On Being a Queer Punk: Then And Now

I sing in the BallBusters, a queer doom sludge punk band. My experience of being queer and involved in the punk scene at different points in my life are intertwined.

In my tweens, I was lonely little urchin. However, behind the polyester veil of suburban boredom, two things were happening for me: I was listening to punk, which helped me shake any last shreds of respect I had for society, and I’d discovered I liked the hard feeling of a cock against me. Those two things converged, as I began to find my own way.

I went to school in the inner city, where I discovered a transsexual bar/coffee joint called Trish’s in North Melbourne. I was shy but the people were friendly, and I had a yearning to know them. They were nice to me at a time when no one else was. They didn’t serve me drinks, and I would just sip tea and talk to them. Unfortunately, I put them in an awkward situation one time when I turned up there after school, in my uniform. Trish herself came up and very politely, asked me to leave. I was hurt at the time, but now I look back and understand they were protecting themselves, which was fair enough. But I was lonely again.

To say ‘school was a nightmare’ is an understatement. I mean, can there be anything worse for an emerging trans woman than to be sent to a catholic boys’ school? I turned out to be a very consistent student, failing every subject. Actually, I loved study. Italian was my favourite subject. I loved conjugating verbs and practicing pronunciation, but I was regarded as a poof for preferring Italian to sport. I was also an avid reader, and by 14, was reading the novels of Genet and Burroughs. Those two writers had a deep impact on me. Burroughs liberated me from having limited ideas about my body, and I identified with Genet’s ‘criminal-queer-taboo’ world. Somehow, these texts, combined with punk helped me come to terms early with my sexuality, in conjunction with my desire to reject ‘normality’.  

It’s hard to explain to those who are young in the early 21st century just how stratified gender expression was in the late 20th century. For example, when I was 14 I’d put a sleeper through my earlobe, but hid it under my hair from my father. One day he finally got a look at it, yanked it out of my ear and said ‘What are you? No son of mine wears fucking earrings’. Now I can look back and laugh. TOUGH LUCK, FUCKFACE, YOU ENDED UP WITH THE DAUGHTER YOU NEVER WANTED! I can laugh now but actually I was upset then. Only briefly, though … within days I’d put sleepers in both ears and bleached my hair orange.

In fact, I liked the fashion and DIY culture of punk more than the music. Outfits made of plastic bags and fluoro vinyl offcuts, mohair cardies, red tartan pants and lurid coloured rags stitched together with wool, wire and of course, safety pins.

I started turning up at the Ballroom in St Kilda with bleached hair, tartan pants (‘bondage trousers’) and cigarette ash rubbed around my eyes. Somewhere along the line, probably at the Ballroom, I met my first ‘girlfriend’, AM, who lived at the notorious Punt Road squat, one of the longest running first wave punk squats.

AM was cool, and used to let me wear her clothes. I wore her short, ripped, safety-pinned tartan skirts, a style I still love. We used to get high and stay for days in her bed listening to the Cramps’ first album on high rotation, as well as a band she loved from NZ called ‘Shoes This High’. She was several years older, and a former bootgirl. I loved the bootgirls; they were so rough looking, yet femme.

At times, we’d go walking through the city, both decked out in her clothes and eyeliner, and get abused by passers-by. We enjoyed attracting their revulsion; their outrage cracked us up. Naturally, it was always men that abused us. They didn’t know what to make of us; their tiny brains short-wired as they tried to process us walking by. With my skull earrings and bleached hair, in a skirt and wearing heavy eye-makeup, I didn’t fit into anything they thought should have the right to exist. As for AM, she didn’t conform to the conventional idea of ‘feminine’. She used to dry out her old tampons and make necklaces out of them. I remember once on Elizabeth St some cops cruised by and abused us. I was told ‘you should go kill yourself, mate.’

The fun was good while it lasted, but almost overnight, a horrible new het-masc wave of punk crept in. Suddenly punk gigs looked different: they went from being bizarre anti-fashion gatherings of misspent youth, to roomfuls of dudes with shaved heads and identical black leather jackets standing around holding VB cans and looking serious. What was once a community of runaways, misfits, survivors and delinquents of all kinds, turned rapidly into a masculinized, femme-phobic, straight boys’ club. The once androgynous scene of punk rock had descended into heteronormativity. I kept going to the Prince of Wales, but now avoided the bandroom, where the straight punks knocked themselves out with alcohol and pills. Instead, I hung out in the front bar, where I picked up guys.

AM OD’d on heroin and that ended the only good relationship with a woman. Later I would have a few sexual relationships with other women throughout my life, but they were disasters because the women were straight. I drifted away from punk, although I still kept a small link to it even after moving to Sydney, where I used to see a certain band at the Trade Union Club. I had a crush on the drummer, but like my other crushes within the punk scene, it could never come to anything.

Around this time, I became aware of my liking for bad boys, by getting mixed up with a guy (let’s call him John) who worked for a ‘known colourful identity’ in Kings Cross. I was 21 and I guess he was about 35. He liked my long hair and slim body, and used to call me a female name. He was the first guy to really fuck me properly. He was taller than me, very muscular and covered in tatts. I was getting all my prison bitch fantasies fulfilled, without doing time. Unfortunately, John was extremely violent. One night, he gave me a permanent injury to the groin which I now joke about as ‘the first stage in my gender reassignment’. I knew then I had to get away from this psycho, despite his ability to fuck me silly.

I ended up back in Melbourne in the late 90s, started to fully transition, and got into the fetish scene, notably Hush Now, a club run by a Domme called Mistress Tan. Fetish clubs were a safe space for trans women to go out. I used to buy amazing gear from a trans woman called Stephanie who ran a shop in Chapel street. At Hush, I met another trans woman (let’s call her Latex Laura). I was her ‘rope model’ for a while, and we’re still in contact. She was older, and had been around the London fetish scene.

LL gave me great advice about going out and being careful. I can still hear her voice saying ‘Karen, never forget that people hate us, and they want to kill us’. She was right. In those days, we dealt with drunken yobbos abusing us and a few times throwing bottles when going to and leaving clubs. I think my early punk days helped me get through that. We were on our own. Unified concepts like ‘LGBT’ and ‘queer’ didn’t exist then, at least not for me. There was a drag scene, but I didn’t identify with it. I had no connection with the gay scene and neither did most of my friends. We felt like outsiders and deviants, because that’s how we were viewed.

At some point, I visited an older trans friend in Ballarat. She had someone she wanted to introduce to me. Half an hour later I was sipping wine in the flat of Trish, former owner of the club I’d gone to as a teen. She was now in her early 70s. She claimed to remember me, but I’m not sure if she was just being nice. There were many other adventures along the way, but they fall outside the scope of this article.

About a year ago, I was shimmying around topless at a New Year’s Eve party when I met the person who would be the drummer for the BallBusters. Later at a club in Brunswick I met the bassist. We started practicing at her house in Coburg. Ironically the roller door of her back shed opens onto an alley where I had done a ‘strip photo shoot’ several months before we met.

Now the BBs have played some gigs and have a bunch of our own songs. Queer punk is the best wave of punk ever – there’s a sense of community about it that I think is unique. I love my band and I love the queers who come to see us.