Using the bathroom at a concert can be a pain. Go at the wrong time and you’ll encounter lines out the door, a shortage of toilet paper, or maybe even someone doing something questionable in the next stall. Meanwhile, you’re missing out on the band you came to see, your friends, and your PBR tallboy. But for musicians and their fans who are transgender, or don’t identify along the gender binary, those few annoying minutes at the back of the venue are often trumped by painfully uncomfortable decisions and, increasingly, harassment.
It’s those situations that have inspired New York pop-punk duo PWR BTTM to shake things up a little bit.
Known for performing in drag and drenched in glitter, Brooklyn-based PWR BTTM write catchy songs about queer politics, sexuality, and falling in love at Dairy Queen, injecting its music with a morbid and outrageous sense of humor. Since releasing its debut album, Ugly Cherries, last September, band members Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins have received critical accolades across the board—most recently last week, when NPR premiered the music video for its song “West Texas.” Earlier this month, the band left for a full U.S. tour opening for indie-pop band Ra Ra Riot, including a stop this past Sunday at 9:30 Club.
Now, with media attention and a big tour, PWR BTTM is using its unmistakable charisma and candor to try to influence how venues approach gender and restrooms.
On Feb. 19, the band shared a screenshot of a section of its tour rider titled “Restroom Policy” on its Facebook and Twitter pages. A rider is part of a band’s contract that stipulates services a venue must provide on the night of a show, usually dealing with a specific food allergy or aversion (Van Halen’s ban on brown M&Ms in its green rooms is part of rock music lore) or sound requirement, and now, bathrooms. According to its rider, PWR BTTM requires every venue it plays to make the restrooms gender neutral for the night of the concert, or to provide an equal alternative. If a venue can’t comply, PWR BTTM reserves the right to alert fans before the show on social media, as gender-neutral bathrooms are something its ardent followers have come to expect at its shows.
As word spreads about the policy online and at shows, the band has taken a pragmatic yet firm approach to the issue. “I can’t control everywhere, but we do have this contract, this rider that we send to venues before we play there,” Bruce says. “There are lots of things that venues do to accommodate bands when they’re coming to play there, and what if one of them was doing this?”
With this rider request, PWR BTTM hopes to promote comfort for musicians and fans who don’t identify as a certain gender, while addressing the risks that both crowded and secluded bathrooms at venues can pose. In D.C., the band’s outspoken stance is resonating with the local music community.
“I feel that gender fluidity is celebrated in our music scene,” says Johnny Fantastic, a gender-neutral musician who plays frequently in the D.C. area with the electronic noise-pop band Stronger Sex, as well as various other projects. “If people knew how awkward the decision of choosing [a] bathroom is for me, they would agree to any scenario that would eradicate that awkwardness for me,” Fantastic says. “I present myself as female very often, and I dislike the choice that I have to make.”
Felix Donate-Perez, a transgender singer-songwriter from Arlington who performs under the name Foster Carrots, agrees. When playing shows at venues with only men’s and women’s bathrooms, he says he has to think about his options ahead of time. “Restrooms are supposed to be a space that people don’t put a lot of thought into, but when a venue has them set up as gendered spaces (without an additional gender-neutral option) it causes anxiety, stress, and potentially risks the safety of trans folks,” Donate-Perez says. “At almost every show I’m forced to pick between two doors, neither of which guarantee I won’t face harassment.”
D.C. law requires that any single-stall restroom in a public business must be gender neutral. Bathrooms with multiple stalls or urinals (which are more prevalent at D.C.-area venues), however, are a different story. So while PWR BTTM and local musicians champion their merits, it’s questionable whether gender-neutral bathrooms are a feasible option in D.C.’s major clubs and performance spaces.
“Every night everyone is permitted to use whichever restroom they prefer,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, a 9:30 Club spokesperson. “We have Barbie and Ken dolls on the doors—not ladies and men’s room signs.” But while 9:30 Club security isn’t going to stop anyone from going into the men’s or women’s room, the signs present an explicitly gendered idea of who is supposed to go where. And during PWR BTTM’s show on Sunday, even if the bathrooms were technically gender neutral, there was no change in the signs, which featured the male and female dolls and an “M” and a “W” over each one.
At Black Cat—which, like 9:30 Club, doesn’t have any single-stall facilities in the concert room—owner and founder Dante Ferrando says they’ve had several events with gender-neutral bathrooms. When there are events they expect will be attended by predominantly one gender over the other, Ferrando says, “then the upstairs bathrooms would be gender neutral. Not because of a transgender issue, that’s just a service issue.”
While he’s never seen a rider request quite like PWR BTTM’s, Ferrando says that Black Cat would be able and willing to comply with a similar contract if it came their way. “If a band did request that, we would be able to accommodate that in the [upstairs] concert room.” For Ferrando, concerns begin and end with security—is someone doing drugs in the bathroom? having sex?—and he says he doesn’t “consider the way somebody looks to be a security issue for us.”
As PWR BTTM continues to tour and advocate for gender-neutral restrooms, its members hope that the model will be picked up by other bands and expected by fans. “It’s our responsibility to cater to the needs of people who come and enjoy our work who have the same values we do,” Hopkins says. “We’re not trying to change the world. We’re just sort of trying to deal with our specific lens of performance.”
While it may be more convenient, a laissez faire approach toward the specified gender of bathrooms—as seen across the D.C. area—falls short of acknowledging the tough situations gendered signs can cause for non-binary and transgender patrons.
And for PWR BTTM, Donate-Perez, Fantastic, and others, the time for performance spaces to acknowledge the benefits of gender neutral bathrooms is long overdue. “If we’re going to find a place to start infiltrating on behalf of neutralizing our bathrooms, music venues seem like the best place to do it,” Fantastic says. “It’s sort of one of those things that, even if you disagree with it, just suck it up.”
Washington City Paper illustration