The Queer Punks Ready to Piss in Ron DeSantis’ Backyard
It’s become something of a rite of passage for punk rock bands across North America to load up their vans and drive down to Florida every October to play The Fest, a long-running independent punk music festival in the quaint landlocked college town of Gainesville. Attendees and performers fly from around the world for the weekend bash, now in its 21st year, to reunite with Fest friends, mosh, and guzzle Pabst Blue Ribbon. Decidedly more small-time and community-based than bigger punk blowouts like Riot Fest or Punk Rock Bowling, Fest has cultivated a reputation as a safe, inclusive event where homophobia, transphobia, racism, and other prejudices are shut down by a crowd of progressive punks.
When Bay Area punk outfit Middle-Aged Queers played Fest for the first time last year, it felt like a joyous homecoming. So after Fest organizers reached out in January to invite them back for this year’s edition, which runs from Oct. 27 to 29, the band immediately agreed. But by May, they were having second thoughts. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had announced the signing of a slate of new bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community, including one that would prohibit trans people from using restrooms that match their gender and one that would restrict them from accessing healthcare. Other legislation was aimed at halting drag performances and banning discussion of gender and sexuality in schools. (The drag bill has already been overturned by a Florida judge.) Suddenly, being a queer band playing in Florida felt more dangerous.
“What does it mean for a queer punk band to be playing in the midst of all this, and then also, how are we going to traverse public spaces as a queer punk band?” Middle-Aged Queers vocalist Shaun Osburn tells The Daily Beast of their hesitation.
Meanwhile, Fureigh, the band’s guitarist, wondered what the bathroom situation would be in Gainesville. Florida’s decision to allow permitless concealed carry, which came into effect this summer, only compounded their anxiety.
“It is not illegal anywhere else in this country for me to use a bathroom, as far as I’m aware,” the guitarist says.
DeSantis’ legislative assault on LGBTQ+ people in Florida has prompted conversations among diehard Fest fans, and especially queer and trans attendees and performers who, like Fureigh, began to question if they’d be safe there. People began to ask: Will the Fest go on? Should it go on?
Pondering those questions with The Daily Beast, Fest founder Tony Weinbender said that on social media people pressed him about canceling or moving the festival. Ultimately, though, neither option was ever on the table for him.
“Why wouldn’t we do an event where you can bring thousands of people that oppose bills like this?” Weinbender says. “The point is you’re supposed to try to fight these bills.”
On May 23, Fest shared on its social media pages that the event—which last year drew around 8,000 attendees over three days—would continue to celebrate “LGBT+ expression” and would investigate additional security measures. In Fest Friends, a Facebook group that boasts over 6,000 members, some wondered whether artists would drop out. But Weinbender and Sarasvati Seixas, who has worked with Fest for 10 years in different capacities, confirmed that no bands have canceled their appearances, and no ticket-buyers have asked for refunds.
Weinbender and Seixas say the Fest organizing team has held dozens of Zoom meetings to discuss safety and planning, but that for the moment, no additional safety measures are required. Fest is in its third year of enforcing strict bag checks at its venues, and Florida’s concealed carry law still prohibits bringing firearms into bars and city parks, which are the main venues for Fest. And while DeSantis’ anti-trans bathroom bill is indeed worrying, Weinbender noted that it applies only to bathrooms in state-owned properties, including government buildings and schools. Private businesses aren’t impacted by the bill, and all Fest venues will have gender-neutral restrooms for the weekend.
Weinbender says it helps that Gainesville is “a diamond in the rough” in Florida, with a strong LGBTQ+ community and progressive-leaning leadership. Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward signed a statement along with mayors from Orlando, Tampa, Tallahassee, and more to oppose DeSantis’ anti-trans bills and pledge their support for queer residents. In late September, Gainesville announced it would award a key to the city to Laura Jane Grace, the trans solo artist and frontperson of legendary Gainesville punk band Against Me!
““I think Ron DeSantis is a real fucker. … If people wanna see me fucking shit outside on somebody’s fucking lawn, fuck you, I’ll fucking do that. I’ll piss in the alley like a dog if that’s what you prefer. I’ll get really nasty and confrontational with people.”
— Laura Jane Grace
Grace, who is performing at Fest this year, moved from Florida to Chicago in 2013 to access better trans health care because “being transgender in Florida back in 2012 fucking sucked,” she explains. After the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando in 2016, Grace said she experienced heightened anxiety at shows, especially in Florida. But when she toured the state in April this year, some of her fears dissipated: the new administration’s bills are just “the same shit it’s always been.”
“I think Ron DeSantis is a real fucker,” Grace tells The Daily Beast. But she’s prepared to fight the anti-trans bathroom bills by whatever means necessary. “If people wanna see me fucking shit outside on somebody’s fucking lawn, fuck you, I’ll fucking do that. I’ll piss in the alley like a dog if that’s what you prefer. I’ll get really nasty and confrontational with people.”
Jer Hunter, who lives in Gainesville and will perform at Fest with their band We Are The Union, has been attending Fest since 2013, and praises its unique connection with queer communities.
“Everyone that I know through Fest has been queer or at least in close proximity to queer people. I don’t feel that way when it comes to punk in general,” Hunter says, noting that DeSantis’ beliefs don’t represent all Floridians. “DeSantis is doing X, Y, and Z at a state level, and those things are very heavy and make a lot of long-term change on people’s lives, but DeSantis isn’t forcing Floridians person by person to be anti-trans or racist. We have the power to cultivate whatever spaces that we create.”
This year, keeping those spaces safe for Fest attendees is more important than ever before. Online, people have offered to accompany other attendees to the bathroom if they’re nervous—a practice that’s happened at prior Fests. Mike McDowell, who lives in Tampa Bay and has been to Fest seven times, said that in general Fest is a safe community, but that he and his friends will offer escorted walks to various venues for fans who may feel unsafe, directions to businesses that support LGBTQ+ people, or a call-out if people refuse to use proper pronouns. “Safety looks like any good mutual aid effort,” he says.
Weinbender clarified to The Daily Beast that Fest organizers haven’t received any threats or signs of disturbance, but in previous years, Trump supporters and other hate groups have shown up to harass attendees. Some suspect that an August shooting of a trans woman at a bus stop in Gainesville was motivated by anti-trans hate. Along with Floridian allies like McDowell, some bands have expressed that they’re ready to protect their queer friends at Fest should threats arise. “lol I dare someone to show up to Fest looking to start shit,” the Florida band Virginity tweeted. “You’ll find the fight you’re looking for and you will be fucked up by a thousand punks.”
That sentiment was recently echoed by Nikki Derella, whose band BUIO OMEGA is playing Fest this year. After a friend of the band suggested they drop out because it wouldn’t be safe for trans people to be in Florida, Derella’s immediate reaction “was a big-time ‘hell no,’” and the band even wrote and published a statement expressing their solidarity with queer Floridians.
“Why should I ignore my own queer friends and exclude them from a half hour of fun and joy because their government is trying to eradicate them from society?” Derella says. “It’s a wonderful act of solidarity to show that no matter how hard the state of Florida attempts to eradicate trans and queer people from public life, we will stand up taller, yell, scream, and shout louder, and gather in larger and larger groups to show that we will never go back to closets or caskets ever again.”
As for Middle-Aged Queers, Osburn and Fureigh, along with their bandmates, ultimately decided that they would play Fest, along with a queer offshoot festival called Queer the Fest. They’ve done some special planning to prepare, like getting a hotel room close to the venues to have access to a private restroom—and Fureigh says, “I am absolutely actively practicing to be able to pee outside.”
But they’re confident that others at Fest will be on their team should any issues arise.
“All we’ve ever had is each other, and as long as we continue to organize and show up for each other, we’ve dealt with worse collectively,” Fureigh says. “I’m not too worried about being amongst the weirdos at the punk festival.”
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