Much More Than a DIY Haven, The Smell Is One of LA’s Most Queer-Friendly Spaces
The DIY institution's impending closure could mean the loss of a safe space for young people still grappling with their sexualities.
Photo via Instagram
The first time Byron Scott Adams made the 45-minute trek from his sleepy Anaheim home to Downtown LA’s The Smell, the 17-year-old was still getting comfortable with the idea of driving by himself—let alone discussing his still-closeted sexuality with others.
“I thought it was going to be this grand adventure,” the former member of punk outfit Palm Reader recalls of his vague, romantic notions of the all-ages DIY institution en route to the venue in 2007. What he found instead felt more like home: A diverse room of radical-thinking peers and members of his favorite bands, a majority of whom were on the queer spectrum or otherwise part of the queer community.
“My brain exploded in the best way,” he recalls. “That to me was just really eye-opening and really exciting. I knew after, I had to continue going.”
And he did. Weeks later, Adams and a friend drove up to catch Bleached precursors Mika Miko, only to find the show was sold out. Rather than turn the teens away, owner Jim Smith asked if they would like to volunteer that evening in exchange for entry to the show. “I was very touched,” Adams says. Soon after, he committed to volunteering at The Smell three to four times a week until he began to take the stage himself with Palm Reader in 2011.
“A big percentage of me being comfortable with who I am comes from my experiences at The Smell, the music, the people, the environment,” says Adams, now 26. “And a lot of people I was seeing were identifying with groups I wasn’t familiar with at the time. I was hearing things about being trans, or non-conforming—people being body-positive, and just being really supportive. I started to feel a lot more comfortable in being myself.”
In the month and a half since Smith discovered a demolition notice posted to the venue’s door, artists and community members alike have rallied around The Smell, which for 18 years has served as both a gateway into the city’s elusive DIY scene and its central hub. Supporters have lamented its potential closure as the loss of a “safe space”—not only for kids looking to escape their bedrooms and cut their noise punk teeth before an audience, but for those still grappling with their sexualities.
Drew Arriola Sands performs with Trap Girl. Photo courtesy the artist.
Despite LA’s legacy of LGBT activism and historic queer-friendly neighborhoods like West Hollywood, Silver Lake, and Los Feliz, queer-identifying youth have few options for community spaces to explore their sexual, creative, and artistic identities; most venues cater to a 21+ crowd. Even for those of age, the introduction of alcohol into a space can make it feel unsafe by default—it’s a large part of why The Smell has remained a drug and alcohol-free venue since its inception. For many, The Smell offers queer youth a home outside of the city's posh gay clubs and bars that may make a more punk-leaning, garage-band-playing, Doc-wearing queer demographic feel further alienated from the already few spaces available to them.
Paul Roque, drummer for queer punk group Frisco Dykes, discovered The Smell at 16 while attending Mika Miko’s 666 EP release show in 2006. Stepping into the supremely sweaty, over-capacity gig on a muggy July evening, Roque recalls looking around the narrow, brick-lined venue and taking in the diverse crowd packed in around him and the soaking wet artists on stage.
“I remember thinking that I had finally found what I was looking for, in terms of a place to be and to find new music and new people,” he says. Now an event coordinator at Clockwork Queer, a DIY organization dedicated to throwing queer-centric shows, Roque credits his time at The Smell for inspiring the work he does today to help queer artists showcase talent they may not feel comfortable sharing elsewhere.
“It helped shape the person that I am, in the sense that I’m actively involved in the underground music community and I really enjoy it,” he says. “I don't know what I’d be doing with my free time had I not found [The Smell] at the time where I was pretty much depressed about coming out, and needed something to channel all these fucked up emotions through. I feel like The Smell provided me with some bit of relief.”
Though The Smell isn’t explicitly billed as a queer space, the venue has hosted events by, for, and inclusive of the community since its early days. Adams believes The Smell attracts a queer and ally crowd because of its history as a “genuine, honest space,” a reputation that Smith has protected since he first opened the venue in 1998. Smith and others interviewed for this piece say they’ve experienced no backlash against the venue for hosting such events, nor have they encountered intolerant behavior within the venue itself.
“Once we know what kind of people they are, automatically you’ll have all kinds of people that feel safe at that space," says Drew Arriola Sands of queer hardcore group Trap Girl. "Whether they’re a queer owner, a transgendered owner, or a feminist—not limited to that—but if this person expressed these kinds of ideas, people like me will automatically feel like, ‘I can go there. I can be there. I can play there.’”
At The Smell, events like the Roque-organized Queer Brunch and the annual Riot Grrrl Carnival have not only helped queer youth find community, but have helped build momentum among queer artists who have struggled to organize shows elsewhere.
When Arriola Sands needed a venue to host a fundraisers for the forthcoming trans-centric music festival TransgressFest, Smith didn’t question it. “I’ve organized shows literally in parking lots where guys give me the run-around for like two weeks…He literally sent me a date and said, ‘You got it.’”
A handful of other DIY, queer-friendly spaces exist in LA, but like The Smell, their not-for-profit operations have left them vulnerable to gentrification. Pehrspace, another all-ages DIY venue established in 2006, will close its Historic Filipinotown location on July 31 after receiving an eviction notice from proprietors last month. Like The Smell, Pehrspace frequently offers LGBTQI artists a platform to share their works, hosting queer-centric functions like “The Mid-Shake: A Queer Sockhop” and events thrown by Coldworld, an organization that puts on pop-up queer dance parties throughout the city. Community members say the expression and exposure these spaces and events provide are critical for helping normalize alternative identities from a young age.
As the future of The Smell remains uncertain, Smith and the venue's supporters are gearing up for August's Save The Smell Fest to raise support and funds to search for an alternative location, should the wrecking ball come down. Some remain optimistic about a potential move, citing growing tensions among marginalized groups as gentrification and a sharp socioeconomic divide continue to take hold over surrounding Downtown LA.
Roque says he was recently kicked out of neighboring Smell bar King Eddy’s after a bouncer watched Roque fan himself with a geisha-style fan, telling him it was “fucking annoying” and that he could “take that shit somewhere else.”
“It’s fucked up and scary that people aren't afraid to be upfront with their racism and homophobia and classism,” he says. “It’s like people literally don’t give a shit anymore.” But no matter where Smell lands, he says, “that sense of community will still be there.”
“I feel like these moments in this community make people realize that these spaces are really fucking important,” Roque says. “Not just for us, but for people who haven’t discovered safe spaces yet.”
Artemis Thomas-Hansard is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.