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Transgress Fest Is the Only US Festival of Its Kind to Celebrate Trans Punk Artists

Photo by Florencia P. Marano.

When singer-songwriter Drew Arriola-Sands first transitioned and revealed she was transgender in 2014, she says she felt a lot of anger — much of which was rooted in gender dysphoria that affected her since she was a kid. “I needed an escape and I needed an outlet,” she says. “And that’s exactly what punk rock is — you take what’s making you angry and you make something great out of it.”

Drew creatively channeled those feelings by starting a band called Trap Girl, but she still wanted to do something more. So two years later, she created Transgress Fest, an annual all-ages DIY punk festival in Los Angeles that celebrates the trans community by exclusively featuring bands with trans and gender non-conforming members. The fest also largely focuses on highlighting trans people of color, particularly trans Latinx talent. Drew says that Transgress Fest is the only punk fest of its kind in the entire country.

“I think it’s time for trans people to have this moment.”

“In the punk community — and in the general public — there’s a lot of events and things focused on gay people or LGBTQ [altogether], but I feel like trans people have such a different message apart from gay people,” Drew explains. “When it comes to hardcore and punk music, I think it’s time for trans people to have this moment where they can express themselves and do their own thing. It’s just time now.”

And Drew has been facilitating that need for trans visibility and representation by bringing in bands from all over the country and being as inclusive as possible.

“We’re the forefront, we’re the focus,” Drew says. “30 years ago, it was just the white angry feminists, but now we are at the forefront. Trans women — [especially] Black trans women — are at the front of this revolution.”

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Transgress Fest 2020 will be different from its predecessors, as the fest is hitting the road for the first time and taking place in two additional cities. The first event takes place in Sacramento on Feb. 14, the second one in Oakland on Feb. 16 and a concluding show marks the main celebration at The Smell in downtown L.A. on Feb. 23.

“This year’s Transgress Fest will be the best it’s ever been.”

Beyond new cities, Drew also decided to try something new this year by including bands with non-binary/gender non-conforming members. As such, the shows consist of a diverse variety of bands, including Commando, Greenwitch, Pussy Tuesday, Garbitch, Yaawn, Las Pulgas, and Drew’s own Trap Girl — the latter of which will be touring to support their new EP TransAmerican Chokehold the same week Transgress Fest hits the road.

“This year’s Transgress Fest will be the best it’s ever been because we’re in other cities meeting new people, spreading the message that I started four years ago, continuing and becoming stronger,” Drew says.

The decision to expand Transgress Fest wasn’t intentional, however — it was inadvertently caused by a business deal gone wrong. Transgress Fest was originally scheduled to take place Nov. 2019 at a popular venue in downtown L.A., one that Drew says is known for claiming to champion POC and other marginalized identities. Yet things went sour when the owner of the venue reached out to Drew, claiming to be unaware of the event — despite the fact that an employee already helped to coordinate it. According to Drew, the owner told her that if she wanted to host Transgress Fest at the venue, then she suddenly needed to guarantee a profit of $4500.00 at the bar alone.

Drew claims the owner undermined her and refused to reasonably work something out with her, so she canceled the event. But when she revealed what happened and announced that Transgress Fest was no longer taking place, Drew received an outpour of support from fans and allies all over — particularly from those in California.

“People were really pissed about it,” Drew says. “I talked to some friends and we just thought, well, let’s get back on the horse and start planning again, and let’s shoot for February.”

Drew credits Cheyenne Deathtrap and Scout Tran of The Degenderettes — a volunteer-run group that promotes queer/trans musicians, arts, and events — for helping Drew put together the fest in Oakland. As for the Sacramento event, Drew gives thanks to Temple Kirk, who is known for organizing Sac Ladyfest.

“We’re unstoppable.”

As for the future, Drew hopes these two events lead to more stops and cities for Transgress Fest. “This is just one stepping-stone that if given the opportunity to do more, I’m gonna continue to do that … if we just keep at it and we keep doing these things, we’re gonna continue having these great shows and featuring great bands. We’re unstoppable,” she says.

Even with all the support Drew received, however, organizing this year’s Transgress Fest proved to be a major challenge beyond the initial cancelation. Unbeknownst to many people, Drew was also privately dealing with the circumstances surrounding her mother’s advanced ovarian cancer.

Sadly, Drew’s mother Blanca Leticia Arriola passed away in January. Drew says it was an incredibly painful experience that she is still processing, but says that prior to passing, her mother pushed her to continue working on all of her projects. Blanca was a passionate music-lover and Drew’s biggest fan, so she asked Drew not to quit any of her upcoming creative efforts or accept defeat.

“I played every show that I had booked before she passed — when she was in hospice — and I played every show after she passed because of her, because she told me to,” Drew says. “At our first show after she passed, I said to the audience, ‘This show and every other show moving forward is dedicated to my mom.’”

As such, Drew will continue to spread her message and champion the trans community with both her music and with Transgress Fest.

“Trans people have such a different outlook on the world and have so many different experiences,” she says. “Why not listen to those experiences through their music?”