In recent years the pop cultural landscape has been shifting to a point where it is becoming more accessible for queer people in the digital age to tell their own stories through art. But if you think that this is a brand new phenomenon, you would be sorrily mistaken. This may be the first time queer artists have been able to break into mainstream spaces, which is huge, but the inherent rebellion in contrary in nature to the status quo that weirdness has historically tied to cannot just be ignored.
Queer people have been around and telling their stories for as long as the human race has existed. The only difference now is that a larger proportion of people are actually listening. This brings to mind the idea of focalization—an active focusing on the point of view and perspective from which stories are told. The non-focalized history that we are taught in school often omits the perspective of queer people who had lived through these periods. It is for this reason that queer people have to resort to searching for their own history. This was something that was cornered by queer writers like James Baldwin and Audrey Lorde who highlighted the boundaries between different people and shifted the focalization of these histories to a black queer perspective.
When we often think of punk, what usually comes to mind is the more macho, bravado, skinny white dudes playing rock’n’roll which the cisnormative heteroseuxal press had decided to label as the anti-thesis of queer disco for some reason. But in the early odds of punk, queerness was actually inherently tied to the movement. The New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, and Patti Smith were all walking contradictions of campy and wild stage antics. Several regulars at dingy night clubs like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB were trans performers and playwrights including Hollywood Line, Jackie Curtis, and Candy Darling. But the most beautifully outrageous and undisputed one to breakthrough was the incomparable Jayne County.
“There was a whole gay subculture in Atlanta, and I dived right into it… I turned into what was known as a Scream Queen: wearing make-up, walking down the street screaming at people, screaming at boys, having to run from them… that’s what Scream Queens would do, go out wrecking people’s nerves… we’d put on our Cover Girl makeup and go driving around in Miss Cock’s convertible wrecking people.”
(Source: Man Enough to Be a Woman)
Hailing from Dallas, Jayne County found her way to New York in 1968 at just nineteen years old like so many other country queers. She was also present in The Stonewall riots in June 28th of 1969–a moment often cited as the birth of the modern, gay-liberation movement. At the start of her career, County had started as a performer appearing in Jackie Curtis and Andy Warhol productions. In 1972, she formed the band Queen Elizabeth which was signed to the same management as David Bowie. Two years later, County had moved to London where she formed the band County And The Backstreet Boys—a name that was inspired by her love of Detroid music. The band eventually became Jayne County And The Electric Chairs after going through several lineup changes. The band released three full-length LPs from 1977 to 1979: The Electric Chairs, Storm The Gates Of Heaven, and Things Yours Mother Never Told You. Their songs were just as outrageous and flamboyant as County’s stage persona. From the upfront and confrontational “Man Enough to Be a Woman” to the irreverent “Toilet Love,” each anthem that The Electric Chairs produced was a slash against heteronormativity and the status quo.
County’s performance style and stage persona was largely inspired by Jackie Curtis and the Theatre of the Ridiculous. What made her special was the fact that she had always gone against the grain and pushed the boundaries of nonconformity—making her trans identity and in-betweenness something to celebrate. Being a performer who was burstered by the culture of the punk movement had largely allowed her the space to do that. But she has also admitted that in the outside world, she has often had to negotiate her identity with the need to dress down and conform in order to arm herself against the bigotry.
County was one of the original trailblaizers to kick in the door and push the punk movement forward. Her energy, art, and performance style has certainly made a lifelong impression on the likes of John Cameron Mitchell and David Bowie. Her story is a priceless reminder that trans folks have always been here, making art and history. The punk individualism that defines so much of County’s mindset gives a middle finger to all respectability politics. She wants to be herself, wants you to be yourself, and wants you to do it unapologetically. And that is the true spirit of punk.