Much has been written in recent times on what seems to be the music industry’s biggest problem: diversity. Women are treated worse, paid less, harassed more, and are less likely to be successful, not to mention the myriad of other risks associated with a job that requires you to be out late at night in pubs with strangers.
Frustrated with the the underrepresentation of people other than cisgender men, and tired of not feeling safe in venues, Sydney-based singer and songwriter Rachel Maria Cox (who goes by RMC) founded Sad Grrls Club, a DIY label and booking agency which aims to promote gender diversity in the local music scene by giving people who aren’t cisgender men a hand in creating music and getting it heard. Sad Grrls Club also runs an annual festival in Sydney, which will expand to Melbourne for the first time in October this year.
Gender diversity is in no way limited to just having more women in a lineup, as RMC explains. “I came out around the same time as Sad Grrrls Club launched, and so people always just assume I’m female – I identify as non-binary.” One of the surprise challenges of being an out musician was “learning to be really on top of making sure press outlets use correct pronouns and things like that”. RMC is passionate about safer spaces in music venues and stresses that they need to go beyond a lack of direct violence and also combat microaggressions like not making assumptions about people’s pronouns, and not touching people without their consent.
Safe spaces are especially important for trans and gender non-conforming musicians, who face harassment that varies widely, dependent on how they choose to express their gender on any given day. Ruby Markwell, frontwoman of The Football Club, a folk-punk band from Footscray, moved from Brisbane to Melbourne to begin transitioning. In terms of presentation she’s “mostly content to present femme onstage and neutral offstage,” but acknowledges that each of these comes with its own set of pros and cons, especially around bathrooms. “We played in a club that had ‘chicks’ and ‘dicks’ as the bathroom demarcations, so I just tried to Platform 9 ¾ it and go straight through the middle,” she laughs.
While moving to Melbourne gave her the opportunity to begin exploring her identity, Markwell at first found the disconnect between who she felt she was and how she was seen uncomfortable:
“I desperately wanted to be able to take part in elements of the Melbourne music scene I knew I belonged to – to be around trans people in bands, queer people in bands, women in bands. I was acutely aware that the way people saw me was at odds with who I actually am, and I felt like an imposter whenever I thought about taking part in the music culture created by people just like me.”
Despite having an abundance of horror stories of transphobia, from experiences in online spaces, to venues, to remarks from other bands, Markwell remains positive about her experiences: “For every dudebro tagging their friends in the comments section, there’s a heartfelt email from someone going through exactly what I was going through two or three years ago. That’s why visibility is important.”
Markwell, like RMC, is tired of the male-dominated scene, and describes the way forward for Australian music as “girls, and non-binary people, to the front. Front of the crowd, front of the stage, front of the fucking industry.”
For Elizabeth Tanter, a Melbourne-based sound engineer and singer-songwriter, the idea of being visibly trans and performing was “too scary”, so they stopped gigging around the time they began transitioning and instead shifted to work as a live sound engineer. “[Transitioning] was definitely a consideration in winding up some of my musical projects,” they admit. For them, the most important thing live music venues can do is work towards being a safe space, and work to make a more inclusive environment. “It’s immediately obvious if a venue is trying to be a welcoming space, and I really appreciate it.”
These days they don’t mind performing as a visibly trans person, and say people are generally pretty positive, even if it does tend to be in an “inspiration porn-y” way. Presenting femme at work however, they find themselves frequently dismissed, taken less seriously, and have their expertise questioned, especially by members of the bands they engineer. “That stuff never happens if I’m wearing pants and speak in a low voice.”
The Football Club’s new EP, Songs About Friends is out September 30.
Sad Grrls Fest Sydney takes place on October 8.