Coming of age in the New Jersey punk scene of the late Nineties and early Aughts, Lauren Denitzio rarely saw a local band that wasn’t fronted by someone straight, white, and male. Like countless others, Denitzio — who today identifies as queer and prefers the use of gender-neutral language and pronouns — found solace in music while feeling ostracized at school, picking up the guitar just as a fresh torrent of punk bands was starting to dominate the airwaves. The punk community would eventually propel them toward the study of feminism, gender theory, and more radical political thought, but for years role models who were not cisgender men remained painfully absent on stage and at shows.
Today, the climate in punk has slowly begun to shift, however. And Denitzio — whose band Worriers released its first full-length album, Imaginary Life, on Don Giovanni Records last summer — is part of a new class of LGBTQ songwriters working to make the often insular world of punk rock more open and accepting when it comes to gender and sexual identity. On February 26, Worriers will play with punk stalwarts Iron Chic at Aviv in Bushwick, and just last week Denitzio performed a solo set with Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace at Silent Barn in honor of the one-year anniversary of Gender Is Over (If You Want It). A riff on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “War Is Over” campaign from the Sixties, the organization was created in the hopes of raising awareness around the “harmful, damaging, and often violent” effects brought on by society’s emphasis on assigned, binary gender roles.
“Right now, going to any sort of punk-related show is phenomenal and world’s more accepting and open than I could have imagined when I was growing up,” Denitzio, now 32 and based in Brooklyn, tells the Voice. “On the other hand, [punk] still seems to be resistant sometimes to really owning up to its history. There are still plenty of people who don’t want to take accountability for even small actions that are clearly making people feel unwelcome.”
“It’s not perfect,” they add, citing men who still barrel their way through mosh pits, or make sexist remarks toward women in bands, “but I personally am not at a point where I would give up on it.”
Produced by Grace, Imaginary Life is a masterfully crafted punk record, full of shout-along anthems and biting guitar riffs. But peel back the layers of distortion and fuzz and Imaginary Life exists largely as a protest album, informed by the changes Denitzio would like to see both in the punk community and the world at large. Songs like “Most Space,” “Yes All Cops,” and the defiant “They/Them/Theirs” (“You’ve got a word for one, so there’s a word for all,” the track’s opening line declares, making the case for gender-neutral pronouns) feature Denitzio’s purposefully impassive voice at its most topical and nihilistic.
Prior to forming Worriers some six years ago, Denitzio led the New Brunswick–based punk band the Measure (SA) for the better part of a decade. From the very beginning, the project, as well as their songwriting, boasted a sociopolitical undercurrent.
“It was the political aspect of songwriter that made a band make sense to me,” Denitzio explains. “I spent so much of my time reading about things and caring about my community and trying to be involved and throwing benefit shows that I felt like my voice was best suited for expressing those sorts of things through a punk band.”
Denitzio became an Against Me! devotee after hearing the group’s debut album, Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose, in 2002, connecting with the folk punk resurgence the band represented, as well the angsty, politically charged lyrics of songs like “Baby I’m an Anarchist.” Attending Wesleyan University in Connecticut at the time, they drove over an hour to see the band perform outdoors at SUNY Purchase with a group of friends from the NJ punk scene.
Though the pair had met sporadically over the years through mutual acquaintances, more than a decade after the release of Reinventing Axl Rose Denitzio would cold call Grace and ask her to produce Worriers’ debut LP, not knowing if the answer would be yes or no.
“She liked our sound, she liked our songs, and when I asked her [to produce the album] I put it in a direct way. I said, ‘I’d like to collaborate with someone who I feel like I can see eye to eye with, who shares a somewhat similar perspective to me,'” Denitzio remembers. “[With] the sound I wanted for the record, and what I wanted to be writing about, I thought that maybe, hypothetically, she would be interested in being a part of that. And luckily I think I was right.”
“She’s really forced a lot of people to take a hard look at where they actually stand about gender and sexuality,” they added, “especially as it relates to the punk scene.”
In 2012, Grace came out as transgender in a widely read profile for Rolling Stone. Two years later, she and Against Me! released their sixth studio album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues — one of the group’s strongest, most cohesive records to date and a rallying cry for the LBTQ punk community. Grace, who recently kicked off the new season of the American Songbook series at Lincoln Center, has worked closely with Gender Is Over since its launch last year, wearing a black mesh jersey with the organization’s name emblazoned across the front for sixty nights before donating the shirt to charity. Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz and Miley Cyrus have also worn Gender Is Over jerseys in solidarity with the movement.
“Over the last three years, I’ve been on a roller coaster of gender — putting out a record, touring, doing interviews, constantly talking about myself and how I’m relating to gender,” Grace told Rolling Stone of her decision to wear the jersey. “And personally, I’ve been dealing with new experiences as an out trans person. I got to the point where I felt like, ‘Yes! I do not want to fucking think about gender! I just want to exist.'”
Ultimately, punk, like all facets of American culture, is not a monolith but a melting pot. Still, as the country barrels headfirst toward the 2016 presidential election, the rhetoric on both sides of the political aisle has grown increasingly sexist, transphobic, and vitriolic. If punk serves any purpose, it is perhaps to give those who feel shunned and forgotten by mainstream society a space to vent collective frustrations.
“It’s 2016 and we’re still having conversations that really dehumanize women and queer folks and trans folks, but I also feel like it would be really difficult if I let those comments get to me in this kind of world-weary way,” Denitzio says. “Punk has become a way for people with varied experiences outside of the mainstream to have a place to talk about that.”