“I wasn’t relating to anyone in the old days, if you want to call the ‘old days’ 2015,” Drew Arriola-Sands says with a laugh, recalling the beginnings of Trap Girl, the queer hardcore group she fronts and plays bass in. “The entire year, which I call ‘the year of paying dues,’ I would play any show, with any lineup, at any bar, any space.
"But I wasn’t relating to anybody. I was frustrated. No one understood the message,” she says. “I needed to go out and find my community.”
Finding a sense of community is both a challenge and a key to success for any artist trying to make it in a local scene, including L.A.’s very tight-knit DIY underground. But for trans artists like Arriola-Sands, community isn’t just a matter of success — it’s a matter of safety, too. “Mostly the bar scene is not welcoming,” says Arriola-Sands. “It’s full of people that are drinking, people that are altered, and they’re not there for you. They’re there for them. They’re there to have a good time, and they’ll heckle you,” she says, describing just one way she’s experienced aggression as a transgender musician.
In response to feeling ostracized by the bar scene — which, although she’s happy Trap Girl experienced, she is now “done with” — Arriola-Sands sought to create a platform exclusively for trans artists, an idea that has manifested over the past year into Transgress Fest, a festival focused on promoting punk and hardcore trans artists in particular, a population whose representation is nearly nonexistent within an already isolated LGBTQ scene.
As Trap Girl traveled the United States playing shows throughout 2015, Arriola-Sands took note of the trans artists she met along the way. “Every three or four shows I would meet a queer band, or a queer person in a band, and I’d grab them and put them in my back pocket and keep going,” she says. “Last year in February we were playing Riverside and I met the Frisco Dykes, so I grabbed them and put them in my basket and kept going. In April I saw Duderella and grabbed him and put him in my basket.”
In this way, she was able to curate Transgress Fest's eclectic lineup. “We have people like Bedroom Witch, who’s a singer, she’s in the electronic genre. Really emotional and beautiful. And you have people like Reyna Ripper, who is completely experimental, crazy noise. She’s this woman from hell. She came out of hell! She’s insane. She scares me. And you know, I scare people.”
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Altogether she’s gathered nine transgender artists and groups from across California to play the all-ages show, as well as queer powerviolence collective HIRS, one of Arriola-Sands’ major influences, who are coming all the way out from Philadelphia for what will be their first show in Southern California. “This is a dream come true to me, to have people that I look up to come play my fest,” she says.
Arriola-Sands calls herself and her partners — Adrian Santellen of pop-punk group Bellhaunts and Candace Hansen, drummer for L.A. punk legend Alice Bag and “anarcho-acidrock-arena-sludge” band YAAWN — "three sisters against the world." Together they are making other trans artists’ dreams come true by giving them a safe platform to perform on and welcoming them into a community she’s literally hand-picked from across the country.
“These are my brothers and these are my sisters; there’s no reason for me to deny anyone,” she says. “You don’t have to jump through no hoops, or keep your fingers crossed, or keep your eyes crossed, or cut out your heart hoping that some asshole is going to book you. This is a festival for trans people, by trans people.”
Transgress Fest takes place Saturday, Nov. 12, at the LGBT Center in Santa Ana, with an after-party at the Che Cafe in San Diego the following night. More info.