by Jenny Henkelman
I started writing this piece on October 23, when things seemed so much simpler. Back then, I thought CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi was just a garden-variety creep, not a serial abuser. As Melissa Martin so brilliantly elucidated in her Nothing in Winnipeg post on the subject, those of us in music/CBC circles Knew About Jian, even if we didn’t know about the alleged punching, choking and rape.
If Jian seems like an outlier, a rare case of narcissism and misogyny enabled over decades with devastating results, I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Rare is the man with the kind of fame and power Jian had, but abusers like Jian exist everywhere. And they definitely exist in our music scene.
Let’s step back for a moment from that particular pit of despair and talk a bit about gender dynamics in music — the performance of music, the fandom of music, the writing and broadcasting that is done about music. It’s unquestionably male dominated. This isn’t up for debate just because there are incredible women in the Winnipeg scene; in terms of numbers, any random show bill will be way more than 50 per cent dudes. The number of bookers who are women can be counted on one hand. A great new venue just opened on Portage Avenue. It has nine owners and all of them are men.
When I used to interview women musicians I always knew better than to ask them about gender stuff. And it’s not like I blamed them. Who wants to sit down for an interview and allow the journalist’s opening salvo be, “So, you’re a girl. What’s that like?”
Maybe it’s time to start asking that question, though — provided we really listen to the answers. What is it like being a woman or non-male musician? My friends say that it’s like going into a music store and literally not being served. Or when you are served, being treated like a five-year-old, unless you’re accompanied by a man, in which case the store employee will speak to him and not you. It’s like trying to load your gear into a venue and having a venue employee refuse to believe you’re IN the band and not the girlfriend of someone in the band. It’s like being assaulted at a festival or show and meeting indifference and rolled eyes when you tell people about it.
No woman/trans person is obligated to disclose any abuse or mistreatment they have been subject to, ever. That’s a big part of why I’m writing this — to pass on the stories that have been told to me, removing the victims from the high risk of undeserved reprisal. Talking about this shit is the only way that we can start to get it through dudes’ heads that the music scene is sexist. And for some people, dangerous.
What’s that? Do I hear you asking, “She can’t possibly mean OUR music scene.” I absolutely do mean our scene. The Winnipeg scene that’s made up of musicians, bookers, venue owners/managers, festival runners and audience members. There are so many good people in this scene. There are definitely good men in this scene. But there are also men who have assaulted and abused women. And there are women who can’t go to a show without wondering if they’ll see their rapist there. In the audience. Or on stage.
I want to make it clear to men that just because you’re not sexually assaulting women doesn’t mean you’re off the hook, or that you can’t do harm to marginalized people in other ways. One of Facebook’s pyrrhic gifts is that it provides a medium for people to show everyone who they really are. Way back in October, pre-Ghomeshi, one prominent Winnipeg musician showed his stripes, flipping the fuck out when women had the audacity to register their displeasure with a sexist joke on the sandwich board sign outside a local bar and music venue. This musician (let’s call him “Argus”) had no official affiliation with this bar. He just felt that any public criticism was damaging to the bar and therefore unacceptable. (What he did find acceptable, though, was calling the complainants “cunts” and then getting doubly mad when people called him on using gendered slurs.)
“Quit naming the bar!” Argus said. As though protecting the reputation of a venue is worth more than the valid concerns of its customers. As though women don’t have the right to call out bullshit when they see it. A sexist joke isn’t the biggest deal. It’s what we call a “microaggression,” an insult or injury that by definition is small but, when part of a constant stream of microaggressions on an ongoing basis, constitutes the essence of oppression.
Look, I’m not trying to write a total downer of an article, here. I have some good news! We’re working on solutions. In the last year or so, some folks in the music and art scene have been working specifically to correct some of the imbalances that make Winnipeg’s music scene dominated by white cisgender males. In the summer of 2013, Negative Space (R.I.P.) hosted Winnipeg’s first Not Enough Fest, a “fest to support the creation of more bands involving women, queer, non-binary and trans people.” (If you guessed that white dudes on Facebook had some problems with this, gold star for you!) In September, some Not Enough Fest alumni started up Cootie Club, a showcase series to promote women and non-binary trans people in music and create a safer environment for survivors of sexual and other kinds of violence. Plans include actions like removing audience members engaged in predatory/gross behaviour from events, for one example.
I hope men will think about what they are or aren’t doing to make the scene a safer place. I do think that the Ghomeshi revelations have shown a whole lot of people that they really, really should #BelieveSurvivors. False accusations are incredibly rare, and assault is depressingly common. Do that math. (We certainly have.) As for us — we’re taking matters into our own hands. Mostly, by talking to each other and our allies. The information that’s been spread in hushed tones in punk club bathrooms out of necessity and fear for safety (“Do you know about…?”) is now making its way to the ears of the people who run music festivals and book venues.
Creeps, abusers and sexist jerks of the Winnipeg scene: you’ve been warned. Your time’s up.
Jenny Henkelman is a former editor of Stylus Magazine.