, and I felt deeply alone. I came back home, and for a long time, I tried to act as if nothing had changed. I went to even more shows and tried to blog even more, and I didn’t really tell any of my feminist punk friends what had happened. It felt like I still didn’t know them well enough, and like it would be inappropriate to expect them to support me through something so huge and life-altering. So I threw myself even harder into subcultural happenings. I tried to cope with my loss by being as active in feminist punk things as I could be, under the circumstances.
Less than six months after my stepdad’s passing, my friend Gia*, another rock camp volunteer, talked me into starting a band with her. Actually, it started when we formed a one-night only Bikini Kill cover band for an ‘anti-Valentine’s day’ benefit being organized by some friends. One of her former bandmates, Reve, and her friend Ian filled out our lineup. We rehearsed weekly, worked really, really hard, and closed the show with what turned out to be a killer set that got us a lot of compliments. It felt amazingly rewarding, and so when Gia invited me over to start writing original songs after the benefit, I was in. A couple of her old bandmates, both white dudes, played with us as well. I would become best friends with one of them, Guy, for a while.
Gia was very different during our post-benefit rehearsals, though. She was adamant about using basslines she’d written with her previous band, the one Reve was in, though Reve was never in our current project. When I raised questions or concerns about what we were working on, she would dismiss me. “Don’t worry about it,” she’d snap. When I tried to step up and take on more responsibilities in the band, she would look at me skeptically and say, “Well…we’ll see.” When she and Guy made a decision about one of the songs we were working on and I asked them to not make decisions without me, she said that I was overreacting. When I tried to push back against her and call her out for being dismissive and hurtful – and it did hurt me and make me anxious when she’d exclude me and ignore my feelings – she would remind me that these were her songs; she might just have to finish them, on her own, and then burn the tapes to get ‘closure’ (or something…) from that previous band. When I opened my mouth to say that this was another clear manipulation, she shrugged gently, and said, “I’m just trying to be transparent.” In retrospect, I should have insisted on not using any of her previous material, but I was already caught in the cycle of trying to meet her demands and keep her happy.
She had me over for an extra songwriting session, and convinced that even though we were all friends, Guy wasn’t really right for our project, and then talked him into excusing himself from the band. She told me secrets about why her previous band, with Reve, fell apart, and told me lies she’d told to Reve about the entire fiasco. I realized the next time I hung out with Reve what a terrible position Gia’s secrets had put me in.
Over the next few months, Gia and I wrote, and I worked hard on my own at becoming a better riff writer. (She didn’t make me a better guitarist though. She just made me better, or ‘better’ at ripping off Greg Ginn/Black Flag.) She continued to remind me, on a weekly basis, that this was really her project, that she might just end at any moment, and I responded by working even harder. We met with a succession of potential bandmates, all of obnoxiously condescending white guys. During those months, my other, non-punk friends from college started to tell me that I seemed unhappy. When I told them that I was committed to getting the band going, and that I was just trying to keep Gia from giving up on the whole thing, they didn’t waste any time on trying to set me straight. “You’re always really upset after your rehearsals – the shit she’s doing isn’t right!” my friend Manuela insisted. When Gia did eventually just ‘pull the plug’ a few months later, after a particularly bad ‘jam session’ with two particularly annoying dudes, my oldest friend Syd said, “Well, thank christ that’s all over.” It was harsh, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. It was over, and if nothing else, at least I was free of Gia.
The experience effectively put me off the whole being-in-a-band thing. I didn’t feel much like blogging about music either, so instead I turned back to my studies. Even though I didn’t want to be in a band anymore, or at least not with anyone like Gia, I still believed in feminist punk practices and using of identity politics in art. Gia had turned me on to Limp Wrist and Condenada; I wound up falling so in love with Latin and Spanish-language hardcore that I decided to study it for school, and to write my final thesis about a well-known Latin@ hardcore band from the 1990s.
It’s been a few years, and by now, the experience with Gia feels like it was the beginning of the end. I’m still committed to learning about punk, and especially to figuring out respectful and ethical ways to of collecting and assembling peoples’ knowledge. I’m deeply critical of punk subculture, but I still believe it to be a meaningful human creation worthy of careful, systematic study. (There are also broader questions to be asked, I think, about whether academic study can ever be ethical – I’m still working on figuring out that, too.)
Over the years, I’ve observed the same patterns of behavior. Various young women, most but not all of them white, have used the same techniques that Gia used. ‘Friends’ in the feminist punk and zine communities have complimented my creative work, requested my input or effort on one of their projects (the white girls never mention any kind of compensation, btw), developed personal relationships through the work – and then proceeded to ignore my needs and/or feelings. They demanded my complete vulnerability, and they burdened me with their secrets and traumas, which I wanted to know about, but wasn’t always equipped to hear about. When I didn’t feel comfortable with something, didn’t want to talk, or didn’t want to see certain people who had hurt me, that wasn’t important – I was expected to listen, show up, to do whatever was asked of me. I tried to figure out how to set limits, how to talk about reciprocity, how to get what I needed from my friendships. It never really seemed to work though, no matter how hard I tried.
My observation is that subcultures in general, and punk in particular, have built in ‘boundary issues’. In subcultures, the only boundary that matters is the one between those in the group, and everyone else. Within the subculture, punks perpetuate not only oppressive racist, sexist, classist attitudes, but also rape and abuse culture. I tried to tell a few different feminist punks about what had happened with Gia, and with other young women who had hurt me. None of them seemed to understand why I was hurt or upset. When I tried to tell Reve, she literally said, “Well, I decided that I don’t really care about how Gia is. Because, I just really want to be in a band.” I stopped trying to tell other ‘feminist punks’ how I felt, because no one wants to be a tattletale, right? I didn’t want to alienate anyone. But not being able to say what I was feeling definitely impeded my ability to conduct relationships. It felt like I couldn’t win or make friends I felt I could trust either way.
Ultimately, subcultures don’t exist to provide support to participants. They exist to reproduce themselves through cultural items like records, zines, and visual art. The most productive members usually are the most powerful and most popular within the subculture or local scene – and so, it makes more sense to keep creating than to stop to listen to someone’s feelings. It also makes more sense to keep working with the most powerful people in a subculture than to hold them accountable for abusing or assaulting another person.
And though I still believe in punk by Latin@ artists and other marginalized peoples, at this point, it seems to me like even the most successful non-white, non-straight , non-cis punks can’t really do much about this. In particular, punks of color who are critical of whiteness and abuse culture in punk, who have worked hard and gained large followings, still have to work with venues, labels, publications, and other entities run by punks who might not care about making punk more inclusive or safe for marginalized people. Socially aware, queer, race and gender conscious punk can feel like a lifeline, but the punks who make it still have to navigate a very white and white-identified subculture. It would appear that they often have to make compromises, and work with people who perpetuate abuse and oppression, to be able to continue to work. The system is sturdy, and it’s hard to subvert it.
So. That night when Lucy told me, “Well, that’s subculture,” I knew exactly what she meant. I didn’t even disagree with her. But it felt like a justification for how I’d been treated, and that felt disappointing, especially coming from her.
Lately, it feels like I’m on something of an extended indefinite hiatus from punk subculture. I’m trying to spend more time with friends outside the subculture and my family. I feel less inclined to seek out or spend time even with the ‘feminist’ punks I know, not just (‘just’) because of the abuse and lack of accountability, and not just because of my apparent boundary issues, but also because as I get older and more critical, I find it more impossible to ignore the constant migroaggressions and the casual racism, ableism, classism, nativism, and transmisogyny that seem to be an inescapable part of white feminism.
At the same time, I find myself spending a lot more time thinking about punk and subculture. I kind of have to think about it for my schoolwork, but I spend most of my time wondering about other people who have been harmed in punk and feminist punk scenes. I think the most about other young punks of color, and I wonder if writing pieces like this one might help another ‘niña buena’ (or ‘good’, ‘respectable’ girl from any culture) who’s trying to figure herself out, avoid shitty abusive racist punks, and balance her need for friends with similar cultural and political interests with school, work, family, and her health. It’s not easy. We need all the inspiration and motivation we can find.
I hope that all the young punks of color out there are benefitting from punk, or whatever subculture they’re into. I genuinely hope that they’re having a better time than I did, that they’ll be successful, in punk, or wherever they end up – we’re all looking for ways to make our lives feel full and meaningful, and punk really works for some of us.
As for me, I’m not sure how or how much I’ll be able to participate in punk in the future. I wonder if I was overreacting or being overly sensitive all those times I felt my boundaries were being trampled. I try to figure out how to do better, and wonder if I’ll ever feel like I have friends that I can really trust. Either way, my general plan is to not ever let anyone, punk or not, take advantage of my desire for community or friendship, or keep me from looking out for anyone else who seems vulnerable.