Shaggy hair. Wispy goatees. Tight jeans. Strange forearm tattoos. No, it’s not Brooklyn or Echo Park -- it’s a party in a huge, shabby backyard on a sleepy residential street on the far east side of Austin. And those cute, shaggy, tattooed rock-and-roll boys dancing around in front of the stage? They’re actually girls. Or, more accurately, they’re somewhere in between.
It’s the last day of the annual mammoth music festival known as South by Southwest, but this grassroots rock show is called GayBiGayGay, a simultaneous nod to and dig at the mainstream festival that takes over downtown Austin a few miles away. Good vibes are flowing as freely as the all-you-can-drink beer ($10 for a refillable cup with your name on it in black marker), oversize sunglasses are everywhere, and a couple hundred pretty, gender-queer young things are busy flirting and dancing the afternoon away.
“GayBiGayGay is a queer music festival in the woods,” explains Silky Shoemaker, 25, who, together with Hazey Fairless, 27, organizes the event, now in its third year. “It’s a free, all-ages, all-day-long gay band event with an emphasis on being out of doors, lawn chairs, festive decor, DIY, nudity, satin, the utopia, and rock 'n' roll.”
There’s also an undoubted emphasis on disrupting binary gender norms -- it seems that we’re not supposed to be quite sure who’s doing whom when the femme, polka-dot-sporting lead singer of local band the Hot as Shits sings, “I love the feel of the wind on my tits / I can’t get enough of your ass on my clit.” But everyone cheers anyway.
That ambiguity is part of the point of GayBiGayGay, a festival that reflects a growing population of visibly gender-queer (or otherwise nonidentified) youths across the country. In fact, it seems that most of the people here have a problem with strict labels and, when pressed, claim “queer” as the only term that accurately describes them -- if you have to go there.
Some of this community’s recent visibility can be traced to the emergence of a few high-profile, ambiguously gendered, female-bodied celebrities in the last several years, including The L Word’s Daniela Sea and indie-rock group Le Tigre’s lesbian-identified but ambiguously male J.D. Samson. In fact, Samson is here, sharing a lawn blanket and a box of strawberries with New York-based performance artist Dynasty Handbag. Samson’s side project, a DJ duo aptly titled “MEN,” is one of the festival’s headliners.
“There’s definitely a trans revolution happening right now,” says Samson. “And [it] has been happening for the last decade, I would say, in growing numbers. People have been letting themselves be themselves, doing their gender as a nonbinary situation.”
Gender-bending and rock music have gone hand in hand for a long time, but not usually in the female-to-male direction, nor embraced by such a relatively young, visible crowd in the middle of a blatantly red state.
Kristen Schilt, a professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston, dressed in black and white petticoats and with shocking white hair, is in the crowd with her partner, Stacey. “I think, particularly among young, female-bodied people, we’re starting to see more of a change than among male-bodied people,” she says. “There are still tighter strictures on what you can do if you're male-bodied.”
Her sister-in-law, trans-male-identified Katy Koonce, whose eponymous band is a crowd favorite, adds, regarding Austin’s uniquely liberal Texan environment: “If you look at this whole ‘Keep Austin Weird’ thing -- it’s like, ‘We can own this and make it part of our town instead of being ashamed about it.’ Because we’re rock 'n' roll, and we’re educated, and we’re political. We’re this blue heart in the middle of a red state, and I think people start to take pride in that.”
As the afternoon progresses into evening, people get up from their blankets on the grass, wander over to the shed-turned-makeshift staging area, mingle with friends, or scarf down a Vietnamese sandwich from a makeshift Bánh mì stand. Spontaneous, ambisexual make-out sessions erupt. Puzzled neighbors peer down the driveway.
And because it doesn’t really matter how you identify here, there is a sizable number of female lesbians, male gay men -- even some straight people.
“When I came out, I’d never met someone who was a feminine queer,” says femme-lesbian-identifying Sarah Adorable, of Olympia, Wash.-based Scream Club. “All my role models were butch girls, and that’s it -- I felt very unaccepted, like I wasn’t actually a genuine gay person. [Increasingly], you don’t have to be defined by a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ -- you can accept both, and you can go back and forth, and maybe the identity you have right now isn’t the one you’re gonna have forever.”
As she talks, a girl with a necktie fashioned out of a maxi-pad walks by.
After dark, Samson takes the turntables and, in a wry nod to the crowd, segues her DJ set into a song that most people here probably weren’t alive to hear on the radio: Deniece Williams’s “Let’s Hear it for the Boy.” The energy is high; the crowd screams and proceeds to kick up even more backyard dust into the humid Austin night.