There’s a special chemistry in D.C.’s music scene-one that is gradually becoming more diverse and heterogeneous over the years. Over time, the burgeoning LGTB community has been making a larger presence within the scene. It’s a scene that is difficult to reduce to one theme or message. Sure, same-sex love can be heard in the lyrics of many of these artists, from punk rockers G.U.T.S. to R&B tinged The Coolots. But, the LGBT community’s recent evolution and popularity extends further beyond the confines of music.
Looking in hindsight over a decade ago, this expression was less an oasis and more of a leaky fountain.
“When I first came to D.C., I didn’t really see it [the LGBT scene],” says lead singer of acoustic duo Frankie and Betty, Rachel Bauchman, who came to D.C. from Salt Lake City. Arriving in the late ’90s, Bauchman says that she mostly spent her early days playing open mics across the city, though none it was LGBT centric. Meanwhile, her bandmate, Jessica Strick, was also getting her feet wet into the music scene as well.
“I just played music in bands and people just thought I was just a super gay looking straight girl,” Strick says with a laugh.
For D.C. area native Mikey Torres, leader of dance-rock outfit Glitterlust, the city always had something to offer for entertainment and culture. As he got older, however, he began to notice one of the city’s most major faults.
“While D.C. has a lot of great things to offer,” he says, “we don’t really have a great art scene.” With its transient nature and business culture, Torres says the overall art scene is lacking compared to a New York or New Orleans.
Torres had been involved in music from a young age, and came of age during the early 2000s rave scene. However, the band that truly inspired him was the Scissor Sisters and the electroclash scene of New York at the time when, after seeing the video for the band’s “Take Your Mama,” he had a personal epiphany.
“This is what I wanted to do – on a local level.”
Not a simple task. Torres says it was difficult to click with people who wanted to perform more than jam onstage; a stage show more akin to Marilyn Manson then Minor Threat. But that did not deter him, as he began writing more of his own music.
“I think early on in my mission statement,” Torres adds, “I wanted to be over the top; I wanted to shake things up a bit. I knew I wanted to present a performance.”
Veteran performer Nikki Smith has seen much of the frontline changes in the LGBT community and its musical growth. After moving to D.C. in 2006, Smith began gigging around the area with bands and people she met through Craigslist. However, it was meeting people through an all-girl flag football team that opened her up to the LGBT scene, and she was encouraged by her teammates to play at the Phase 1 open mic nights, where she began to perform regularly.
“Eventually, the open mic host stopped doing the show,” Smith says of the early experience. “I began pestering the bar’s manager to bring it back and I even volunteered to host”, which she has continued to host for the past four years.
Open mics served as a stepping stone for many LGBT bands and artists to bond and form a small community. Frankie and Betty connected at a Chief Ike’s open mic night and bonded over their love of music and comedy, especially the act Garfunkel and Oates.
Their collaboration has spawned a mix joyful and funny mix of acoustic rock, while also tweaking popular songs into their own sounds from a variety of bands, from OutKast to Ani DiFranco.
Frankie and Betty rely heavily on audience participation during their sets, often telling jokes and making up dances onstage. “A big thing for us is that we appreciate our fans and we want to make the experiences as enjoyable as possible,” Bauchman says.
Slowly but steadily, opportunities began to arise, from LGBT open mics to festivals like PhaseFest, a three day queer music festival that was unlike most events seen in the more buttoned-up city of D.C.
“It’s refreshing to see the support from the LGBT community and more and more musicians coming to play everyday,” Bauchman says. Not only were they playing with more bands, but also worked with Burlesque troupes, such as the DC Gurly Show.
For Torres’ journey, he was able to click with fellow musicians who wanted to put on a stage show and formed Glitterlust. The band not only focuses on their glam rock inspired sets, but also incorporates performance art like burlesque and drag queens, into their high-energy shows.
Torres has developed a very simple rallying cry which he still says to the audience at each show.
“We are Glitterlust and so are you!”
Still, Torres says until the LGBT community is absorbed into mainstream society, the issue is still delicate.
“The gay community is always going to need to exist in some form,” he says. But bands like his are finding the same DIY aesthetics and technology to build their base. He adds that the young people on the scene, gay or straight, “realize that you don’t need a lot of money or crazy lighting to put on a great show.”
“There are all sorts of people out there doing interesting things,” he adds, with more people being able to make themselves known.
Smith agrees that social media has been an integral part to the continual growth of the LGBT music community.
“By the time I started hosting the open mics, Facebook had blown up,” she says. The explosion has meant a lot of different things to different people. For Smith, it meant having to change her strategies as a promoter.
“Now there are many groups and all kinds of events, so it becomes harder to capture people’s attention and maintain it,” she says, adding that she has begun to cross-promote at various events.
“Occasionally, we get straight performers on the open mic stage at Phase 1,” Smith adds. “While the venue is obviously a queer women’s space, no one is turned away so long as he or she is respectful of our group.”
All three bands are looking forward to bigger and better things for the year. Frankie and Betty is set to release their original music, while Glitterlust is still actively performing at some of the area’s most popular venues. Smith continues to maintain the website Ladies Rock This, as well as curating various events. As the LGBT music scene continues to prosper, Smith sees a bright future ahead for its community.
“The more we grow, I think the better for all of us. It’s sort of slow and steady for now, but the word is getting out.”