The Noisey Guide to Staying Safe as a Non-Cisgender Person in Music
Prioritizing the safety of trans, non-binary, and additional marginalized people in music scenes has and always will be crucial.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
There is a clip on YouTube that immortalizes the infinite compassion of G.L.O.S.S, the Olympia queer punk band that disbanded last year. In the name of creating an intimate space that she feels comfortable performing in, frontwoman Sadie Switchblade offers her crowd a moment of self-care: "I am forgiven, I am loved, I am nuanced, flawed, tender, imperfect and gorgeous." She asks them to inwardly repeat, "You are loved and we are G.L.O.S.S—thank you." G.L.O.S.S were incredibly rare in that they knew how disorientating going to shows can be for transgender and non-binary people, and that DIY can do way better than the archetypal Fugazi Vegan Stoner Bro promoter who will insist his shows are inclusive, yet misgender you in the same sentence. It always felt like they were demanding more from their scene; aiming to put as much distance as possible between the state and underground queer politics.
As Donald Trump continues to directly antagonise the LGBT community, the absence of G.L.O.S.S feels more significant than ever. So many trans and non-binary people escape state hostility and day-to-day invalidation within underground music scenes across America. Underground, queer-centric music scenes are incredibly validating: they have the power not only to forge support systems but to amplify queer discourse. At the moment, it feels as though the industry is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate safely for anybody with a non-cisgender identity. Trump has already revoked guidelines on bathroom accessibility, which were put in place directly to help ease pressure on trans people in places like music venues. Our safety, even within the places that are supposed to protect us, is rapidly deteriorating. The guidelines being put in place made using the bathroom slightly less daunting. Revoking them sends out a clear and dangerous message that trans people are not welcome. Trump's actions serve to normalize transphobia globally.
I spoke to a number of musicians and organizations about how to stay safe as a trans or non-binary person within the music industry at this time in the hope these efforts will have a positive ripple effect.
Do Your Homework
In an unfair and frustrating move, it takes more effort for trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people to feel safe that it does cisgender people. Avoid making decisions without considering your safety first. Is the venue accommodating? Who else is on the bill? "We recently turned down a show with a band because they came across as somewhat right wing," says Lex Noens of all-trans band 4th Curtis. "There's definitely a lot more paranoia at the moment, but I think it's justified." What are their values? What is the area like? What are the transport arrangements? Can you get away quickly if you need to? Is there a backstage area where you can avoid socialising if necessary? Is the promoter willing to make restrooms gender neutral for your show? Are they willing to refuse entry to anybody who is likely to make you feel unsafe? It's vital that you aren't put in a dangerous situation with no clear escape route. Do your research, ask around and don't be afraid of refusing shows. In fact, you're more likely to find trans-inclusive promoters by doing so and being vocal about it.
If something about a show gives you a bad vibe, reach out to the people involved and check that your safety has been considered. If a venue or promoter isn't willing to look into something and take your concern seriously, you probably got that bad vibe for a good reason. Call those people out, the financial loss is (unfortunately) one of few reasons these people may be forced into changing their ways. Smaller venues usually have a fairly relaxed cancellation policy, so don't let promoters guilt you into going ahead with something that compromises your safety. Find out the details that you need early on and don't be afraid to say no.
There's an ongoing discussion within the LGBT community at the moment about what a "good ally" actually is: first and foremost, an ally has to be prepared to actively take weight off of their queer friend's shoulders. JL Simonson and Jaclyn Walsh from the Massachusetts punk band Dump Him stress the importance of cisgender people actively calling out bigotry. "Trans people do enough emotional labour, and it's not solely our responsibility to call out transphobia," says Simonson, who plays guitar in the band. Ask your cisgender friends to come to a show with you if you feel unsafe, and ask them to keep an ear out for any form of transphobia.
The buddy system can also be helpful in normalising gender-neutral pronouns and making your preferences clear without confrontation. Make sure the people you are with know your preference and use them as often as possible. If anybody uses your deadname, have your cisgender friend interject and correct them. It's important to recognize that some sections of the trans community are in greater danger than others—such as trans women of colour and disabled trans people—and it is equally important to avoid putting them into a potentially dangerous position by making their preference clear.
On a more general level, it's always a good idea to invite your fellow trans friends with you. Being the only transgender person in the room can be incredibly daunting, but being one in a group is more often validating—not to mention the fact that security is more likely to take complaints from multiple people more seriously.
Never Feel Guilty For Putting Your Safety First
Danny Wolfe, who fronts the UK-based pop punk band Jesus and his Judgemental Father, spent much of last year playing packed out American basements. He's tired of being expected to comfort people with guilty consciences. "I can't stress enough how uncomfortable and awkward it is when somebody apologizes profusely after being corrected [on pronouns]. It Isn't fair that these situations often get turned into reassuring somebody that they're not a bad person." Too often, trans people are made to feel bad for demanding more from their scenes—but it's important to see through that and continue to do so. According to Human Rights Campaign, twenty-six transgender people were killed in America last year. The trans community are too often made to feel guilty for having specific requirements to ensure their safety, it's imperative that we tackle this.
"It's okay to not play places where you don't think you'll feel safe," says Wolfe. "If you do go decide to play somewhere outside of your comfort zone, tell your bandmates. If that means staying in the van until your show, that's fine. If it means bandmates putting themselves in front of people trying to talk to you, that's fine. If it means not going to the bathroom alone, that's fine."
Rae Spoon is a Canadian singer-songwriter who identifies as non-binary. They stress that legislation and power structures are so inherently against trans safety, that the only way it can be achieved is by the trans community defending themselves. "Trans people are often criminalized for actions made in self-defense. If nothing else protects a person, they need to protect themselves."
Only Support Venues That Support You
Supporting venues that care about you is vital. Music venues can be a toxic melting pot of bigoted regulars who were drinking at the bar hours before the show and young queer people seeking solidarity and safety. It's incredibly important that inclusive venues, such as The Vera Project in Seattle and Brooklyn's The Silent Barn, are championed louder than their subpar contemporaries. Both venues have worked tirelessly to ensure that trans and non-binary people are made to feel welcome. For example, both venues have gender-neutral bathrooms and regularly book bands that have trans members. Bringing more attention to the work of venues like these helps to set a higher standard of inclusivity.
Try to avoid supporting venues that aren't going out of their way to support you. Being blissfully ignorant isn't good enough, venues that aren't listening can't continue to be supported; pacifism is as dangerous as denouncing support for us. If you do want to go to a show at one of these venues, try to avoid funding them and ask your friends to do the same; ask for tap water at the bar and don't bring big coats or jackets to avoid paying a cloakroom charge.
What can venues do to make themselves more accommodating to transgender folk? "So many things can be done!" insists Marie McGwier, co-founder of not-for-profit project Gender Is Over, which advocates for gender self-determination. "A lot of the time, these [larger] venues will break out entry lines based on somebody's perceived sex. Think about the way it feels for a gender non-conforming person to go see bands whose leads are trans, and have to be sorted into a gendered line to get in. They can take a stand and use explicit language around behaviors, like unwanted touching, and ways of being that will not be tolerated. They can work harder to bring in more acts that have non-conforming members. They can work to normalize the experience in a way that grants safety for everyone."
Rae Spoon adds that security plays a huge part beyond gendered entry lines. "Security [needs] to be educated on not reading out names from people's ID, questioning their sex or the fact that they may look different due to body modification."
While it's clearly reductive to focus on restrooms when talking about trans inclusivity—peeing comfortably should be an absolute given by now—they still matter. "It's a huge sign of solidarity from the venue," says Lex Noens. "If it's obvious that the venue is aware of bathroom policing, it's also likely to be aware of transphobia in general, which means you can talk to a staff member is there's a problem. That's a huge comfort." Having gender-neutral bathrooms goes beyond just supporting transgender customers too. Dump Him's Jaclyn Walsh points out that these facilities are often more accessible to customers with physical disabilities. "If they are single stall, they can be used as a decompression space for those who are hypersensitive to sensory and emotional stimuli and experience sensory overload," says Walsh, which is something that's common but stigmatized at shows.
If You're Able To, Be Loud About Your Identity
Being vocal and clear about your gender identity is a privilege that not everybody has, but it's definitely worth using if it is possible for you. "It can be a really good tactic for finding other non-cis people and solidarity," says McGwier. The community aspect of being trans, and of the wider LGBT community, is such a vital defence mechanism against mainstream queer prejudice. To be vocally trans is not only to attract people with similar identities but also to help show people who are gender-questioning that it's okay.
Lessening the queerness of your art and yourself can be detrimental to your mental health. "Presenting as an openly queer band is salient to my well-being in this political climate, as it enables me to feel safe in my creative spaces," says Simonson. It's as important now than it has ever been that trans voices are amplified louder than those of our oppressors. Being vocal, open, and clear not only helps to maintain some level of trans visibility within the music industry, it can also grow it—and help us find safety in numbers.
The rate at which safety for trans and non-binary people within the music industry is deteriorating is alarming—and it wasn't good enough to start with. We saw as recently as May, when allegations of sexual assault were made against Ben Hopkins of PWR BTTM, that the trans community is too often tricked into being made to feel safe in environments where they are at risk. Ultimately, the biggest improvements to trans visibility and safety are going to be made by trans individuals who are able to identify possible risks firsthand. But the wider industry absolutely needs to be supportive enough to facilitate that. Feeling safe as a transgender individual in any predominantly cisgender community can be difficult, and state attacks on the rights of trans people serve only to intensify that. Previously, music scenes have felt like antidotes to state hostility and non-acceptance; microcosms wherein discourse is amplified and safety is prioritized. Music scenes have birthed some of the most important moments of trans acceptance in recent history. If the idea of safe space antidotes is to be dismantled by the state, then we must instead create something that is not only oppositional to mainstream bigotry but confrontational. Taking extra precautions can only do so much. The wider music community has to start to prioritise the safety of trans and non-binary people.
Marty Hill is a writer living in Manchester. Follow them on Twitter.