What ideas come to mind when you hear the term “punk”? Do you think of heavy guitars, fast melodies, and yelled vocals? Or do you go bigger than the sonic form itself and consider punk an attitude and a lifestyle that inspires people to be themselves? If you’re with the latter and recognize such a musical style for the voice it gives to the voiceless, I think you’d agree we should uplift the LGBTQ+ community within it and its voice that needs to be heard.
I’ve always thought of punk to be a confrontation of life rather than an escape from it, a fight for justice and fairness, and a haven for the broken and misunderstood. Thus, the hard work of the scene’s LGBTQ+ musicians needs to be recognized and shared. Within the alternative music realm, several of these artists have made a name for themselves through great music and an even greater message: to find comfort in your own skin and to love others for who they are. Here, I’ll go in-depth about the messages of six artists who have done just that.
1. Buddy Nielsen (Senses Fail)
Ever since he came out as queer in 2014, Senses Fail’s Buddy Nielsen showed he had made a full circle turn from his past self. He went from someone repressing his sexuality with addictions to alcohol and sex to a full-fledged advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, and his band’s most recent two records reflect his changes. With their 2013 full-length titled for the Spanish translation of “to be reborn”, the frontman’s identity became a major focal point of the group’s new philosophy. Much of their newest album’s message appears in the choice to continue living. “The Courage of an Open Heart” commends personal acceptance, pointing out how self-love can lead to loving others as well.
Other songs on Pull the Thorns From Your Heart reference Nielsen’s past in attempts to console listeners, specifically LGBTQ+ members carrying baggage due to who they are and how they’ve been treated. On “Wounds”, he says, “I was so afraid to face the truth and open wide,” and the triumph of love over fear appears as a necessity. Love’s triumph comes across when the vocalist states, “The love they gave us, it’s still here,” on closing track “My Fear of an Unlived Life”. Nielsen’s openness in talking about his sexuality both with music publications and during live sets is something vital to the punk community. With many LGBTQ+ members struggling to come to terms with who they are, Nielsen’s words have both inspired and set a strong example for others.
2. Julien Baker
Though not playing punk stylistically, Tennessee native Julien Baker has taken our scene by storm in the past year. Most of this is due to her stunning cover of Jawbreaker’s “Accident Prone”, but her acclaimed debut Sprained Ankle has also helped do the job. The intimate affair showcases her ability to toy with unique guitar chords, pedal effects, and layered vocals. But what was even more impressive was that the gay Christian college student purged her innermost self — and it’s relentless. “I know myself better than anybody else,” she explains on “Everybody Does”, but she balances the comfort with loneliness by telling of how others leave her.
Wrapping her lyrics in a haze, Baker subtly references her sexuality on the record. But apart from her having “kissed bathroom mirrors” and reminiscing on “your long hair,” it’s her health that comes up in more detailed form. With the rate of suicide so high among LGBTQ+ youth, Baker reassures them with a story of survival, even as she focuses so much on self-destruction (cigarettes and needles) and death (see: the first line of “Sprained Ankle”). But it’s returns to her faith that should keep the listener hopeful, regardless of what they believe. She believes a higher power “hears either way”, no matter her doubt, as she says on “Rejoice”. Such a message outlines the importance of unconditional love and acceptance in our scene.
3. Lynn Gunn (PVRIS)
“I used to want it to be private, but I think it’s something that needs to be shared publicly,” PVRIS singer Lynn Gunn said in a 2015 interview about being openly gay. Her hopes of being someone LGBTQ+ youth can look up to has led her from someone in the opposite role to the vocalist of one of alternative music’s biggest stars. In 2014, PVRIS’ debut, White Noise, brought the group to new heights. Apart from relationships, Gunn hovers around empowerment and fulfillment in front of the dark sheen of her band’s synth-driven pop-rock. “My House” finds the vocalist standing up for herself by saying, “It’s my house / I think it’s time to move out.”
When she’s not matching the melodic power with fortitude, Gunn’s calling out self-righteous Christians at a calmer tempo. On “Holy”, the line, “Simply calling out sins don’t bring you closer to God” speaks to both experiences as a gay woman and the scene’s inclusivity. What’s great about the track, too, is that it proves you don’t always have to be the loudest voice in order for the truth in her words to be revealed. Alternative music needs more focus on understanding and empathy than people condemning others, whether from a pulpit or behind a screen. With Gunn acting as an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, she says it’s good “as long as it’s something positive and something that’s beneficial to other people.” That message comes through on multiple levels.
4 & 5. Jordan Black (Like Pacific) and Tobi Duncan (Trash Boat)
Though the genre of pop-punk is known for heteronormative thematics regarding romance and breakups, it also features a fair share of LGBTQ+ musicians that break the stereotype. Like Pacific and Trash Boat, from the U.S. and the U.K. respectively, feature queer frontmen. Jordan Black and Tobi Duncan sing for their bands, who both released full-lengths in 2016 to critical success. However, they don’t let their sexuality define them. Duncan stated, “My past and my sexuality were never that much of a struggle,” and Black finds his experience as a queer musician to be “pretty normal.”
While their lyrics contain the angst common in the genre, the members add a slightly altered dynamic due to their experiences as LGBTQ+ musicians. Trash Boat’s “How Selfish I Seem” focuses on the problems of self versus others, and the usage of “he” before switching to “she” reflects Duncan’s sexuality. Black stated he’s leaned on it for Like Pacific’s music at times, too. That being said, the things that comes through the most with both artists’ presence in the punk scene is a comfort in their identities through a laid-back attitude and self-awareness.
6. Laura Jane Grace (Against Me!)
One of the biggest stories in recent punk history was Against Me! vocalist Laura Jane Grace coming out as transgender. The musician, who had dealt with gender dysphoria since childhood, underwent a transition to female thereafter, and the overall experience inspired the theme for the band’s sixth studio album. Transgender Dysphoria Blues focused on topics related to acceptance, masculinity, and finding comfort in one’s own body, among other things, with raw guitars and vocal shouts setting the mood. “You should be living a different life,” she sings on “True Trans Soul Rebel”, a rumbling rocker that tells of fears about coming out. Identity is a theme that defines the record, and it’s treated with unflinching honesty and lots of flair.
Other tracks, like “Drinking with the Jocks”, is a satirical truck that drives over harmful notions of masculinity (“There will always be a difference / Between me and you”). Transgender Dysphoria Blues has done a lot for punk since its 2014 release, giving a unique perspective on a relevant social issue while also telling a story that needed to be told. Beyond music, Grace has been vocal within the scene when it comes to LGBT-related issues. The role she’s taken up since her coming out has involved outspokenness in the media, in addition to efforts to help tell the stories of other transgender individuals. “I don’t want to pretend I represent everyone, so I’m lending the microphone to someone else to speak about their experience,” she said on her responsibility in the trans community.
What Grace has done for the punk scene in the past four years has been immense. She lives by her motto of rocking out as your true self — and in her case, going from sneakers to heels with mad confidence. For a genre of music built of authenticity, it’s the perfect message.
Featured Photo Credit: The Ruckus