On the night of Saturday, April 1, hardcore band Scatterbrained, no-wave group TV-14, and postpunk unit Elevator Games play on a five-band bill at a DIY venue in Pilsen—a pretty standard scenario for an underground punk gig. But there’s something nonstandard about these bands. For one thing, they all popped into existence at the same time, just six weeks ago. For another, more than half the musicians involved identify as queer and trans.
Christened the Rock Lotto, the show features bands composed of players who basically dropped their names into a hat and allowed a random raffle-style drawing to partner them with strangers (or at the very least with people who weren’t already their bandmates elsewhere). Everyone practiced for six weeks, and on Saturday they’ll make their debuts at a show that doubles as a fund-raiser for the annual Fed Up Fest (to be held July 28 through 30 this year). The pro-LGBTQ punk festival is in its fourth year, and if previous installments are any guide, attendees can safely expect bracing volume, healthy mosh pits, and (as the the Fed Up collective’s mission statement puts it) “a space of defiance, empowerment, pogoing, and change.”
Fed Up Fest advocates for queer, trans, gender-nonconforming, and intersex punks in a music community that (like most of the rest of the world) often ignores their existence—or worse. “If we can do a tiny piece to eradicate that, even if it’s just for a weekend or a once-a-week meeting, that’s really important to us,” says Fed Up member Isabella Mancini. “It’s a bummer there’s three days a year that you don’t hate punk. I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish the rest of the year didn’t suck.”
The Fed Up collective sees its roots in a short-lived New York City direct-action coalition called Fed Up Queers (FUQ), which grew out of pioneering AIDS activist group ACT UP in the late 90s. FUQ tried hard to make the whole year not suck, pushing back against what they saw as assimilationist tendencies in some strains of LGBTQ activism—perhaps most famously, they chained themselves across Broadway during rush hour.
Fed Up Fest is more about workshops, discussions, and concerts than it is about closing down major streets, but its organizers practice their own kind of radicalism, especially in their intentionally decentralized decision-making structure. “The way we operate has never been solidified, like ‘Oh, we use Robert’s Rules‘ or whatever, but it’s definitely consensus,” says Fed Up member E. Ornelas. This year, a revised community-of-care statement clarifies the collective’s policies on oppressive behaviors. And the whole event is a benefit—proceeds from the 2017 fest go to El Rescate, a Humboldt Park initiative that provides services to homeless queer and trans youth.
The bands that play the festival are chosen through an open application process each spring. When you think “punk” you might imagine a spectrum that runs all the way from dudes in black leather and denim to dudes in cargo shorts, but the acts at Fed Up Fest are defiantly non-normative. Occasionally the organizers land somebody famous—in the past they’ve booked punk veteran Alice Bag and queercore icons Limp Wrist—but the lesser-known acts can be just as powerful and innovative. They’ve included New York hardcore band In School, Philadelphia sound-collage artist Moor Mother, and veteran Chicago avant-gardists Ono, cofounded by gay black vocalist Travis in 1980.
Even in the explicitly inclusive realm of queer punk, though, not everyone feels at home. Growing up and going to shows in Portland, Oregon, in the mid-2000s, Ornelas was exposed to riot grrrl, anarchism, and queercore, while also coming to identify as genderqueer (Ornelas uses “they/them” pronouns when necessary). “It was coming together in me. I was fucking weird about all these things,” they says. “I knew that somewhere out there had to be this, I don’t know, utopia, where there were other weirdos like me. But I wasn’t seeing it.” Chicago’s music scene benefits from the relatively robust participation of queer and trans folks and people of color, but still, Ornelas says, “There are people who only come to Fed Up Fest, and I don’t see them the rest of the year.”
Active prejudice isn’t the only kind of attitude that can make queer, trans, and nonbinary people feel unseen or unsafe. Ignoring their existence or singling them out can have destructive effects too. “I feel like what ends up happening, if it’s not just outright not talked about, it’s really weirdly tokenized,” Ornelas says.
This focus on visibility and safety is important because queer and trans people (particularly young trans people and trans people of color) are some of the most at-risk populations in the country. Radical punk is one of the few cultural movements that already makes space for them, at least in theory. Anti-trans “bathroom bill” legislation is pending in 13 state legislatures. The number of hate groups is on the rise for the second year in a row. And in 2016, the U.S. set another record—after breaking it in 2015—for number of trans people murdered. Add to that the staggering rates of homelessness and suicide among trans people, who face discrimination on an overwhelming number of fronts: in hiring, housing, health care, criminal justice, and on and on.
Of course, the resurgence of neo-Nazism and the birth of the “alt-right” (as well as the increased legitimacy those movements have received from implicit presidential endorsements and uncritical media coverage) also have blood pressures rising among the members of the Fed Up collective. “Not that this wasn’t an issue since forever,” says Ornelas, “but I will say that people seem to be a little more afraid of and/or aware of hate groups and the impact that individual acts of violence might have.”
Overall, though, the Fed Up punks don’t see the new administration as fundamentally transforming the power structures they have to fight. “Yes, there are gonna be horrible things that are going to be passed or not passed because of Trump,” says Mancini, “but in terms of our communities and our resilience and our struggles, those things aren’t going to change.”
Fed Up Fest and the interdependent community it anchors will remain on the front lines of the pushback against “violence, oppression, exclusion, and marginalization,” as the collective puts it. And they’re not alone. In recent years, several other festivals—Milwaukee’s Filth Fest, Boston’s Smash It Dead, Portland’s IntersectFest, Santa Ana’s Transgress Fest, Philly’s Break Free Fest—have joined the work of creating spaces where queer punks can feel not only comfortable but empowered. As Mancini says, “We’ve got more people on our team now.”
The Rock Lotto opens its doors at 7 PM on Saturday, April 1, and music starts at 8 PM. The suggested donation for admission is on a sliding scale (pay what you can afford), and all proceeds go to Fed Up Fest. Vegan food and drinks will be on sale. For details about the venue, message the organizers via Facebook.