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[Guest Post] Why That Fat Wreck Chords Rainbow is Still Bothering Me by Candace Hansen

Now that queerness = cred, will rainbow T-Shirts be a once-a-year gesture, or will Fat Wreck actually take a look at what being an ally to queer liberation would look like for their business?

The following is a piece written by my friend, drummer, and scholar Candace Hansen. I've wanted to use this space as an outlet for other voices for a while now, so when Candace mentioned wanting to write on this topic for a wider audience, I knew I wanted to invite them to share it here. Issues of access, legacy and creative support are important ones, regardless of which genre of music you're interested in, so I hope you'll read on with those things in mind.

Why That Fat Wreck Chords Rainbow is Still Bothering Me

by Candace Hansen

If you haven’t seen it yet, Bay Area-based pop-punk label Fat Wreck Chords released a Pride t-shirt earlier this month.

Look, I know we’re tired of the Pride merch discourse. We’ve seen the memes, we’ve seen the hideous Target suit, we know it's wack. But for some reason, this Fat Wreck t-shirt has been seriously haunting me! I’m a queer drummer and music scholar and wanted to share some thoughts to hopefully inspire a discussion toward what allyship might look like for those wanting to support queer people, in this specific case queer people in punk.

This isn’t an attempt to cancel Fat for engaging in Rainbow Capitalism. It’s about the complexity of what it actually means when an entity like Fat Wreck Chords creates a product like this, and the problems and the possibility that comes with it. I believe that Fat Wreck cares and really has an opportunity to make a change!

Fat Wreck and pop-punk scenes have historically AND CURRENTLY not been a safe or even tolerant spaces for LGBTQ+ people and making this shirt without acknowledgment sweeps that under the rug.

It’s the year 2000 and I’ve decided that music is my life. My cool new friend asks if I want to come over after school and listen to her NOFX Heavy Petting Zoo CD.

“I’m pretty sure this first song is about being gay,” she looks at me, then looks away, retorting into the abyss “ewww. I would never, that’s DISGUSTING!”

The refrain gets louder, pumping out of late ‘90s home stereo speakers “LET THEM BE, JUST DON’T GET FUCKIN NEAR ME!”

I never go to her house again out of fear of being found out. I can’t even remember her name. This is the first time I remember hearing queerness vaguely mentioned in punk music.

“Hobophobic” is an ambiguous and problematic play on words about hating unhoused people in the verbal terrain of hating gay people. It stings even more for queer listeners who know that queer people face houselessness at twice the rate of straight folks. Meant to be a joke, the hook is the attitude that most pop-punk fans and musicians have had towards queer folks since the inception of the genre. We’re usually a punch line, an insult, or a fetish. It’s also just the tip of the iceberg of ambiguously gay yet homophobic songs written from a straight dude gaze on this label.

Songs like this let seriously fucked up behavior and attitudes get passed off as jokes, as acceptable, and as profitable. Worse, this style of being an asshole for the sake of pissing people off in the name of punk authenticity has turned from teenage boy skate spot bullshit into a business and form of adolescent punk masculinity performed by grown men. This is the culture of the genre, and if you can’t take a joke, then you’re a poser. Unfortunately, these jokes, unlike the fantasy of one punk truth, have real implications.

I started going to shows my freshman year of high school. I got physically assaulted and called faggot and dyke by countless bros at shows – one of the first indicators of me being nonbinary was nobody being fully sold on which gendered slur to hurl at me. Hell, Fat Mike even harassed the shit out of me at a Rancid/NOFX gig at a now-defunct Anaheim venue, calling me names and making fun of me from the stage for being “too punk for NOFX” until he felt bad that my tween mohawk fell down before Rancid played. Being a 15-year-old bullied by a grown man in a band that I actually kind of liked was a rough experience, and it wasn’t the first or last time something like that happened to me. It wasn’t even the worst time it happened. BUT this time led me to believe that that kind of treatment was acceptable by men on and off the stage, something so many of us had to deal with growing up. Although this is my experience, this isn’t about me. Ask any queer person, trans person, woman, or person of color you know about being alone at a Fat Records or mainstream straight pop-punk show before Bad Cop/Bad Cop was signed and I guarantee you will hear a similar story.

If you have an identity that afforded you anonymity and comradery at these shows you will never know what it felt like to be a walking target in these spaces.

A lot has changed in the last 20 years, but a lot has stayed the same too. Check out this article I wrote in 2016 if you want to hear more stories from the queer punk community about what a mess the scene is to navigate, like the story of a young trans person who left a pop-punk show in So Cal in 2016 out of fear of getting attacked after the crowd started chanting “faggot” in the name of free speech.

The Fat Wreck Chords “Fat Pride” shirt gives me a lot of complicated feelings because it shows me that Fat Wreck is trying to make a statement about being inclusive – which is good! But it feels bad that there has been no comment on their commitments to queer people in their own scene along with this t-shirt. For queer punks who have witnessed and experienced being literally unsafe at events related to this label, watching them profit off the aesthetics of queerness and homophobia simultaneously feels especially rough.

One of the biggest issues for queer and trans punk artists, as well as artists of color, is a lack of access to support when it comes to recording, distribution and pressing. This has led to the erasure of LGBTQ+ punk bands historically. Fat’s predominantly white male roster has dismally low representation and investment into queer and trans artists.

Not only am I a drummer who's been organizing shows and fests and playing, touring, and recording in punk bands for 20 years, I’m also now a scholar who works on queer and punk music at UCLA. One thing I’ve noticed both by being a fan and studying queer and trans punk music is that it is incredibly difficult to find older recordings of trans and queer punk musicians, and when you do find those recordings they’re usually unreleased demos or practice tapes that resurfaced years later. This holds true for many punk bands of color too.

Think about The Screamers
Think about Catholic Discipline
Think about The Bags
Think about Pure Hell

Think about the hundreds of records we will never even know existed because no label would invest in queer bands to record or distribute their music. Think about the bands that will never get signed today because of implicit anti-queer bias.

What this boils down to is that labels rarely take a chance on queer artists, especially dykes and trans people. Often the reason given is that people aren’t interested in queer music because it doesn’t fit the neat boundaries of the genre, even in the world of punk that prides itself on being outside of the norm. I’ll save the rest for my dissertation for all you nerds who are interested. But rigid expectations of what punk is or what punk is supposed to be DO exist, and shape who is funded, who is repped and booked and cited as an influence, thus, who is remembered. Fortunately, it’s much easier for DIY bands to record themselves now, but if you look at label rosters and physical vinyl releases - which still matter even in the digital age - they’re just as white and straight and cisgender as they ever have been.

Don’t even get me started on my own journey as a drummer – let's stick to the two main issues at hand here: legacies of erasure and the potential to shift toward a more equitable horizon.

Think about shows in your community. How many trans bands are you seeing on bills with the local straight guys who draw a large crowd? How many trans and queer artists and bands do you listen to, actively and honestly support, and show your friends? How many queer bands have you paid to intentionally see, or booked on your own gigs?

“LET THEM BE, JUST DON’T GET FUCKIN NEAR ME” is echoing in my mind

How many queer labels can you name, or how many punk labels can you think of that consistently and honestly sign and invest in queer artists? Get Better Records cannot be the only people responsible for releasing queer music in 2021, though they put out significantly more queer and trans artists than any other punk label and have a fraction of the support.

How many queer bands are getting good record deals at predominantly straight punk labels who have the majority of the power, connections, and money within the genre? In a nutshell – for folks who aren’t totally plugged into the behind-the-scenes stuff – labels matter even in punk. People find your music because of the work that labels do. People are able to buy physical copies of your music, your music is able to be part of a web of current releases, and your music is able to be essentially archived and part of a historical record because of the things a label does.

Beyond supporting artists, labels like Fat have the potential to make trans and queer bands visible, making queer fans feel supported and seen. We all know that the power of feeling seen and understood through punk music is lifesaving.

Actually signing queer bands, putting out their records, putting them on shows and fests, and genuinely supporting them in public ways would mean way more for visibility than a t-shirt.

Labels who want to support queer people literally have the power to shift the narrative overnight. Signing and committing to actually invest in 10 trans and queer bands in June would do exponentially more in the long run than quietly donating money to an already funded gay non-profit. Donating a portion of proceeds to a large corporate non-profit like Trevor Project is doing the bare minimum while benefiting from the optics of allyship.

I’m glad to see Fat Wreck make a gesture about wanting to support queer organizations. I’m sure it was done with good intentions. But I am curious, what is “a portion” and why choose the Trevor Project? It’s one of the most funded LGBTQ organizations. In 2020 alone they raised 35 million dollars. They do lifesaving work, but I just want to point out that they get a lot of corporate funding and are in no danger of losing any of it.

Honestly, to just make a rainbow shirt and donate the funds to the Trevor Project without any statement on why they’ve made the shirt, why they chose The Trevor Project, or what the shirt means to the label, feels like they just googled the first gay non-profit to save their ass for making a rainbow shirt. Further, what is the portion they are donating? One dollar per shirt is not enough earn the right to appropriate one of the most visible queer things to make it seem like you care, engaging in a deeply capitalist act as a punk org.

During a year when the most anti-trans legislation has been passed ever, that Fat Wreck money could be much more impactful investing in local organizations working for trans and queer health, especially Lyon-Martin, a Bay Area health clinic that is struggling to survive even though they provide necessary and affordable services for their trans and queer clients. Or they could have donated to the Transgender Law Center an org committed to racial justice fighting for trans liberation in the face of anti-trans legislation. They could have donated to the local LGBT Center in Oakland who provides services to the local community, or something not so local but doing necessary direct work like For The Gworls a black trans led org that helps trans people pay their rent. If they really want to call it a “Fat Pride” shirt, why not donate to queer people doing fat liberation work like Nalgona Positivity Pride’s eating disorder support groups for qtpoc or provide some scholarships for queer people for Virgie Tovar’s Camp Thunder Thighs? Or is being Fat just another joke too….

The fact that they didn’t choose something like the aforementioned organizations communicates that Fat does not actively have investments in the Bay Area queer punk community. I even tried gently asking about the shirt on their Instagram post, which got no response. If Fat actually talked to a local queer punk about what the immediate needs are, their dollars could have made a huge difference. I’m sure there are plenty of them who would be stoked to have a conversation with the label.

To just quietly donate an unknown portion of t-shirt sales to the most known corporate-funded non-profit turns the lens away from how Fat Wreck, and all punk labels, have failed the trans and queer community, which they don’t actually see as part of their own.

I wrote this because I do believe that Fat Wreck cares and wants to do better. I believe that wrapped up in all that shock value bullshit is a critical core. I know that Fat Wreck was invested in Punk Voter and educating youth about politics in the early 2000s. Some of the hand-outs I got at Warped Tour 2003 really taught me a lot, and I still think of them fondly as part of my political awakening.

Real allyship to the queer community would look like being invested in what queer punk bands are up to and what their individual and community needs are. It would look like funding queer things in the Bay and beyond – and not just in June. It would look like having a more diverse roster and actively investing in queer artists JUST as much as the cishet white boys that already have an audience. Real allyship would be listening to concerns and thinking about how to build a better future together.

I hope that Fat will take a moment to think about how real allyship - to trans and queer people, to people of color, and to women, could be a part of a new chapter of their punk legacy.

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