Concert audio of Hardly Fits playing “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board”
Sarah Esocoff: I’m on the edge of a mosh pit.
More “Light as a Feather”
Sarah: This song is inspired by the classic sleepover game Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board. I watch as one person at the front of the pit lies down on the floor, and the rest of the crowd circles around them, placing two fingers under their body. As the chant ramps up, the crowd lifts them into the air. And soon they’re crowd-surfing, carried in the hands of their fellow moshers.
A sleepover game might seem like unusual inspiration for a punk song, until you learn that the band, Hardly Fits, is still in high school.
Hello. I'm Kaya. I play Bass. Meow.
I'm Mads, I'm on drums.
Um, I’m Alma, I play guitar.
Um, I'm Ruby. I scream and sing and stuff.
I went to a few all-ages punk shows in high school, back when my boyfriend was in a band and I thought I was straight. A concert in a community center instead of a music venue. Kids in spiky collars and platform docs. A card table in the corner loaded up with two-liter bottles of Sprite. Seeing high schoolers shredding in front of a mosh pit isn’t totally unfamiliar to me.
We call it twee metal. Like T-W-E-E metal.
Why did you land on that?
Um, I don't know. It just felt right. I thought about it and I was like, this is a great idea. And we had to convince Maddie, but the textbook definition of twee is like, excessively cute. So like, it's like, it's like metal, but it's, it's not quite metal.
You do have leopard cat ears on.
Sarah: This isn’t exactly like the punk shows of my youth, though. Looking around, I see fewer white people and more people with gay and trans symbols on their cut-up t-shirts. This is a Brooklyn Transcore show. Brooklyn Transcore is a trans punk and hardcore collective that puts on all-ages shows like this one in New York City. Hardly Fits is the first of four bands performing tonight.
More “Light as a Feather”
Sarah: I’m here because a few days ago, someone told me: A Brooklyn Transcore show is the best fucking night out in you’ll ever have.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Esocoff and this is Sounds Gay, a podcast about the intersection of music and queerness. Today, I’m going to the center of a trans mosh pit. And I’m taking our producer Cass along with me.
Cass Adair: Hi.
Sarah: You and I had this wild night at the punk show. I was recording for like eight hours straight, we didn’t go home until 2:00 a.m.
Cass: Yeah. It was not my typical Saturday night. Um, I’m an old man now, so I’m usually in bed.
Sarah: Yeah, you’re an ancient man of 34 years old.
Cass: [laughs] Okay. I’m a parent. I’m a professor. Like I feel really old, okay? But, you know, if the story demands that I turn up to a punk show, I’m willing to make that sacrifice.
Sarah: Thank you so much.
Cass: You’re so welcome.
Sarah: This show was special because it was a birthday show for Saoirse Sawyer Eason. Saoirse’s one of the Brooklyn Transcore organizers as well as the frontwoman of the headliner band, The Dilators.
Cass: I’d heard through the trans grapevine that the Dilators were legendary, so I was excited to see them live.
Sarah: Me too. And I even got to meet up with Saoirse before the show.
Saoirse Sawyer Eason:
Thank you. Good to see you. Hi!
Hi. It's good to see you.
Thank you! Oh my God!
Sarah: I’m at Saoirse’s home in Brooklyn—she calls it a “punk house”—an apartment that’s been home to generations of punks, cycling in and out for years.
I was kind of scared when I first came here looking to move in and, but it was like, I saw the Black Sabbath poster and I was like, sick. Okay, I feel safe now.
In the kitchen, we pass what looks like an industrial size office printer. True to punk form, that it’s a risograph, a kind of printer used for band flyers and zines.
This one's broken and I think we're selling it for parts, or…[fade]
Sarah: After giving me a quick tour, Saoirse and I head to her bedroom, so she can pick out an outfit for the show. She turns on the lights, and then, from an app on her phone, she changes the color of the lights to hot pink.
Being gay and like being into lighting is basically the same thing.
The walls of Saoirse’s bedroom are plastered with band posters and patches. On the futon under her lofted bed, there’s a 12-string guitar.
She is shiny and has paisleys and [sings] that's a C. [laughs]
Saoirse does some finger-picking.
Sarah: Saoirse picks out a tie to try with her outfit.
I look so much like Avril Lavigne—current Avril Lavigne.
Sarah: She does kind of look like Avril Lavigne. But with black hair and a nose ring. She pairs the tie with a short, denim, western-style jacket and one of those Hot Topic-ish hats with the extra-long ear flaps.
Saoirse was born into the punk scene. Her mom was a punk. As a teenager, going to hardcore shows didn’t feel rebellious to Saoirse; it was something the nice adults in her life did. So she had to rebel in other ways.
I remember like I listened to Joanna Newsom one time in middle school and my mom who like, had gotten me into the Velvet Underground and like, everything, was like, what is this? Turn this off. And I was like, “This is my new favorite thing Mom and I hate you!” [laughs]
Sarah: But Saoirse got over her indie folk phase, and by her early 20s, she was playing in punk bands herself. Now, she’s been in several bands, including The Dilators, and has lived in trans punk houses like this one for almost a decade.
I started to like come into like a trans punk community in the mid 2010s. And I lived in my first trans punk house. It was over on like Atlantic Avenue, not actually so far from here. In like a lofted bedroom. It was like a third the size of this. It was so small. Like I couldn't even like sleep with my legs straight. Um, but like the oldest punk who like lived there was like 29. They were like trans and they were like 29 years old.
Sarah: 29. The age Saoirse is turning today.
They were like this like crazy rad, you know, punk who like danced at underground shows and stuff. So I think for me to hit 29 is like, I can't help but like reflect on that like specifically and just be like, oh wow, I hit this age that at one point was like the highest like age marker of like what I saw for like, specifically like weirdo, like whackadoodle like, people who don't like fit neatly into like, you know, like I'm, you know who people are like, oh, I'm just like you the like I'm just like you kind of transgender people. Like, which I'm literally not shading on that at all. Like, you know, I really do believe in like, just like diversity of experience and stuff like that. But I just don't like, want it to be the dominant narrative because I think a lot of trans people and a lot of trans people that you'll see at the show today like aren't trans cuz they want to be just like this or just like that, you know? It's like about like expansion of self.
Everybody out here looks cool. Everybody's in like punk outfits. Everybody's got different haircuts. It's kind of an obvious thing to say.
Sarah: While Saoirse and I are on our way over, Cass has already arrived at the show venue, a community center in Chinatown.
Cass: Yeah, and I just finished a six hour teaching session so I had a hard time getting out of “professor mode.”
I feel like I'm fully like 20 years older than many people here. Definitely they're my students’ age. I'm like walking in clocking like, oh my God. Which one of you do I have to grade later?
Cass: The scene outside of the venue is nothing like a mild-mannered classroom. Scaffolding surrounds the doorway, and some of the kids are climbing it, one’s playing a harmonica. Others post up in the lobby, leaning against the wall as chains dangle from their pockets.
Oh my God, there's so many people—drinking a 4 Loko! Holy shit.
Cass: I follow the crowd and their 4 Lokos up the stairs. And the first thing I hear is Saoirse.
Just like some quick ground rules, like no hanging from the rafters. Like get crazy, dance, have fun. Keep the pit in the pit. No crowd killing.
Sarah: Saoirse is in organizer mode.
Like let’s try to keep the pit contained in the center. If people are like over there on the seats on the side, that's probably because they don't wanna be in the pit. Or they have mobility stuff. Don't assume anybody's like ability…[fade]
Sarah: It’s Saoirse’s birthday, but she’s still very much acting like the responsible adult in the room. She points people to the harm reduction table, and reminds everyone of the cardinal rule of mosh pits.
If somebody falls, pick ‘em up. Seriously, if somebody falls, pick ‘em up.
At only 29, Saoirse is an elder here, watching out for those younger than her. As she told me, 29 wa once the oldest age she could imagine for a wackadoodle punk like her. But she’s far from the oldest person here.
Late nineties, early two thousands, I was a teenager into my twenties in North Carolina.
Cass: I’m in the coat room now, talking to someone named Lisa. I like Lisa because she’s wearing a shirt that says “Middle Aged Queers Go Fuck Yourself,” despite the fact that she is clearly a middle aged queer.
I was fuckin’ really into punk and ska. And then later got into oi! music. I started running with these, uh, anti-racist skinheads, like sharps, and like, it was really fucking cool. And it was like my life for a while. And I started playing in these oi! bands. And we played some decent shows. And like, then I got strung out on heroin and all that went to shit. And then I got clean and then I built a little life. And like, now I'm like the oldest person at the punk show. Probably. Maybe.
Cass: Looking back, Lisa says that the scene she grew up in wasn’t as welcoming as it should’ve been. And it didn’t reflect the values that she cares about now.
It was all fuckin’ let's get drunk and fight at a show. And, you know, that was great when I was 19, but like now, like, I want my community to develop. I want like, good things to happen to people I care about, you know? And punk is like all about that. In the community is like this idea of like radical giving and making things just free. Like, if you need something, here you go. It's free. When I have something that I'm not using anymore, don't buy it. Here. You can have it. Right? And like the broader sense, it's just kind of like, just become ungovernable. Like don't, don't follow laws because laws are the thing you follow, follow, follow a law if it's a good law. You know?
Cass: Being ungovernable—that’s something Lisa wants to keep from her old-school punk days. And that doesn’t mean showing off how much of a rebel you are by being a violent asshole. But it also doesn’t mean turning a punk show into a sanitized, cute and cuddly bubble. Lisa just wants a place where trans kids like her younger self can rage, while also looking out for each other.
I mean, honestly, I've got a, what? I've got a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old. If they were here, I'd feel like they were in a safe place.
Cass: When Lisa says this, I feel excitement and disbelief at the same time. There’s something about being in places like this, places that seem accepting and free, where part of me is overjoyed. But the other part of me, if I’m being honest, is a little jealous.
I met a younger person at the show, Izzy.
How old are you?
Cass: Izzy went to their first punk show at 15 years old. Since then, they’ve been in a couple bands themself. They practice at Izzy’s parents’ place.
We're always fucking making a racket in the basement and they just put up with it. So I really appreciate that.
Cass: I ask what Izzy’s parents think of them going to a trans punk show on a Saturday night.
Um, they, they think it's great. Like, I mean, they're a little bit like, you know, stay safe, but, they're always very supportive of, um, of, uh, first like the trans core scene. I mean, I haven't really told them about it, but I know they would love it.
Cass: This is the root of my jealousy. You could not pay me enough to be 17 again. When I was 17, I wasn’t even brave enough to attend the gay-straight alliance meetings at my high school meetings as an ally.
But what if I were 17, and out as trans, and I could confidently say, “Oh yeah, it’s cool, my parents would be chill with me hanging out in a crop top outside the trans punk show”? It’s not that I begrudge Izzy these things, it just makes it a little harder for me to relate to them. Like, if you didn’t sneak out of bed to read the wikipedia page for “transsexual” on your family computer and then quickly erase the browser history, what do we really have in common?
I grew up in a red state. I went to prom in a building owned by Pat Robertson, the guy who said that Hurricane Katrina was caused by America’s increasing tolerance for homosexuality. I’m worried for the kids living there now. My home state has tried to pass ten anti-trans bills just in the last year.
Now, I’m here in New York City, a city that’s not perfect but is at least safer for trans folks than other places in the US. Here, kids like Izzy can spend their evenings hanging out at the punk show. Whatever other bullshit they face—and there’s still lots of transphobic bullshit in New York—at least they don’t have to worry about their very existence being outlawed.
Other kids are hanging out nearby. As I’m chatting with Izzy, it clicks for them that I’m a newbie here. Sure, I’m an old trans, but I don’t know anything about how to be in a trans moshpit in New York City. I gotta let them show me.
I'm like, also, like I gotta record the sound of a mosh pit, but I'm also like so old and I also don't wanna push teenagers cause it feels kind of fucked up.
Nah, push ‘em!
And so I'm just like on the edge and I'm like going in, I'm coming out, going in. Okay. If you give me permission to push teenagers I will push teenagers.
I give you permission to push the teenagers.
It's giving more action to the pit.
Cass: Alright, well I guess I have my “can push teens in the mosh pit” permission slip now. Um, will I use it? Time will tell.
What's like one thing that you wanna tell your future self about what it was like? Say, say you're talking to yourself when you're like 40. What's one thing you wanna tell 40-year-old you about what it's like to be in the scene?
Don't be a dick to kids. Kids are smarter than you.
There are young people, kind of, like younger than us, like 15-year-olds who, who like our band. And it's cool because like when I was 15, like when Mads was 15…[fade]
Sarah: This is Ruby again. The singer from Hardly Fits.
I got treated really terribly and just like, like a groupie and like, like people were really sexist and weird to like 15-year-olds at shows. And so it's cool when, when kids come to our shows and are like, wow, I love your band. I had such a good time in the pit. Um.
We sometimes say this to each other, but like, it's really cool to be, be the change you wanna see in the scene.
Like, like it's really cool to like, I don't know, inspire conversation about how we can keep each other safe while still having a great time and kicking and screaming and being upset.
Sarah: I saw Hardly Fits kicking and screaming during their set. I was blown away by Kaya’s scream, especially.
I want to hear about like, like just what it’s like to scream onstage like that.
It is cathartic.
In one word, it is cathartic.
It's cathartic. Yeah. There's not much else you can say.
You’re a very powerful screamer.
It's like literally everything that I've ever experienced, everything I've ever felt, everything I've ever seen comes out and I'm like, “Ah!” It's perfect.
Yeah. Well also, like, we're all high school students. Like, we like, the shit and the sad stuff that we bring to practice is funny because it's not like we have like, I don't know, like I feel like sometimes when we talk about it, it insinuates that we have like—I mean we all have deep-set and like, things that we struggle with—
Sometimes we’re just like, today, man.
Sometimes we’re just, “And then, and he looked at me in the hallway and I felt so sad. Or like today, like the mean girls, whatever.
We’re like guys I was on the train!
It’s high school conflict so much of the time, yeah!
Yeah. I was perceived today!
Yeah like, “I don’t like what I wore to school. Bla bla bla. Like, sometimes that’s the stuff that makes it hard to practice.
If someone was new to the punk scene and they were like, what is punk? What would you, how would you describe it?
Punk is a, this scene, the punk scene here is a place for people who feel unable to be their freest selves in every sense of that word outside.
And it's a place where you can come in and, you know, ideally, right? This is being idealistic, but you know, that you can let go of all the things that are covering whatever you feel or your real face, your real eyes, your real soul, whatever. And, uh, the way, the way that you can free yourself from all that is to come here.
Sarah: Finally, it’s time for the last act of the night. Saoirse’s band, the Dilators. The members of Hardly Fits are front and center, watching Saoirse. At 29, she’s more than a decade older than them.
Hey Saoirse! Saoirse, what's your, uh, what's your sun, moon and rising sign?
[burps] That was the answer to the question.
Wait, wait, wait. But what's your gender?
What's my gender? My gender is, what are you a fucking cop?
Saoirse starts playing
Let’s get into some bullshit but do it with some love! I wanna see you dancing!
The Dilators play
Sarah: There’s plenty of dancing, but in between songs, Saoirse and her bandmate Sandy talk about the things that inspire the rage that comes through in their music. Things like the police killing of Tortuguita, a 26-year-old indigenous non-binary person who lived in a forest in Atlanta.
A few weeks, they fucking, the pigs murdered a forest defender, a queer, trans, non-binary person, Tortuguita.
Say their name: Tortuguita!
Sarah: Saoirse paces back and forth in front of the pit, holding the mic in one hand and gesturing with the other.
This is all connected y'all. What we're doing right now is significant. They don't want us to be together. They don't want transgenerational space. Trans means to cross. We're a bridge. So, this is all dedicated to our friend Tortuguita. The chorus of the song which we call Cop City, which is about us all coming together to shut this shit down. So-called Atlanta is a city in a forest. It’s a graveyard and a breeding ground.
The Dilators play “Cop City”
Saoirse screams, then sings:
So-called Atlanta is a city in a forest.
It’s a graveyard and a breeding ground.
So-called Atlanta is a city in a forest…[fade]
Sarah: The pit comes alive. I feel the floorboards shake under me as people start to thrash, and I remember the punk shows I went to in high school. Before my first show, my punk friends told me: Don’t worry. It’s not as scary as it seems. If you fall, someone will pick you up. The cardinal rule of mosh pits was the same then as it is now.
At those shows, I never really felt comfortable, as an outsider in the scene. And I’m not part of this scene either. But I feel happy and welcome, which is how I almost always feel in a room full of queer people. I think back to my 15-year-old self, standing at the edge of a mosh pit so like this one. I feel like I’m connecting with her across time.
Cass: I see Sarah in the pit, and suddenly I’m diving in. I have to grip my mic tight as I’m thrashed around. I’m pushing teenagers, and getting pushed by them too. I’m used to being the old man in the room, teaching the youth about good trans politics as they sit still in their chairs. But this is good trans politics. The fury we have at the cops, the knowledge that our enemies are out there—it makes the pit go harder. We’re letting loose our political rage.
People like Izzy don’t want me to be a perfect role model. They want me to give more action to the pit. To be with them.
I start to lose myself in the crowd and I stop worrying about being safe at all, I just start shaking and charging. Saoirse’s voice guides me through the throng.
Sarah: When I emerge, I see that someone near me in the crowd is sitting down on a bench against the wall. They seem exhausted and out of breath. One of the Brooklyn Transcore organizers sits down next to them, and asks if they need anything. Moments later, and I can’t even tell how this message gets to her onstage, Saoirse knows what’s going on.
So first off, can we get the smoke machine to turn off? There’s somebody who's having like a, um, a reaction to all the smoke. Somebody’s having asthma attack. Does anybody have an inhaler? Somebody have an inhaler? Could you come to the front of the stage or could you connect with this right here? Could you get to the person? All right, we'll bring it back to the front of the stage at the end of the show. Oh, we got an inhaler. Thank you so much. We got an inhaler. Y'all are fabulous. We got, we got one. Thank you so much. Thank you so much, everybody. Who keeps us safe?
We keep us safe!
Who keeps us safe?
We keep us safe!
That's fucking right.
Sarah: When Cass and I first met with the Brooklyn Transcore organizers, they told us that the trans in Transcore doesn’t just stand for transgender. It stands for trans-genre, trans-gression, and trans-generational.
Cass: But generations don’t mean the same thing for us. Trans people are always doing this thing where we talk about how long we’ve been out or on hormones or whatever as if it’s more important than our actual, calendar age. It’s our way of saying yeah, I might be literally older than you, but I still need someone to look up to. I’m new here. Or it can be an offer. Like, yeah, ok, maybe I’m a Zoomer, but I’ve seen a lot already and I’m down to guide you through the bullshit of trans life, even if you’re old enough to be my mom.
Sarah: Before the Dilators took the stage, Saoirse introduced me to her gay mom, Like, her mom in that chosen family sense. The person was Renee, a 74-year-old trans punk.
Listen, sometimes the student is the teacher. Sometimes the teacher is the student. It's just like I'm a dominatrix. Where would doms be without subs?
It's like, it is like you, um, it's like you kind of create each other.
You know, like I needed to know that there were el—that were veteran trans people who had been building something anticipating me. And then like, you needed to know that there were people who were gonna understand and recognize your labor.
It just means it's a two-way street, you know? They teach me, I teach them.
Start your fucking band. It’s my birthday and I have one suggestion. Start your fucking band. We got your back
Sarah: The show is over.
Cass: The Pit makes plans to disperse into the New York City night.
Person in pit:
Yo, we keep each other safe. I've been harassed twice today already and I just want to get home sick. So if anyone else is going to Astoria, Queens, let's be train buddies. Why don't you guys get a fucking train buddy? Because these fucking cis straight men are getting fucking crazy and I’m fucking tired of it! Fuck them!
Sarah: After the show, at 2:00 AM, as volunteers mop the Sprite off the floor, I grab Saoirse one last time before she and her friends head to the afterparty.
As a final thought before I head out, what do you see for your 29th year?
Um, just like coming to gather, you know, like we've been building this shit for like, a long, long, long, long time. And it's just time for harvest. It's always the best of time and worst at times for sure. Like, and I know people are like really, really scared, but like, uh, the powers that be wouldn't be telling us things were hopeless unless they had to, to keep us hopeless. Like, if things were hopeless, they wouldn't be investing so much resources on making us feel that way. So I'm just gonna like shoulder into the stuff we're creating and just know that like what we're building is gonna replace this old stuff. And just keep going.
Sounds Gay is created and produced by me, Sarah Esocoff.
Our story editor is JT Green of Molten Heart.
Cass Adair is our consulting producer.
Additional editing by Gianna Palmer.
Original music by Kris McCormick and Casey Holford.
Mixing and sound design by Casey Holford.
Fact-checking by Serena Solin.
Our program manager is Sam Termine.
Sounds Gay is a Stitcher Studios production, and is executive produced by Sarah Bentley, Bill Crandall, Jen Derwin, Mike Spinella, Kameel Stanley, and myself.
Special thanks this episode to musician and Brooklyn Transcore organizer Mya Byrne.
You can find Sounds Gay on the SiriusXM App, Pandora, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. If you like the show, please rate, review and share so other people can find us.