I recently wrote a tweet that got 60+ retweets and nearly 150 likes which read, “\m/ being trans is the most metal thing you can be \m/” and I pinned the tweet to my profile and while, yes, it was a joke in reference to an actual Vatican cardinal denouncing trans people as “demonic,” as “causing the death of God,” I believe every word of the tweet. Thinking about why it resonates so much with me is like a thorough unbuttoning.
Heavy metal, for all of its venerable attributes, has an unhealthy obsession with authenticity. The chief complaint about a lousy metal band isn’t that their drums lack oomph or their riffs droop and wilt, but that they just aren’t metal. That they’ve broken some rule or they’re playing the imposter. The trick. The trap. Internet forum metalheads banter about who is or is not “trve metal,” always seeking out the trvth, spelling it t-r-v-e, Latinate v’s for u’s, finding comfort in archaic lettering because they are afraid of losing the past.
Looking for authenticity is always a preservation method. It’s conservative. You see this all the time in food, especially from white eaters – the demand for only the most authentic bowel of pho or curry goat or mapo doufu (as if they’d know) is a demand that other cultures stay stagnant for your benefit. It’s archival eating. It is possible, looking past whiteness of course, to honor the past & protect one’s history while also allowing for growth.
But the gatekeepers at metal shows & record shops won’t hear any of that. As with any niche subculture based around art or entertainment for sale, men will protect their domain with tests of obscure trivia. You’re not trve metal unless you can, on-demand from some dude with Metal Church and Overkill patches steamed onto his denim jacket, name all of Megadeth’s lead guitar players in chronological order or name the exact date on which Meyhem bassist Varg Vikernes stabbed Meyhem guitarist Euronymous 23 times in a stairwell.
The official queer student group in college, at the time I was there anyway, wasn’t particularly receptive to genderqueer or nonbinary trans students. I was beginning to accept that I wasn’t a guy, and while I could explore a queer sexuality all I wanted in the theater green room, that wasn’t really the place where I could explore my gender beyond vague drag. I was told that nonbinary people were just cisgender people wishing to be “special snowflakes.” That nonbinary identity was an appropriation of “real transgender identity.” Those months set me back from accepting myself for a decade. The two trans girls in the group were themselves wearing denim jackets: punk band patches, patches of Simpsons characters, pizza slices, cartoon cats.
“Most important rule in the metal community first: Don't put patches on your denim jacket for bands that you have never seen live
Don't mix general genres - so while it might be acceptable to have Slayer and Metallica on the same jacket, it isn't okay to have Slayer and Green Day on the same jacket
Don't have extreme mixes within genre on your jacket - so while it might be acceptable to have Black Sabbath and Sleep on the same jacket, it isn't okay to have Black Sabbath and Kamelot on the same jacket
Don't personalize your jacket with your own name tag, your national flag, home town name, personal interests, family & pet names etc. - keep to the bands, stick to the music
Don't steal another man's jacket - I don't know who you are, but I will find you, and I will kill you
Don't wash your jacket, EVER!
Don't repair your jacket, EVER!
Don't sell your jacket
Don't EVER buy an already patched jacket, new or secondhand
DO cover it in patches
DO spill blood, beer, food, piss and puke on it
DO defend it with your life”
-- a post by user Napalm_Satan, on the Encyclopedia Metallum’s metal forums, in the thread titled “Metal Vests: Let’s See ‘Em If You Got ‘Em”
Transgender punk rock musician Laura Jane Grace has a web series legitimately titled “True Trans.” I’m telling the trvth here.
“Her jacket is a work of art. There’s a Kids in the Hall skit where Satan gives a stoner the ability to grow weed out of his head in exchange for his perfect denim jacket: that’s the kind of denim jacket Maria has. Satan would kill for her jacket. Here are its patches: The Bouncing Souls, White Zombie, the word fuck, a little girl holding giant scissors (on plaid), Hello My Name Is DYKE, and, the coup de grace, the whole back is the cover of the first Poison album. It’s not even ironic. Poison rules.” – Imogen Binnie, Nevada
I began thinking of buying a denim jacket again a few months ago, while thinking about my friend and former teacher, Roger Kirschbaum, who always wore a denim jacket or an oversized chambray, who passed away in 2010. Roger was a poet & dedicated composition teacher, a journeyman for a number of years before settling into Maryville, MO. I worked under him at the university’s writing center (A quote & picture of me from those days, hiding behind a grossly haggard beard, pretending not to be a body, is something that Google will bring up on a search of my name). I drank Boulevard Pale Ales & Tecates on his back deck, picked cicada shells off of his big tree, watched Zack Greinke pitch complete game shutouts, and just had the kind of casual mentorship (& gentle masculinity) that a chill undergraduate like me yearned for. I don’t want to overstate how close we were: Roger took in a lot of English majors in this way. I just mean to say that it felt like I would be honoring him by wearing a denim jacket. Or if not honoring him then simply remembering him. Which is good enough, and the same thing.
“The moon is no longer new. A thumbnail./ We are here because it is October,/ an evening for denim./ Nothing exists outside the headlights.” – Roger Kirschbaum, from his 2000 book of poetry, Hunter Ranch.
I used to be literally afraid to wear the clothing I loved the most. I looked at every shirt or pair of sneakers as if it had hit points, like in a video game. Each time I wore a piece I could practically see that item’s hit points drop. I was afraid of deterioration, afraid of losing this thing I treasured. I could never get myself to understand that if lock the item away, refuse its use, that I’ve already lost it.
I didn’t write much in 2016. I was blaming this on some reasonable excuse or another. I just finished grad school. I just moved to a new city & needed time to adjust. I’ve started a new job, teaching double the amount of classes I had before. Those sorts of excuses.
In the interest of full disclosure, this is the real reason I haven’t been writing lately: mourning, worry, distance. I lost my grandfather in 2015. Grandpa Grass, or “Daddy Bob,” was my last living grandparent. I did a vanity Google search of my own name recently, skipping past that aforementioned haggard picture of me, and re-read a lyric essay that I published years ago about my other grandfather’s death. In that piece I thought about why I didn’t cry, didn’t react much at all to Grandpa Carver’s passing, surmising that it was my unpreparedness, my almost complete lack of family experience with death. I re-read my own lines: “No one really dies in my family. Not yet.” Well, now’s the yet. Grandma Carver was found dead in her home in March 2014. Grandpa Grass, a man who specialized in the diffusing of underwater mines, who briefly pal’d around in Hollywood with starlet Brenda Joyce, succumbed to dementia & short breath.
All those years that my grandparents knew me they didn’t know me. I didn’t know me. Those years I tried to get as far away from my body as I could: hiding in oversized clothes, in sloppy masculinity, none of it fitting at all. Not that being trans is all about the clothes, as many trans-exclusionary radical feminists like to claim, but they are symptomatic here of my larger problem: I let my dysphoria prevent me from making active choices about my life. If you don’t wear something then it can’t deteriorate, right? It can’t get worse if it is safe, in stasis, preserved. I couldn’t even bring myself to choose the clothing I wanted to wear. Years went by trying to preserve my body’s status quo through deferment. Willfully ignorant that change happens regardless.
While I didn’t have a perfect denim jacket with the right metal band patches, I rarely was subject to the verbal gatekeeping tests at record shops because I was read as a guy. I didn’t appear to be a threat to them. But I’m not a guy and I wasn’t back then either even if I didn’t quite know it, and I deeply internalized the gatekeeping that women and femmes were subject to by the guys who ruled local metal scenes, who still rule every metal scene.
My hair was long, down to the top of my butt, which was partly because of how I could see myself in things like heavy metal (and professional wrestling) and partly because, wow, I wonder why you forced yourself to connect with every long-haired, kinda sensitive male character or athlete or musician on your TV, from Bret Hart to Tommy the green/white Power Ranger to Duo Maxwell to Kirk Hammett to Mikael Akerfeldt, Berry? Could it be that you were reaching for examples of femininity eking from out the cracks of what you, with unconscious doom, saw as immutable biological destiny?
I could pass in the metal scene, is the point. I loved heavy metal. Still do. I was ready in many ways to become those dudes. I pored over the Encyclopedia Metallium website. I yearned for that denim jacket with patches of obscure metal bands, the ones that show everyone how good of a metalhead you are, how much you know, how good you are at the performance. But I saw & felt how that mindset affected women, femmes, nonbinary people who weren’t masculine. It hurt me, even if I couldn’t piece together with honesty that it hurt because I was nonbinary myself, that I was a trans woman myself, even, and because of that hurt I didn’t buy a denim jacket. I left my designs for patch layouts in browned college rule notebooks. I cut off all my hair at age 26.
“So I'm a 17 year old guy in high school, and no guy at my school has ever copped a denim jacket that I know of. However, just recently I purchased one with a hood from American Eagle. Do you guys think wearing these are gay?”
-- original post from user valenciaisthebest, on the Kanye West Forum at www.kanyetothe.com, of a thread titled “Is Wearing A Denim Jacket Gay?”
I’ve experienced gatekeeping of a different sort from back home over the last year. The place where I was born & raised shutting itself off from me. Here are some Things People in my Hometown Have Recently Said to Me:
[insert total silence from my Dad here]
A guy, you know
What are you
So you want to think you’re a female
You were born a male so you are still considered one.
I know you before your “transformation” I will still call you he
Ur partner must be a dude as well cuz no way in Hell he’d be defending you if he weren’t
Wanting to chance gender [sic]
a man that is one of Gods many beautiful creations that is being tempted
an old friend
not understanding God’s ways
It was your choice to destroy the identity God gave you, not mine
I was scrolling through Facebook, and J saw your picture. My 5 year old that has been being bullied by children and adults alike for loving girly cartoons. For being utterly obsessed with their mint and coral Air Maxes. J saw your pic and I couldn't tell you the last time I saw such a pure smile from this child that has become afraid to be themself. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for being you, and unknowingly restoring my child's confidence.
one of mom’s boys
mom’s beautiful boy
the oldest son
It’s like you never even came from here
I’ve come to see the ritual power of memory in objects. I maybe knew this power all along but denied it. Internalized something or other. I scribble notes on old notepads from Grandpa Carver’s workplace, Mission Clay Pipes. I kept a few of my Grandma & Grandpa Grass’ salt and pepper shakers from being sold in auction.
I listen to pagan black metal bands and Eastern Orthodox liturgical black metal bands and I light candles and I palm my mom’s turquoise bracelet. I’ve been wearing turquoise socks and I’ve installed a ring of turquoise gems in my pierced septum, to honor my mother. In the interest of full disclosure, this is the real reason I haven’t been writing lately: my mom passed away in summer 2016 from breast cancer that had metastasized to her lungs. She knew me. She did. And this is such cliché – perfectly rendered for the Hallmark Christmas ornaments my mom collected – but her passing, everyone’s passing, trvly helped me to realize that life is short/live how you want to live/live laugh love/etc. I watch this candle melt down, making itself gone. I fill grandpa’s notepads with ritual writing, knowing one day there will be no more notepads. I wear the clothes I love instead of saving them for some never to come day of open gates. I learn to harmonize memory and loss.
And of course I have been one of those white eaters I mentioned earlier. I’ve scoured old Chowhound message board threads for scoops on the most authentic places. I’ve written essays about what is and isn’t “real” barbecue. I’ve talked with venerated Belgian brewmasters about what makes a Saison an actual Saison. Again: an archival eating. Authenticity isn’t all bad; establishing rules helps fight against appropriation. But who gets to impose those rules and who becomes subject to them can be decisions tainted with sexism and racism and transphobia and homophobia.
I’ve learned that you can’t seek out authenticity in others. I can’t possibly truly know what is authentic for you, and to think so would be presumptive at best and colonizing at worst. But I can know what is authentic, what’s true, for myself. No Latinate v’s because finding your truth is always an active, living process. My active process, here, is thinking about denim jackets and thinking about grief and thinking about the spread of a cancerous not-you replicating itself inside of you, is finding a truth.
I bought a denim jacket: Japanese pro wrestling patches & black metal patches & Kansas City Royals patches & a cat named Professor Pizza sitting in a satanic symbol & the Poke’mon Vulpix & my pronouns & the state of Alabama & the Grim Reaper only his scythe’s blade is a pizza slice & a button from my local coffee shop.
Also, I’ve been taking hormones. I’m medically transitioning. I’ve known for decades that I wanted a certain kind of body and that I wanted to be read a certain way. I just never let myself think I deserved to have it. The queer gatekeepers in my life wanted me to be a woman, which shut me off from realizing I kind of am one. The Metalheads wanted me to wear denim, a battle jacket some of them called it, and I resisted because I wasn’t them. But they were wrong about the trvth. And I was wrong to think I wasn’t in a battle. Because my body is not fixed in place. This denim jacket fades & wears & the patches accrue & nothing is being preserved here. I am not an archive. I am authentically alive. I can be a trans woman from the rural Midwest, and I can wear this denim jacket, and even in doing so I can still, in the words of Philadelphia poet Elizabeth Baber, “fuck the gatekeeper AND the gate.” I can stitch together the only kind of authenticity that matters: rivets and selvedge and frayed fabric. The tangible. The woven.
“In a new-growth church of trees,/ a small piece of her got away, slipped/ downstream with rotting sticks, styrene./ The person I used to be.” – Roger Kirschbaum, from his 2000 book of poetry, Hunter Ranch.
Berry Grass has lived in rural Missouri, Tuscaloosa, and now Philadelphia. She's the author of Hall of Waters (2019, The Operating System). Her essays & poems have been published in DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Territory, Barrelhouse, and Sonora Review, among other publications. When she's not reading submissions as Nonfiction Editor of Sundog Lit, she's embodying what happens when a Virgo watches too much professional wrestling.