Margin Walker: When Punk Is Problematic

In this post, I will be examining one of the more underreported aspects of the punk scene, but an important one; marginalization of people in the punk scene, including women, queer people, non-binary individuals and people of color. I feel like while punk can a liberating art form, it still has a long way to go in terms of fully owning up to that reputation as the scene still deals with problems of racism, sexism and other forms of oppressive behaviors.

Everybody who loves punk rock and follows up on the current happenings in the music scene look forward to hearing about new bands, but nobody loves hearing about another prominent member of the punk scene being outed as an abuser and/or bigot, or hearing about/attending shows that turn disastrous when audience members behave problematically. Unfortunately, this is nothing new in the punk scene.

A while ago on this blog, I made mention of the band G.L.O.S.S., a group of queer/trans punks from Olympia, WA. While the band has received a great deal of underground attention for their politics, they are still marginalized by those even within the confines of that very underground that supposedly supports their ideals. Last October, members of the San Francisco band Whirr, tweeted transphobic remarks about G.L.O.S.S. resulting in a backlash. Whirr was subsequently dropped from their record label for their statements, and the band faced intense, almost irreparable scrutiny in the court of public opinion. Of course, this is just one example, and in this case, there were repercussions involved. This is not always the case with such behavior which all too often goes unchecked. Not only does it frequently go unchecked, many people don’t even bother to think that such problems could exist in the punk scene.

I can still recall attending a concert by the feminist noise-punk band Perfect Pussy in Santa Cruz, CA and hearing frontwoman Meredith Graves giving an impassioned spiel about the safety of women at punk shows (and in general) in the wake of the then-recent shootings in Isla Vista targeted primarily at women. After the set was over, she stood before the crowd saying she had overheard various girls in the audience telling each other to look out for “that guy” (a presumed disreputable person). She closed her speech by saying with utter conviction that “if you (males) are not here to provide a safe space for women, you should not be here at all!” This brings up the issue of audience safety for marginalized people in the scene, a segment which has by and large grown over the years. In situations like these, it’s not just what you’re doing, but what you’re not doing as well that brings about the issue of discrimination and lack of safety.

Some oppressive behaviors in the scene are less transparent. For example, racism in punk is still rampant, and not just because their are still blatantly racist hate groups that cling to the punk scene, but because there are often unintentional forms of oppression that cause microagressions and further marginalization. As a result of this, many punks of color have taken to forming their own subcultures within the punk movement, notably Afropunk, to help each other navigate and identify with their culture and how it fits in with punk rock and to fight oppression.

The punk scene is still making progress for marginalized people as it has done for many years, however, it is not perfect. These are just a few examples that have had some sort of rectification, and not a reflection of all instances of bigotry, abuse and other forms of oppression in the punk scene. Problematic behaviors are still likely to occur even in an underground scene which largely champions diversity, equality and respect. There is great work to be done.

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