Categories
Interview Music Theatre

A Conversation with Gina Young About Queer Theatre & Feminist Historical Recovery in Music

The first year that I attended college in New York City, I had gone to a party at a nightclub in the Financial District. I remember hearing a song that blared through the speakers with these rapid, mosquito guitar licks and a woman’s playful, childlike voice shouting, “Wanna disco? Wanna see me disco?/Let me hear you depoliticize my rhyme!” That song was called “Deceptacon,” and the band was a lo-fi electronic rock outfit called Le Tigre. I later discovered that the lead singer of Le Tigre was a feminist punk pioneer from Olympia, Washington named Kathleen Hanna. And she was a leader and a torchbearer for the Riot Grrrl movement, which originated in the early nineties.

After hearing Le Tigre for the first time, I immediately fell down a Riot Grrrl rabbit hole. I read all about the punk scene in Olympia, Washington, where Kathleen Hanna, drummer Tobi Vail, and bassist Kathi Wilcox formed the band Bikini Kill. I then discovered other quintessential Riot Grrrl bands like Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Team Dresch, Tribe 8, and Sleater-Kinney.

What made Riot Grrrl so great was the fact that it grew out of a need for young women in music—many of whom were queer—to build their own musical communities outside of male-dominated punk scenes. With their blisteringly emotional and unabashedly political songwriting that called out institutional sexism, homophobia, and sexual assault, bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney made me realize that my feelings of resentment and anger—just aching to be seen and heard as a young queer woman—were shared by many of my queer feminist foremothers. It didn’t feel like I was shouting into the void anymore. There were others.

Bikini Kill Performing at Club Asylum in Washington, 1992.

Unfortunately, there are still many critics and music fans who believe that Riot Grrrl died at the tail-end of the nineties, which is false. Riot Grrrl is not some miniscule niche movement from the past. The movement has spread to at least twenty-six countries. Bikini Kill reunited last year, and over the past five years, new Riot Grrrl chapters have sprung up in places like Paraguay and Argentina.

But after some of the most well-known American Riot Grrrl bands—including Bikini Kill and Bratmobile—disbanded in the late nineties, the male-dominated music press seemed determined to quash any and all evidence that Riot Grrrl ever existed. And they almost succeeded. Riot Grrrl is still rarely acknowledged as an important part of rock canon and feminist history. I have been an ardent music fan since I was fourteen, and I still didn’t find out about Riot Grrrl until I had graduated from high school. 

Sleater-Kinney Performs at SXSW Music Festival in Austin, TX, 2005.

But the spirit of Riot Grrrl is still very much alive. We now have musicians like Tamar-kali Brown, Maya Glick, Simi Stone, and Honeychild Coleman writing brilliant punk anthems and curating alternative spaces for black womxn in punk, like Sista Grrrl Riot and Decolonize Fest. We also have punk bands led by trans women like G.L.O.S.S. (now broken-up, but still fantastic), Against Me!, and Trap Girl writing queer anarchist anthems. And who could forget about Pussy Riot doing elaborate public demonstrations and risking arrest to protest Putin’s Russia? 

A few weeks ago I attended an event called “Riot Grrrl’s Little Siblings,” which was curated by the June Mazer Lesbian Archives and the award-winning playwright and musician, Gina Young. Gina Young has written and directed several queer feminist stage shows and musicals including STRAIGHT PLAY, BUTCH BALLET, and This Is Why I Don’t Come Home. She is also a singer/songwriter who has released several albums and toured the country opening for artists like Le Tigre, Team Dresch, and Kimya Dawson. Gina also served as a leading organizer in the NYC chapter of Riot Grrrl in the early 2000s, while they were still a theatre student at NYU/Tisch. 

I first encountered Gina’s work when I left New York and came back to Massachusetts for winter break during my sophomore year of college. I had been sitting in the back of my family’s minivan on the way to a family gathering out of state. I wore out my Riot Grrrl playlist on Spotify, blasting songs by Tribe 8 and Sleater-Kinney on a loop, and one of the first songs that popped up on Spotify’s radio algorithm was one of Gina’s most beloved songs, “So Called Str8 Grrrl,” a confrontational punk anthem that chronicles the turbulent relationship between two young women. Gina narrates the song from the perspective of a girl who is already out (“I know you see me/Over your boyfriend’s shoulder”), and sympathizes with her love interest, who is still not ready to come out because she fears that her family and her inner circle of friends will reject her.

While media that caters to queer people has certainly increased over the past couple of decades, that doesn’t change the fact that many queer people—especially trans, nonbinary, intersex, disabled, and BIPOC queer folks—still do not feel seen, heard, or adequately represented on screen or on stage; let alone behind the camera. Legions of queer people, myself included, do not even feel safe holding hands with our partners in public. Gina has always understood the necessity for queer people to create our own spaces of outside of mainstream society, which is why I was so eager to talk to her. Gina’s first two albums, Intractable and She’s So Androgynous, have been my biggest comfort records during quarantine, and they recently released a collection of previously unheard demos and bonus tracks, in a compilation album called Little Sibling.

I first reached out to Gina after attending “Riot Grrrl’s Little Sibling.” We spoke about how cleaning her house during quarantine has led to the creation of these new digital Riot Grrrl archives, being inspired by writers like Kathy Acker and Audre Lorde, and why it’s so important for queer creators to take the reins ourselves when the overwhelmingly white, cishet male gatekeepers will not let us through the door. 

Who was the first artist (musician, author, filmmaker, or otherwise) who you felt like you could genuinely relate to? 

Definitely Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. I was raised in a conservative area (13 years of Catholic school!) so it wasn’t until I found bands like that, and writers like Kathy Acker and Audre Lorde, that I was able to understand who I was and who I could be.

When did you initially discover that you had a knack for crafting these stories that you’ve transformed into plays, songs, and films? Was it something that you always enjoyed, or was it a more gradual discovery?

I grew up in a family and community full of musicians and singers, which was really inspiring. I know now how lucky I was to have that. And then I was the kind of kid who was just always—every time there was a family gathering or a dinner party or free time at school—I was like “OK! We’re making a play!” and I’d be roping my cousins and my friends into making something. We’d put together whole musicals to show our parents, or write songs, or make up dance choreography to songs on the radio. My cousin Joanna and I did a whole “lip sync concert” to Motown songs at the beach one summer, with makeup and costumes like baby drag queens or something.

The biggest thing for me is that the media declared Riot Grrrl “dead” in the mid-90s, when actually, Riot Grrrl chapters and bands and activism were going strong for like another 10 years. And I think that’s important to note; they tried to erase us.

– Gina Young
Credit: Gina Young Collection at the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives

I really enjoyed “Riot Grrrl’s Little Siblings.” What made you decide to get in touch with the Mazer archives, and what do you feel the current media discourse about Riot Grrrl today is still missing?

Thanks for coming to the event! What happened was that Casey Winkleman from the The June Mazer Lesbian Archives was in the audience for the last play I wrote, which was called STRAIGHT PLAY (a queer beach blanket musical). She approached me after the show and was like, “hey, the Archives would love to have a copy of the script and any incidental materials from the creation of the show, like notes and the program and stuff.” I was like, “be careful what you wish for!” Haha. A few months later I sent them a *massive* box of materials from my music career and from my theater company, SORORITY. Then I spent a large part of quarantine going through all my old things and creating a digital archive of over 500 images from my personal collection for them. It includes riot grrrl zines, flyers and photos from the late 90s and early 2000s, a lot of material from all of the plays I’ve done, and a bunch of other feminist and queer stuff from y2k to the present that I thought people might want to see. This will all be available online via the Mazer’s website.

So then, I suggested we do an event together—mainly because they mentioned that the Mazer didn’t have any riot grrrl materials yet! I think most of their audience is a little older, and most of my audience is a little bit younger, so I thought this could be a perfect opportunity to do something intergenerational and really bring people from different walks of life together. So we did an event called “Riot Grrrl’s Little Siblings” on Zoom, which took the name from Little Sibling (my new album of old demos and live material I just released), and we had performances I curated from some of my favorite SORORITY regulars, I sang a couple songs, and then the Mazer and I did a slideshow of some of my materials and a Q&A. The whole thing was recorded so I think you’ll also be able to watch that online via the Mazer’s site and eventually SORORITY’s YouTube as well.

But to answer your question about the media discourse, the biggest thing for me is that the media declared Riot Grrrl “dead” in the mid-90s, when actually, Riot Grrrl chapters and bands and activism were going strong for like another 10 years. And I think that’s important to note; they tried to erase us. So it’s twice as important to tell our own stories and preserve our own history. And now I see Riot Grrrl and queercore bands getting attention all over Spotify and TikTok, and Bikini Kill is touring again, so it’s clear that everything that was happening back then is just as vital and relevant today.

When did you first come up with the idea to start SORORITY, and what is your favorite part of getting to curate these events and performances? 

SORORITY came about in 2016 because I was looking for an artistic community. I had moved to Los Angeles about 5 years prior, and while LA has so many amazing queer and feminist artists, a lot of them didn’t know each other and there wasn’t a centralized hub for our work. (LA is a really decentralized city—with traffic it can sometimes take an hour or two to get places you might want to go.) I wanted to create a community for the kind of queer and feminist work I wanted to see, and the kind of people that I wanted to hang out with. It’s a great alternative to the bar scene, too—I love queer bars, but SORORITY is a space that doesn’t hinge on alcohol, and the shows are usually salon-style, so it’s like an exchange of ideas with a room full of interesting people and sister artists (of all genders). So yeah, we’ve been doing the shows for five years now—just hit our five year anniversary! I think my favorite part of curating the events is just getting to hang out with everyone and see their amazing work. Also to know that I’m providing the kind of space for emerging artists and queer folks that was so important to me when I was finding my voice.

It’s really cool to be a small part of the movement [where] queer and trans people are ready for representation, and we demand to write the roles, play the roles, and have safe work environments.

– Gina Young

I also recently discovered your Team Gina raps, and I loved how they took a genre that can be (sometimes, but not always) homophobic and misogynist, and reappropriated it to cater to the queer feminine gaze. How did that project come about?

Haha Team Gina!! Well first of all, I think it’s important to note that not all hip hop is misogynist and homophobic, and the hip hop Gina Bling and I bonded over was often by women and queer artists who were underground at that time. Gina Bling and I met in Olympia Washington and both ended up living in Seattle. We were introduced by Cindy Wonderful from Scream Club and were instantly like, “Woah! We’re both named Gina!! We’re both allergic to cats! We’re both obsessed with musical theatre… and butches!” It was wild to have so much in common. Like how many people do you know that own tap shoes, know all the lyrics to Low End Theory, AND want to hang out at the Wildrose (Seattle’s lesbian bar) every weekend? So we became best friends, and we wanted to start a performance art pop project that was flipped pop culture on its head. You’re totally right about how you characterized our intention. We were like, what does pop music do? We’re going to do that, but queer it. So most of our tracks were produced by “producers,” we had costume designers and stylists, we had stage shows with a ton of synchronized dance moves, kind of like what the Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child might do, and then we tried to really flip a lot of pop culture tropes on their head, especially when it came to gender. The other Gina went by Gina Bling because she wanted to manifest glamour and luxury, I went by Gina Genius because I wanted to manifest business savvy and being the brains of the operation (that’s why my Instagram handle is @ginagenius) but above all, our guiding principle was FUN, like any time we had a “business meeting” we would watch Sex & the City and weigh all of our band decisions on how fun it would be or not. Touring to play underground queer venues in Croatia and Slovenia? Woah sounds incredibly fun! Opening for misogynist boy bands? Not so much. We made one music video that went really viral, in the early days of YouTube and Facebook when going viral wasn’t even really a thing yet. It’s called Butch/Femme and it’s all about how much we love butches; the video is a bunch of butches auditioning to be our girlfriends, haha. Team Gina’s music isn’t really available on streaming platforms, but I still have a few of the CDs left in my online shop!

The most surprising part to me is how many people come to my class to heal from bad experiences they’ve had with other teachers, universities and acting studios. That challenged me to grow really quickly.

– Gina Young

How does it feel to continue to have young queer kids reach out to you about your music after all these years? I imagine it must be overwhelming and also rewarding. 

It’s really cool and honestly it was so unexpected. Like after I stopped touring I kind of expected all that to stop. And it did for a few years. But then a younger generation of queers and feminists found my music on Spotify and TikTok and started messaging… and I can’t speak for everyone but I know for some of them, they appreciated that I never hid anything with pronouns or calling out politicians… it’s all pretty out there and explicit. And it’s an honor that the songs mean so much to people. “Punkrockdyke” is a song that still resonates with a lot of folks, because it’s basically about finding someone to love who is as militant and passionate as you. And “So-Called Str8 Grrrl” is another one that resonates, which is funny because it’s just about that kind of universal experience of falling in love with a “straight” girl who is clearly not straight at all, but chooses maybe a safer path because she’s not ready to be on your level yet. My music is on the streaming platforms and I love hearing from people that they’ve put it on playlists for their crushes and stuff.

@grease_bat

I have no desire to be desired by those who have not deconstructed their desire #queer #fyp #foryoupage #tiktokqueer #forthegays #trans #lgbt #gay

♬ So-called Str8 Grrrl – Gina Young

When did you first come up with the idea to hold acting classes, and in addition to your students, do you feel like they’ve helped you grow in certain ways as well?

Honestly Feminist Acting Class was born out of my own frustration with actor training. As with a lot of institutions in this country, we’re taught that this is “just the way it is” and that we can’t do anything about it. But… why not? A lot of the old giants are dying. A lot of the dinosaurs are going extinct. When I studied theatre, there was so much sexism, racism and homophobia. It was normalized in the classroom, and in the work that was taught. The vast majority of plays produced in America are written and directed by straight white men. So then the quantity and quality of roles for straight white men is vastly superior to those for the rest of us. We’re relegated to stereotypes and villains and trauma porn. It’s really cool to be a small part of the movement [where] queer and trans people are ready for representation, and we demand to write the roles, play the roles, and have safe work environments. And women & other groups will no longer accept harassment, sizeism, etc. So my class, Feminist Acting Class, is an experiment to see what an acting class free of sexism and stereotypes might look like. One where we make the rules.

The most surprising part to me is how many people come to my class to heal from bad experiences they’ve had with other teachers, universities and acting studios. That challenged me to grow really quickly. I’m not a trained therapist or anything. But I think I’ve stepped up my game to better hold space for everyone. And my students have also challenged me to improve the ableist practices in my teaching. There are certain things that as a white, physically abled teacher I will always need to grow on. Holding classes on Zoom has been one way to make them more accessible to disabled and chronically ill students. And the biggest reward has been seeing students become best friends. I mean seriously, so many of them keep in touch, collaborate on projects and support each other’s performances. I LOVE TO SEE IT.

What do you feel is the most important thing that audiences should take away from your work?

I talk about this a lot… we are a community. Part of the reason that I love theatre and live music is that it puts us in the same room together and reminds us that we are accountable to each other. We don’t have to feel isolated all the time. And I hope that especially, after this pandemic, there will be a renewed interest in building queer and feminist community and supporting each other and each other’s creative work. I hope my work reminds you that you’re not alone and encourages you to connect with like-minded people. That’s it, yeah!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s