Creating Space to Belong
By Wendy Ringie
Right off the bat, let’s get one thing straight: I am NOT.
What I am is a nuerodiverse, feminist, nerdy, pansexual, pagan, polyamorous, kink-friendly, punk rocker. All of these are intrinsic to my identity. I’m not “in the closet” about any of them. In fact, the concept of intersectionality (that society must consider everything and anything that can marginalise people – gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc when discussing oppression and discrimination) has been a lifelong internalized value for me long the term was popularized. Each of these disparate identities all feed into each other, but none so clearly as how queerdom led to my discovery of punk rock.
Let us travel back in time to 1995…
I often say that being nerdy lead me to being queer. Specifically, being a nerd had clued me into the possibility of bisexuality in middle school. In 7th grade, I read an urban fantasy novel* where a female character had, halfway through the novel, left her boyfriend and wound up romantically and sexually entangledwith the heroine. I vividly remember putting down the book and thought “Holy fuck, that’s an OPTION? BOTH IS AN OPTION?!” (Note to parents: please talk to your children about queerness before the elves in their books do.)
This was in the early days of widespread home internet, so I did my research (and also discovered porn, but mostly I looked for informative sites geared toward different levels of queerness.) I came out to a few friends, quietly, over the next year. I came out to my parents in October of my freshman year, as I had it on good authority I was not the only queer kid in my white, surburban Denver school. If I was going to live my truth at school, I better ‘fess up to the ‘rents. I was nervous, but I had been raised in a fairly liberal household where political discussions were discussed in terms of the “greater good” and “helping others.” However, even at 14 I knew that theoretical queers were different than your child being queer.
Both Mom and Gram were extremely supportive, although bisexuality as a concept was a little confusing for my grandmother as she was raised to think sexuality was a binary and not a spectrum. I won’t say that there wasn’t conflict ever around me being queer, but I also learned that I wasn’t the only queer person in our family. I had multiple cousins who were out, but I was sublimely oblivious as a kid. When I came out to my estranged father a few months later, it was much more awkward – but mostly because he jokingly offered to share his girl-on-girl porn. This lead to me, a fifteen-year-old girl, lecturing her 40something dad on the male gaze and exploitation in pornography. (My mother points out that I never do anything in the typical way.) On the family front, me being queer ruffled minimal feathers.
I won’t say I didn’t get my share of anti-GLBT harassment at school or socially. But in true Wendy fashion, I doubled-down instead of backing off. I became a Loud and Proud queer and got involved in activism and education. By the time I was sixteen I was attending protests and had a vague understanding of queer theory cobbled together from the internet. By the time I hit senior year, I was determined to put together a “GLBT Awareness Week” at my school to curb anti-queer harassment and start a Gay-Straight Alliance at school. The GLBT Awareness Week met with a lot of pushback from faculty, parents, and students before it launched in fall – with decidedly mixed results. The GSA never got off the ground. However, I celebrated what small wins I had and actually fell in love with activism.
You can draw a straight line from the fact that I was queer to the discovery of punk music. I had gotten into pop-punk via a girl crush at a summer job between senior year and freshman year of college. As I am the type of nerd that researched everything to death, I did a deep dive into punk and ska – mostly through internet articles and borrowing what CDs were available at the library. I never got up the guts to ask my crush out, and 20some years later I can’t even remember her name, but she left an indelible mark on my life regardless.
My second semester, I heard or heard about Riot Grrrl. Specifically, Sleater-Kinney and to a lesser extent, Bikini Kill. I picked up CDs by Rancid, Lawrence Arms, Flogging Molly, Ramones, Buzzkocks, Black Flag – but I always came back to Riot Grrrl. I devoured Bratmobile, Le Tigre, Heavens to Betsy, and anything by or about Sleater-Kinney.
In the discography and culture of these bands, I found a gritty, boots-on-the-ground approach to social change that resonated in places those boy bands could never reach. Their music was discordant and beautiful, their lyrics scathing and heady like a shot of whiskey, their interviews introduced me to concepts that lit my brain on fire and started more furious researching. They were the soundtrack to the Pride events I attended in summer, the chatrooms I frequented geared towards queer college kids. I even sang “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill a couple of times at Denver Detour before it, like many Denver lesbian bars between 2004-2015, went dark. I mourned the fact I was too young to have experienced most of the movement first hand, and sobbed when Sleater-Kinney broke up when I was in grad school. And as much as I love so many of these new queercore and all-girl punk bands, the things I love most about them ties into themes that the Riot Grrrls invented or popularized. In my head, I am a Riot Grrrl born about 10 years too late.
I love the punk movement, because it embodies so much of what I love about myself. It’s focus on intersectionality vibes with other essential parts of myself: the queer, the nerd, the pagan. Where other genre could I attend a show and get into an discussion with a fellow fan about the anti-feminist undertones of Jo’s arc on Supernatural while also admitting Felicia Day is way hotter than Alona Tal? What other music scene besides punk would I be able to wear my patch vest to Denver Dyke’s March, a concert, an immigration rights rally, and Comicon without switching any pins or patches?
The older I get, the more that the music and scene evolves, the more it feels like I have found my people. The more I want to go back in time and talk to that 17-year-old who was just fighting for a space to exist, and tell her “It will be okay. You will find your people. And they will help you fight your fights, sing your songs, love who you want, and read about dragons.” Because ultimately, punk is about collectively creating a place to belong.
*The book in question was Gossamer Axe by Gail Baudino, a queer author from Denver writing about fairies, time travel, Irish bards, and the metal scene in Denver during the 1980s. It’s a little cheesy but well-written enough that I reread it often. It is also out of print, sadly, but you might be able to find it at a used bookstore.