Fashionable androgyny isn't new to the arts, especially music. The '70s had Bowie and several longhaired pretty boys of glam-rock. The '80s boasted Annie Lennox and Prince's dainty coos. And in recent years, Lady Gaga, Janelle Monáe and of Montreal's Kevin Barnes have all successfully toyed with both sex and gender.
Those newer stars have risen during a period of wider social change. Courts continue to strike down same-sex marriage bans. Ru Paul's Drag Race will soon enter its seventh year and has launched a spinoff. Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox landed on the cover of Time. And a white rapper from Seattle gave America an acceptance anthem, enabling a necessary, larger debate about exactly who should speak out for the oppressed. Could America finally be trending toward sexual tolerance?
Chris Pureka isn't sure.
"In the experiment where the sample size is one, it's hard to say what would be different if I looked different," says Pureka, an androgynous singer-songwriter from Massachusetts. "Whether you like it or not, your image is going to affect how people view you and how people view your music. That's just the reality of it."
Pureka has been recording and touring for a decade, independently releasing her music and carting it across the country. Pureka identifies as genderqueer, meaning she doesn't conform to binary male-female definitions or aesthetics. Pureka has a slender build, with short, dark brown hair. She gravitates toward button-ups, occasionally accessorized with a bow tie or a vest. Sometimes, her hair is parted; other times, it's tucked beneath a trucker's cap.
Pureka adamantly rejects the "lesbian folksinger" tag applied to the likes of Ani DiFranco and Melissa Etheridge. Her music is a more graceful folk, meaning her tunes could fit in just as easily among mainstream indie rock like Bon Iver or Jose Gonzalez. Though personal, her songs aren't radical, explicit takes on her experiences; they tackle tried-and-true topics like love and heartbreak. But so far, Pureka, or someone that looks like her or identifies as she does, hasn't been able to separate herself from those forebears and move toward the mainstream. That's an especially intriguing situation, since accessible music much like hers is already touted by the masses.
"Female songwriters that have identified as gay have had a very specific pigeonholing experience that's been really hard for them to get out of," she says. "I don't really know any other musicians or performers that do a similar thing that have a genderqueer appearance."
Like Pureka, Kym Register is constantly reconciling identity—though it's not so much about herself as much as it's about her club, The Pinhook. In its early days, the six-year-old bar had a reputation as Durham's gay dive. Like Pureka, though, The Pinhook aims to outgrow such a boundary.
"You don't think you're going to a hip-hop club. You don't think you're going to an indie club," Register says. "It's just a club."
Pureka plays The Pinhook for the first time on Friday. The rendezvous is not entirely happenstance, as she and Register met a few times during Pureka's previous runs through Chapel Hill. Register pursued a show with Pureka, making this a confluence of complementary musical missions.
Pureka and Register have both discovered the importance of space. For Pureka, it's how she occupies it when she's onstage, transcending what folks might assume from her visage; for Register, it's how she curates the club and makes it open to all people. Pureka sees her performances as an overtly political act, even if her songs don't share that message.
"Being someone that's visible is important," Pureka says. "It's not central to my music, but I do think that part of it has an impact, and I think that's why some of it has a positive effect."
Meanwhile, in an industry of often-mission-free rock clubs, Register seeks to promote such visibility by empowering a variety of local communities. Her goal with The Pinhook has long been to provide a safe performance space for everyone. A glance at the venue's calendar for most any week demonstrates as much. There are the standard shows by rock, pop, folk and hip-hop outfits, plus dance parties, drag shows, open mics and more. Register bought her building in June, too, meaning The Pinhook can function as a community and cultural hub without fear of being shoved out by rent hikes in an increasingly expensive downtown.
Register says she's grown to love the open mic nights because they demonstrate de facto collaborative community strength—a solidarity that's open to anyone's input. Such diversity presents challenges, but for Register, those hurdles help boost the communities she's seeking to foster. A Durham native, Register considers broadening the spectrum of what's accepted locally to be vital work. For her, The Pinhook is a platform for others to produce street-level social change.
"Our agenda is definitely to help make voices of marginalized folks heard," Register says. "I'm queer-identified, and a lot of folks that work here are. Even those that aren't, this is still their mission. With being queer, it's this supportive, all-encompassing, anti-norm ideology, which is filtered into The Pinhook's ideology.
"This place is important, but not because of me," she continues, "but because of everybody who comes in here and really cares about it and feeds it with their art and their message and their politics."
Conversations across variations in gender, race, sexuality, class and identity at large are paramount for a place such as The Pinhook to thrive. Pureka finds strength in the notion of cultivating group identities through performances and performance spaces.
"Whether you're a queer person and attracting a queer audience or whether you're Jack Johnson and you're attracting a bunch of guys—people go to shows to feel that sense of identity," Pureka says. "I do think there's a lot more of a spectrum now in that respect."
But Pureka and The Pinhook are left with a nagging question: Is mainstream culture actually opening up and becoming more inclusive, or is it simply cherry-picking what seems most palatable? Register thinks the voices of LGBTQ-identified people and their allies have gotten louder over the years with the help of spaces like The Pinhook. She is wary, however, of the notion that queer culture can integrate wholesale into the mainstream.
"I feel like gay culture—not necessarily queer culture—but gay culture is becoming more and more accepted in the mainstream, but there's a catch-22," she says. "Gay culture can be accepted in the mainstream if gay culture looks like mainstream culture—marriage, or, in a lot of ways, butch femme."
The problem, Register thinks, stems from insidious, deep-running undercurrents of intolerance, which trump some of the public positivity regarding gender. It's OK for gender to be flexible in art, but people still struggle with that in the real world.
"Art is a way in which people can play with gender, but when you get down to the ground level, there's still so much transphobia. There's still so much queer and homophobia that is intrinsic into the system," Register says.
Pureka disagrees to a point. She thinks exposure and increased awareness can have a ripple effect far beyond other musicians. Change is a process, she suggests.
"I think there's a lot more visibility in the LGBTQ community and pop culture in general. That's such a great thing," she says. "The playing field is a little more even for queer people. That does affect me to some extent, too. It probably affects more people who are just starting."
One day, perhaps someone who looks like Pureka can become a star. And shouldn't she be, since folks who already sound like her already are?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mutually inclusive."