Hanging out in a bar after a show in Santa Fe, Madsen Minax and Simon Strikeback of the Chicago bluegrass duo Actor Slash Model went into the women's restroom.
Strikeback pushed open a stall. "This lady was sitting on the can," Minax says. "She didn't lock the door. She screamed, and Simon and I looked at each other and screamed. She thought we were both men." Which is kinda what they were going for: Minax and Strikeback are female-to-male transgender performers. But it makes bathroom etiquette a gray area.
"On the road you use the bathroom that's assigned to the way you look," says Minax. "It's a personal safety issue. We don't generally get perceived as men in the outside world."
Director-producer Minax and producer Strikeback capture the shows and reflections of trans musicians they've shared stages with—and often crashed with—in their documentary Riot Acts: Flaunting Gender Deviance in Music Performance, screening Saturday, March 6, as part of the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival.
Upright bassist Minax, 26, and ukulelist Strikeback, 31, are both classically trained, and both first openly identified as male in their early 20s. Minax grew up in Michigan and studied film at the School of the Art Institute. Now a tattoo artist and freelance recording engineer, he's currently producing an as-yet untitled documentary for the collective Chicago Books to Women in Prison.
Strikeback, a Chicago native, is employed as a tutor for the City Colleges and works for the women's issues nonprofit Beyondmedia Education (which is lending Riot Acts its nonprofit status for fund-raising). He got into bluegrass and started singing and playing ukulele during his three years at the Ida community for queer artists, in central Tennessee, and started playing with Minax when he returned to Chicago in 2005.
When they began touring in early 2007, they had the idea of making what Strikeback calls a "shticky boys-hit-the-road movie." But over time it turned into a vehicle for building a musical community and challenging the conventional representation of transgender people as tragic and isolated. "The thesis of our film is that trans people have friends and get laid," Strikeback says.
Riot Acts premiered last November at Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival, where it won jury and audience awards for best documentary. It's screened for enthusiastic audiences at queer film festivals and alternative venues around the country. "We've heard from people who see this movie and want to start a band of their own," Minax says.
But they've been frustrated at the lower level of interest shown by mainstream and music-oriented festivals (CIMMfest is a notable exception). "South by Southwest sent us this personal e-mail, saying, 'We love this work, but we have so much stuff we can't include and we know you have other outlets,'" Strikeback says.
The performers in Riot Acts run the gamut of musical genres, from Minneapolis goth rocker Venus Demars to San Francisco rapper Katastrophe, from the nun's-habit drag of Boston cover band Systyr Act to the piano cabaret of Brooklyn's Novice Theory. Other acts include Ryka Aoki de la Cruz, Anderson Toone, Lipstick Conspiracy, Trannysaurus Sex, Basic Fix, Ryder Richardson, Tough Tough Skin, Adhamh Roland, Jessica Xavier, the Shondes, the Degenerettes, the Cliks, and Coyote Grace.
Many of the singers in Riot Acts have to deal with a disconnect between their vocal registers and their chosen genders. While trans women retain their biologically male, usually lower, voices, trans men who take hormones often find their voices dropping. The downsides can include a diminished range and a tendency for the voice to crack like a pubescent boy's.
Actor Slash Model independently released their sophomore album, Things You Can't Keep, last December. Their lyrics are full of raunchy humor. In "TN Tranny Two-Step," Strikeback sings about courting a waitress at a small-town diner: "The swimming hole is hidden behind brambles, so no one sees my packer on the bank."
"At our last show we ended up doing a little stripping," Strikeback says. "We do like to be perceived as totally hot. It has a little bit of extra meaning. One of the primary ways we're represented is as desexualized. Being sexual and being excited about that is super-important."