Punk rock is often described as abrasive, discordant and uncomfortable. It is in your face and it won’t leave until you listen. One can definitely see why it was a draw for transgender musician Venus de Mars. Recently Venus gave a presentation at the East Side Freedom Library, fusing the history of Trans Punk with her own personal history. She – and her audience – then progressed to the A Greener Read bookstore, also in this East Side neighborhood, where she provided a performance of some of her songs, and readings from her in-progress memoir.
Arriving slightly late due to attending a former band member’s funeral, Venus walks in slightly flustered and apologetic. She’s a rock and roll punk in cowboy boots, leggings, belly bearing vest, and a ripped-up jacket, all accessorized with a coffin purse. Soft-spoken, and slightly frazzled, you wouldn’t guess at the power of her singing voice. However, the moment she took the stage she threw back her shoulders, tossed off her jacket, and proceeded to educate the audience on the history of trans people in rock music.
When Venus started out in 1994, there were few other trans people in rock. There was little awareness or attention to the presence and experiences of transgender people. The first group she found in the dark ages of the internet, was a metal group called Glamazon, located out in California. Other than that, most trans people involved in music were doing drag shows. For Venus, punk was a way to express the way she felt, who she felt she truly was. The makeup, costumes and music allowed her that freedom. As a trans musician, Venus has been around for many years now; the same cannot be said for other trans musicians of that first historical wave. Glamazon, Vulgaris, Temptress, and other groups with trans members were all met with the same problem, a public that didn’t understand them. Their inability to sign with record labels, and the stress from their rejection from society caused them to recede into the background once more. Venus described a time when she was in communication with a person with connections to a major record label. They would only consider her band if she “just stopped being trans,” as if she could stop being who she was.
The truly engaging part of the event occurred after the lecture. The venue was moved to A Greener Read bookstore, where we were treated to Venus’ music, and some readings from her in-progress memoir. Starting out with “Was it Me,” Venus’ powerful voice filled the small bookstore. Early on she missed some notes and had to pause, joking that her wife Lynette reminds her that she needs to practice more, Lynette then called from the audience that yes indeed she needs to practice more. But no need to fear, Venus got through the rest of her songs without pause.
Venus is currently in the process of writing her memoir. She is exploring and presenting the connections between the social and gendered history of the United States since the 1980s and her personal experiences. What she read to the audience that night communicated her pain and perseverance in her life’s journey. The shame she felt when first engaging in what some would call a sickness. The pain she endured and induced with self-inflicted dehydration, due to a fear of using gendered public restrooms. Her and Lynette’s exploration of their relationship. Venus is writing her memoir in a mix of prose and poetry, mixing her artistry into her life’s story.
Most of us might be surprised by going to a library to be treated to a lecture on transgender people in rock, or the actual lecture to be delivered by a person who has experienced what it is like to be in the music scene and trans. The whole story can never be told by a single person, our experiences are our own, and cannot be the same as anyone else’s. That is why Venus’ memoirs are so important — they show the experience of someone that was marginalized in her community and industry. They tell a story that is not only unique, but also offers us insight into the ways that society constructs gendered categories, and the creative ways that people navigate through those restrictions.
“The Trans Roots of Punk Rock” was part of a once-a-month series on “Music and Movements,” which is organized by the East Side Freedom Library and A Greener Read bookstore, two fairly new projects only a stone’s throw from Metro State University’s Dayton’s Bluff campus. They are additional sites for learning, exploring, and growing. And they demonstrate that education can be entertaining.