Columns

Teaching Resistance

From the introduction to the first Teaching Resistance column in 2015: “Though the institutions of education are historically problematic and often oppressive, students who have experienced them as ‘outsiders’ understand the importance of learning from teachers who have struggled with the same systems as outsiders themselves, and who have developed radical notions of what education is and how it works. Sometimes, these students become teachers themselves, helping to subvert these educational institutions or find outside alternatives to them.” 

Given that much of punk (such as that usually covered in MRR) embraces idealism, strong personal ethics, and intellectualism, it makes sense that so many radical punks have become teachers while remaining punks—it is one of the few “professional” jobs that potentially leaves room for radical expression and empowerment. The personal journeys made by these teachers can help them to have a strong degree of empathy and connection to marginalized and non-conforming students, those who don’t fit in to the neat boxes that dominant culture demands and strongly encourages through its institutions (very much including schools). 

This month’s Teaching Resistance column is by Christiana Cranberry, the guitarist and singer for SISTER RAT and a public school educator presently located in Kansas. 

I watched the movie Suburbia when I was eleven years old, so 1984. It was overflowing with sexism and violence. It was exploitative, but with a clear eye for how it actually is in real life–toxic from day one (earlier). Director Penelope Spheeris also focused her camera lens on these attitudes toward women in the revealing documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. I was willing, as a male-presenting young punk rocker, to overlook most of the misogyny. It came off as silly and reactionary. Suburbia was a drama, a movie. Decline was an honest expose of the friction that existed in the highly charged beginning days. Then there were the women in Decline. They seemed anything other than weak or passive to me, in fact, I immediately saw my role models in these women. Exene Cervenka takes up the entire stage, larger than life, and full of heart. The women of the punk movement were kicking against these pricks and winning. 

For all the macho posturing, punk men often wore makeup and dyed their hair. Punk men cared about the way their clothes fit; how they expressed their internal mood. Punk was feminine, it seethed underneath the surface, rising sporadically to growl and hiss at the bourgeois. Punk brought blaring attention to the reality of child abuse, sexual abuse, and broken homes, most often our own. The cycle of abuse and the toxicity of strict gender roles was apparent in the seventies on televisions shows like Happy Days. Mass media latched onto the spectacle of punk, usually focusing on safety pins, colored and charged hair, and make up (best portrayed in The Day My Kid Turned Punk). The early ’80s were the golden age of punksploitation, but it can still be found today. This was of course a step behind the times, media classically couldn’t keep up while punk was at its first fork in the road, definitively split between new wave and hardcore. 

New Wave picked up the more colorful elements of punk rock, while hardcore honed in on the aggression. It mirrored the polarizing times of the Reagan era. Reagan: a showman and war hawk who pushed politics back to the far right. His addled presence at the end of the ’80s was analogous to the tenor of the country: angry, misguided, and rapidly more militant; the nation would learn about shadow wars in Latin America. Conversations about Nicaragua that were being had in the lyrics of punk songs would make their way into the living rooms of the middle class. Punk Rock was acting as a pragmatic political tool, but it wasn’t immune to the burn out that often leads to meandering, nebulous retrospection. New Wave, beginning as a dada-esque, perfectly valid artistic rebellion, was quickly picked over by the media; its corpse left to slowly decay in gay dance bars. While punk rock’s macho expression often feels tempered by irony; it is an expression of a strength and will to power that is far too aware of itself. Hardcore punk is not Mick Jagger’s puckish swagger, but more often a drill instructor in the war of poor, white blues [and I agree with the author that this broader image and public perception of hardcore as such has remained stubbornly persistent despite the long (foundational in fact) and vital history of POC punks in the scene —ed.]. 

In punk music, whether it be hardcore, new wave, proto-punk, or beyond, there are those whose main impetus is to entertain, and another strain that strives to teach: anarchy, peace, social libertarianism; mostly, the social became political, as we tried to understand our place at the end of the millennium. We wandered subconsciously aware that we were at the beginning of some great experiment. The ’50s image of a relationship was clear male domination, but it was also propaganda employed to quash the undeniable movement of liberation that was seeded during the anarchist and labor movements, post-suffragette women heading were toward a reckoning. The parents of the punk rockers grew up with the civil rights movement that feminism forgot, and they behaved themselves accordingly. Free love was code for sexual recklessness, and the skewed psychosexual power dynamics of suburban key parties. The cracks in the youth movement of the sixties became rills of ego posturing in the seventies, carving out canyons of rock and roll excess in the eighties. Punk’s reply to this entrenched male domination was incapable of including trans people and the neurodivergent community. Punk tokenized the hell out of the fringes of these groups, but never fully incorporated them. Unfortunately, punk can be as elitist as it is populist. Still, it pushed into the ’90s, and the scrappy underdog of a subculture shifted and rearranged through the relatively mild Clinton era, into the emerging world of everlasting war. 

Punk is best understood through zines. They brought a real cohesion to the worldwide community. I read about kids hanging out in parks, a sort of early occupy movement. I grew up reading about punk in my dad’s issues of High Times from seventy-eight along to about eighty-three. There were often short articles and letters from punks and the parents of punk rockers, and though I took it as a source with a grain of salt, I feel like it was a fairly unfiltered look at the era. Besides being students of counterculture, my father and I also shared a physiological trait that made us feel diametrically opposed, mind and body. My dad, incapable of facing ridicule and lowered status as a trans woman, hid it nearly his entire life. I do not begrudge him this, as I witnessed the shaming when any signs of his transsexual yearnings bubbled to the surface. My mother openly hated him for it, and equated him with myself. Punk Rock got me out of that house, several years after my father and brother made their exodus. Homeless the day I graduated high school, I was dependent on my gang. We were a very disparate group of people, all looking for the perfect balance of independence and family. As a trans woman, I was properly armed with female role models, but desperately, few trans. I found myself despondently scouring Maximum Rocknroll, Profane Existence, Slug and Lettuce, etc. for any sign of life from trans punk rockers, what I found was very bold crossdressers, brilliant and funny drag queens, the self-hating Jayne County, and several others from the same generation. 

The founding punks who dared to cross gender lines, to fuck gender roles entirely, were very inspiring but seemed trapped in the mores of the seventies and eighties, unable to fathom the future movement of transgender and transexual folks. The trans kids today tend to lean way farther to the far left than the trans population of these generations and older. They are the children of punks and metal, removing themselves from its sexism and misogyny. The internet has taken the conversations we had in MRR and ran with it thanks to trans punk rockers. Punk in the beginning of the 21st century has been revitalized in the Trump era. Kevin Seconds, Ian MacKaye, Dave Dictor, and many more seminal punk singers challenged strict, male gender roles in the eighties, paving a way for men in these last few years of the two-thousand-teens to give me hope for a better future. Because while I didn’t see the representation and alliances with trans women and men, and the neurodivergent community then, these communities could only truly coalesce in the internet age. The time when information is key, and conversation, both dialectical, and myopically social, we are finally freed from the yoke of upper crusty gatekeepers. 

Social justice and freedom of speech are not anathema, they can work together to expose hate: without being able to see the problem, how can we fix it? I refuse to believe that trans and queer punks bringing the notion out of the safe space out of the riot grrrl movement is an admission of defeat. I believe that when marginalized people are allowed to gather together, they can heal emotional traumas, and set about doing the larger work of economic and other reforms. When people are under attack, they tend to group together, and are wary of those who offer comfort when they don’t appear to be suffering in the same ways. 

Today, I look around and I see the hardcore kids are mostly adults. I see my crust punk friends sobering up. My friends are taking jobs in social work. Some of us learned these concepts at youth shelters like P.H.A.S.E. in Austin. I heard it in the lyrics of Jeff Ott’s Fifteen. I gained emotional intelligence and considered socialism through the lyrics of Lance Hahn. Punk taught us to be better humans. Even the most macho hardcore guy is often someone I trust a little more than your average Joe, not always though. I’m happy that there is still hardcore music. I miss melodic hardcore, but there have been some solid whisperings of a return to intelligent pop punk. This makes me happy because while I love hardcore, crust, d-beat, powerviolence, I also love pop punk, roots punk, and at the risk of being exiled, a lot of music that isn’t punk. In the ’90s, this wasn’t a very popular place to be. 

Growing up in the bible belt was far from easy. Being transgender only added significant weight to the load. I couldn’t be open about being trans, but at least there was a decent punk scene when I started going out in ’87/’88. Unfortunately, hardcore punk was heading toward crossover, and metal attitudes were the exact thing I was desperate to get away from. There were plenty of metalheads at my junior high willing to add to the daily torture of being different in the center of the bible belt, and there was nothing punk about that. Another example of my early disenfranchisement became evident in the difference between the first Agnostic Front album compared to the extremely conservative second album. My earliest memories of punk was the deep excitement I felt from the urgency and pure energy, and conversely, the revulsion I felt from the sexism, macho attitudes, and growing nationalism. 

Fast forward to long after the days of crossover, which retrospectively produced a few fucking great albums. In the late nineties, the men around me started claiming they never were punk, and I found myself surrounded by metalheads with no discernible politics. While homeless, I’d often find myself in very frightening situations, because I was clearly feminine. I had knives pulled on me, I was kicked in the face repeatedly. Fortunately, I was able to sober up 16 years ago, and transition fifteen years ago. It took getting off the streets. I had to have my baseline needs met before I could even consider transitioning. Besides the support I received from my wife, and the lyrics of Fugazi, Stiff Little Fingers, and Fuel I would probably be dead. I have a broken femur and splenectomy to prove it was possible if not imminent. 

When I was getting thrown into cars by boneheads in high school, I was armed with words, set to driving music, that expressed nearly-exactly how I felt inside. When the ignorance that surrounded me tore down all my defenses, I would grow strong by the lyrics. It was the most powerful elixir in the world. “Thanks for telling that joke to me, I have a name for that.” When singer Sarah Kirsch came out as trans, I finally felt like there was someone in the world who was similar to me. I finally felt like I would be able to talk to someone who explicitly understood my pain. We would bond over what we hid, how it harmed us, and the hope we had for our futures. I dreamed of these things as I sent all the money I could to try to alleviate her suffering. Tragically, I had to do that because weeks after I found out she was transitioning, I learned she had a rare disease: fanconi anemia. I wished over and over she would pull through. I needed a sister who was born out of punk rock. I needed her to tell me that we would be okay. When she died, I felt more alone than ever. 

Laura Jane Grace bravely came out of the closet to a massive audience. The internet had for several years been making it easier for young transitioning trans, non-binary, and gender fluid kids to find each other. They were building a revolution. They used social media platforms to get their voices out. They shared videos highlighting their changes, and they didn’t need the counterculture the seventies built to get there. Gender exists outside of that, and punk is a side note, but hardcore music is life affirming. We know how well it can instill resilience, something trans people need. There is a growing, tight-knit underground of trans punks keeping each other alive. It makes me feel sixteen again. I feel like I did when I just found punk rock. We all absolutely should be screaming for the rights of these kids. 

What punk got right was its social justice; its dedication to harm reduction. Matty Luv of Hickey and his girlfriend Ro started the San Francisco Needle Exchange, for example. I was homeless, I was an alcoholic, I hit rock bottom and moved in. It took a long time to heal from that. While floating helpless as a plastic bag caught in the wind, I learned what organizations were doing the work to keep homeless people alive. Government has provided nearly no safety net when your life goes down the tubes. Punk rockers are often the ones sewing these gaping holes shut. We, the egalitarian intelligentsia, have to take care of one another first, so we can have the energy to fix everything else. Right now I do my part as a paraprofessional at a high school in Kansas. My only hope is that the presence of a punk rock trans woman in the halls shows teens the power of survival. 

Trans rights are part of the modern era, and there is much work left to do there. It is no fault of zine editors to have excluded or mocked trans people in the past. We have been one of the most acceptable punching bags forever. What is new is being used as a wedge issue in politics. We are under attack, in actual danger, and definitely could use the strength of punk. We struggle to take it, to be seen, to walk together with culture warriors. A cursory glance of older issues of punk rock zines will see the word retard used for almost every single slightly frowned upon subject. In reviews, letters, columns, the neurodivergent weren’t seen as humans with something to offer the world. Things have improved though. There is an incline in education and understanding in punk that these communities deserve humanizing and protecting. When I was a teen, I met some skinheads at a show. This was 1988, and though they intimidated me, this was before the Metzgers radicalized them into white nationalism. They described themselves this night in Oklahoma City as the “big brothers of the punks, there to look out for the weaker ones.” I actually thought that was noble. It made me feel like life was working the way it should. I don’t know how truthful they were being honestly, yet I still believe the strong should care for the weak. Punk through its revolutions might have not been equipped to help some groups, but it did create generations of people prepared for the task to come. —Christiana Cranberry

The Teaching Resistance column is designed to provide a platform for radical, subversive teachers/educators to share their ideas and draw attention to important issues around education; particularly compulsory- and community-based education. If you are a teacher (anywhere in the world) for students of primary or secondary school ages (K-12), Community Colleges, or alternative learning arrangements such as collectivist free schools, and you want to submit an idea for a column, please write an email to teachingresistance@ gmail.com; the column will continue in a new form after the print version of MRR ceases production so your submissions will be heard! Also, keep an eye out for the TR book, coming in Fall 2019 on PM Press. –John No, Teaching Resistance editor