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Safe as house is: Gender identity and safe spaces in clubs

Jaye Ward, Honey Dijon, JD Samson, Mandidextrous and DJ Sprinkles talk gender identity, safe spaces, privilege and the power of the internet...

Words: JOE ROBERTS // Pics: JEF McMAHAN, COMATONSE RECORDINGS

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“Trans is so hot right now,” chuckles Jaye Ward, the Hackney-based DJ whose lineage of trippy post-Balearica, weird electronics and house dubs connects the capital’s club scene from its late-’80s roots, when she started playing parties like Club Dog and Tonka, through to its current wave of underground parties.

Around her neck is a chain carrying the word ‘House’, the music that she says saved her life. Despite a brief spell taking hormones as a teen, until seven years ago Jaye was married with two children, having spent the nineties DJing, promoting, and working in various record shops and distribution companies looking, she tells us with self-deprecating humour, like the archetypal "Berwick Street bearded disco midget”.

Then, unable to put it off any longer, “I decided to stop spending money on rotary mixers and buy hormones instead.” Having just supported Octo Octa (see page 71) at East London’s Dalston Superstore for a party celebrating Trans Day Of Visibility, which takes place annually on 31st March, she sounds bemused to be in a spotlight on trans people that stretches from the transitioning of public figures like Chelsea Manning to the campaigning journalism of Paris Lees.

“It’s weird,” Jaye reflects. “I’ve been playing records for 30-odd years and now suddenly I’m getting booked because my connections have intersected with queer things and with trans things.” 

“I decided to stop spending money on rotary mixers and buy hormones instead. It’s weird, I’ve been playing records for 30-odd years and now suddenly I’m getting booked because my connections have intersected with queer things and with trans things.” - JAYE WARD

SAFE SPACES

Trans people are part of the intersectional bedrock of dance music since its very beginnings. The focus on clubs as ‘safe spaces’ is being emphasised again to help protect minorities from harassment, and as Chicago house DJs relocated to New York, Honey Dijon points out, they were once one of the only protected places to meet.

“It was about having safe spaces for queer people and trans people to be who they are,” she tells us over the phone, having played the night before after a vogue battle at Mona in Paris. “[House] was an art-form created by people of colour, so if you really want to get into it — gender, race and sexual orientation all played a part. Clubs were a place for people to find community and find who they are without being judged or ridiculed or persecuted. 

“[House] was an art-form created by people of colour, so if you really want to get into it — gender, race and sexual orientation all played a part. Clubs were a place for people to find community and find who they are without being judged or ridiculed or persecuted.” HONEY DIJON

Another New York-based artist, DJ and producer, JD Samson calls herself “transgender by definition, because I do not take part in the binary system of gender expression”, while also identifying as a woman and lesbian. As part of the band Le Tigre, whose anthem ‘Deceptacon’ was remixed by LCD Soundsystem, she sought to create a supportive arena for queer and feminist activists to dance.

“In the same way, I felt safe at house music parties in the ‘90s in New York,” she says. It’s this legacy that JD’s own party Pat continues, a free event to acknowledge the lack of economic means of some of its diverse crowd, and which, she claims, highlights artists who are People Of Colour, women and trans. At the same time she points out that some trans people are less well-represented than others. “I do think that lesbian DJs and trans guys have less press within the scene and I’m not sure why that is,” she admits, adding that the widespread attention given to the issues highlighted by The Black Madonna, as a flagbearer for equality, is a step in the right direction.

Glastonbury’s NYC Downlow, meanwhile, is another LGBT haven that has brought openness around gender identity closer to a more mainstream narrative, scoring column inches in national broadsheets and consumer music magazines like ours.

CHALLENGING NORMS

London’s free-party acid techno scene is a world away. Yet it provided a similarly nurturing environment for Mandidextrous, the DJ, producer and founder of Amen4Tekno. Building on the using of jungle and techno she says she first heard from producers such as Dan Fix and Ryan Wreck Up, this summer she’s taking her own distinctive Jungletek sound — proving equally popular with techno and d&b heads — to festivals such as Glastonbury and Boomtown. Before transitioning, however, she was playing more traditional drum & bass in a male-orientated environment with very few female DJs. 

“If I hadn’t dropped out of school and ended up going to raves every weekend, and I’d stayed in school and ended up going to the pub with my friends at the weekend, I think it would have been very different,” she tells us from her adopted home of Bristol, praising the support of Chris Liberator and Rowland The Bastard, two of the godfathers of acid techno who helped inspire her and gave encouragement to her very open social media posts about her experiences.

“For me going through a transition, it was good to be in surroundings that are very laid back and liberal in how they see people and approach life,” she explains, saying that back in her native Buckinghamshire she experienced violence during this process, something that — if she saw the same people at parties — didn’t happen. “I found it really inspiring. I could be myself.”

Back in February, New York’s MoMa featured a series of events called Between 0 and 1: Remixing Gender, Technology and Music, focusing on topics of “gender nonconforming identities and electronic music”. As part of this Terre Thaemlitz, also known DJ Sprinkles, performed tracks from her 2012 ‘Soulnessless’ album (soon to be followed by a similarly conceptual work ‘Deproduction’). Her own experiences run counter to any utopian ideals of clubs as spaces to escape cultural and economic structures.

For a start, she says no club has ever affected her as much as her residency in the “challenging environment” of Sally’s II, “a predominantly African-American and Latina transsexual sex worker bar whose clientele were often non-gay identified males of various races and economic classes”, an alternate and usually untold side of New York’s nightlife narrative.

CONDITIONED BIAS

Then there’s her reality of mostly being booked to play for straight-white-male audiences. “Even the signs of friendliness — the ‘bro fists’ coming at me in the DJ booth — are, from my perspective, inseparable from other experiences with hetero aggression and real punches from straight-white guys. It really makes me uncomfortable, and I’ve mentioned it in the press many times, yet it happens every fucking time I play, and people get really upset when you don’t bump back.” Her solution, she says, is to cup their fist in her palm, placating the gesture without reciprocating its implied violence.

Switching the pronouns she uses between ‘he’ and ‘she’, often in the same sentence, and performing in both male and female drag is also a tool to draw attention to most people’s conditioned biases. “I tend to talk and act the same regardless of my gender appearance, yet the reactions are totally different,” she says. “None of this is fun or comfortable for me.”

“Even the signs of friendliness — the ‘bro fists’ coming at me in the DJ booth — are, from my perspective, inseparable from other experiences with hetero aggression and real punches from straight-white guys. It really makes me uncomfortable, and I’ve mentioned it in the press many times, yet it happens every fucking time I play, and people get really upset when you don’t bump back.” DJ SPRINKLES

Terre’s proposed alternative to Trans Day Of Visibility — itself a counterpoint to Trans Day Of Remembrance on 20th November, a memorial to those killed due to the widespread attitudes of transphobia — is for everyone to be required, randomly in a non-festive or collective way, to go about their everyday-day while cross-dressing.

“I believe this kind of experience is one of the only ways for that majority of people who claim gender and trans issues have nothing to do with them to start to comprehend how gender issues affect everyone, and gain insights into the shame and harassment inflicted on others, as well as awakening to the privileges and biases in one’s daily-life practices.”

It’s this shared harassment that means Honey Dijon sees trans issues as tied up with those of Black Lives Matter, women’s rights and the abuse of immigrants. “I never wanted to be pigeonholed by anything, be it black, be it trans, be it a woman. These are all some parts of a whole person. These things dictate my experience, or how I navigate the worlds, but I find these conversations are more for other people and not for me.”

Finally feeling she has “something to say”, this Autumn sees the release of a debut Honey album on Classic, featuring Sam Sparro, Joi Cradwell, Matrixxman and more.

For those seeking common experience and advice, the internet has finally given minority groups a voice outside of the mainstream, she believes, creating global communities invested with more political power and knowledge than in the past. Jaye Ward agrees, joking that Tumblr made her trans. “Now we’re much more content aware,” she adds, with the assertion that the music is more interesting to most, especially younger people, than what’s in her pants. “Everyone’s a nerd, everyone wants to know what you’re playing, whether you’re gay, straight, trans, non-binary, queer, whatever. If you’re shit, you’re shit. If you’re boring, you’re boring. It doesn’t matter what the surface is.”

“Everyone’s a nerd, everyone wants to know what you’re playing, whether you’re gay, straight, trans, non-binary, queer, whatever. If you’re shit, you’re shit. If you’re boring, you’re boring. It doesn’t matter what the surface is.”

Want more? Get to know Brookyln DJ/producer Octo Octa.

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