Wander into The Cave in Chapel Hill one night and you might be served by Sarah Shook, a sharp, fiery songwriter who, away from the bar, leads a cracking country band, The Disarmers. This year, Shook and her friend, Erika Libero, who fronts the Carrboro band Henbrain, set out to increase inclusion of LGBTQ people and women in local spaces. Their first project began in early spring, when they met to discuss ways they could help their community.
"It was really iron sharpens iron. We got really excited about it," Shook says. They had a handful of ideas, but hadn't picked one to focus on. Then the NCGOP shoved HB 2 through its chambers, and it became abundantly clear which project should take priority: rainbow-flag "Safe Space" decals to affirm businesses as welcoming for LGBTQ people.
"You need to see who your friends are. When you have laws like HB 2 passed, you suddenly feel like everyone around you is not on your team. It's important to have something that shows we're on your side," Libero says.
Shook and Libero quickly crowdfunded more than $900 to print stickers and vinyl window clings of Miles Murray's design. They're in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Asheville, and other cities around the state. Each sticker comes with a pledge that businesses and their employees understand the work of maintaining safe spaces.
Shook says the value in these stickers doesn't lie in back-patting for good deeds, but in actively showing support for those who feel marginalized. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
"I expected that we'd have to do a lot more talking to explain what our mission was. The most surprising thing was how instantly people were on board with it," Shook says. "You don't have to be a member of the LGBTQ community, but you have loved ones and friends. It affects everyone."
Shook and Libero didn't stop with stickers, either. Shortly after launching the Safe Space initiative, the pair began planning October's Manifest. The two-day music festival, split between The Cave, Nightlight, and Local 506, focused exclusively on bands whose members weren't all men. The idea began as skill-sharing workshops for women to learn different musical instruments. But when the two came across an online post in which all-male band names had been edited out of several major music festival posters, often leaving behind sparse lineups, they decided to plan their own festival.
As with the stickers, the goal was inclusion, and sending the message to women and nonbinary people that they, too, could be a public force.
"I wanted to create a space where you couldn't say, 'Hey, I liked that one band with a chick in it,' because there wouldn't be one band with a chick in it," Libero says.
Cave co-owner Mark Connor, who hired Shook as a bartender about two years ago, saw Manifest as a valuable community asset that held its bands in high esteem rather than tokenizing them.
"Sometimes things like that are put together and it's made to be a little bit of a spectacle. Like, 'Check it out, these are all female-fronted bands!' or whatever," Connor says. "I've had band members that are women say to me, 'We don't want to be treated different, or act like this is some kind of sideshow. We just want to fit in."
Looking toward 2017 and a looming Trump administration, Shook and Libero are figuring out their next move. Shook and the Disarmers will spend a significant amount of time on the road, and she says she's hoping to spread her values of inclusivity even further.
"I think it's a really good opportunity to represent what women making music means, and what it is. By that, I mean being a strong, independent woman who is informed, and who is willing to put herself out there as an example," Shook says. "I think women sometimes need that: You can do this. You want to write songs, you write songs, you want to go out on the road—you can do it."
"We know what we're up against, as far as how women are treated, how our queer friends are treated," Libero adds. "But we can stay strong and hold the line together." As long as these two are in that line, you can be sure there's space for you in it, too.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sticker shock."