Pride Week: Queen Zee – “I’m from a long line of scary women”
Ahead of Liverpool Pride, Queen Zee talks to Shaun Ponsonby about alternative Queer influences, being championed by Iggy Pop, and the importance of education around trans issues.
“Their performances can often feel like witnessing some kind of warped second coming, where Jesus showed up in drag and threw a basement party.”
That is how we once described Queen Zee, in what may have been the only line we’ve ever written that even comes close to describing them on stage.
We have been covering Zee since before there was a Planet Slop, and we have witnessed a beautifully grotesque transformation into what we consider – even if Zee doesn’t – a future icon. Iggy Pop started raving about them on his BBC 6 Music show. When Iggy Pop is a fan, you got it.
And if you think that is hyperbole, you can check them out for yourself at this year’s Liverpool Pride, one of the main acts on the bill alongside Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Drag Race star Courtney Act. To have a proudly Queer Liverpool band as one of the festival’s selling points is a major achievement. They are somewhat unprecedented in the city, which Pride trustee Joan Burnett concurred with during our interview yesterday.
Although we have covered Queen Zee as a band, with the upcoming Pride performance, we felt it would be appropriate to speak about deeper issues.
Zee came out as transgender a few months into the band’s existence, and with trans people still fighting for acceptance in society (see: the shameful display at London Pride, where a group of lesbians began protesting against trans women), it is vital that we listen to what the trans community has to say.
So, we talk about the music, we talk about their upcoming album, we talk about them being lauded by Iggy Pop. But we also made sure we put a spotlight on trans issues too.
Planet Slop: Everyone within the Queer community has had to come to terms with who they are and how they fit into a society that doesn’t necessarily accept them. But obviously a white cis gay man such as myself doesn’t have the kind of experience that a trans person does – a lot more progress has been made for me and I’m in a position of privilege in comparison.
So with that in mind, I’d like a bit more understanding of your experience. Can I ask about your realisation and coming out as trans?
Queen Zee: I mean there was no dawning realisation, I think a common misconception is one day you wake up trans and stick on a dress. I’ve always felt the same way I do about my gender and I would say the only thing that really changes is how we quantify it, i.e. Having a word to describe what you are. I still don’t fully understand gender, gender queer, non-binary, agender, genderfluid, trans; I feel like no term actually truly sums up how I feel.
First and foremost, I am Zee. And in terms of coming out I think once my family and friends realised that that was the case and I was the same idiot as before, it made no difference. Unfortunately not everyone saw it that way, and sadly we live in a world where people are conditioned to hate LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans people at the moment. It may be less and less but it still exists and I still faced it and continue to face it, when coming out. I no longer see a lot of my family.
PS: I’ve heard you speak before about the Queen Zee persona initially being your way of creating an outlet for dealing with gender dysphoria. How much did performing as Queen Zee give you the confidence to accept that and come out?
QZ: I almost saw Queen Zee as my Drag persona, and even though I wasn’t glam at first, I think the outfits have got more outlandish as we’ve gone on. I used to perform with a pink tight over my head. This was me kind of saying, it doesn’t matter who I am. It doesn’t matter what my gender, sexuality, identity is. Respect the band for the music and performance, or don’t because we were rubbish, but not because of my identity. Over time, I felt more and more confident and I found it in me to come out, which is still the best thing I’ve ever done.
PS: What was the reaction you received from people when you did come out as trans?
QZ: Jason [Queen Zee guitarist and co-founder] just said “Yeah I know“. Because it wasn’t like one day I went “I’M TRANS”. As I said, it was something that happened over time. And I had that reaction from a lot of my close friends and family, it wasn’t hard to believe. But I obviously did face the usual backlash, people not understanding. We lost a lot of friends as a band, people seemed to think we had some sort of queer agenda and I didn’t want to play with bands that weren’t queer or had women in them. Which is ridiculous. And I’m sad that there are still a lot of people, particularly local who have lost touch with me since I came out, because they feel as if it’s something they have to address. The only dress here is the one I wear now.
PS: We started following you before you came out, and we did notice how different you were as a performer after the fact – you seemed a lot freer on stage. I’m wondering how much of a release it was to be able to be who you are fully, both on stage and in life generally.
QZ: I could go on and on about how different I am, but simply, in all aspects of my life, my relationships, my creative life, my professional life. I am a happier person. I don’t believe everyone has to come out, or even define themselves like that, gender and sexuality can be so vague and mysterious that you don’t actually have anything to come out with. You’re just not straight or cis gendered. But it took a long way to get here and I have a lot to be very grateful for and happy about.
PS: I don’t want to get too personal – but I do want to put a spotlight on a few issues that may have affected you. For example, the experience of being referred to a gender clinic. I have spoken to trans people in the past for whom this has been difficult for them. Was it a difficult experience for you, and what can be done to improve this?
QZ: Yeah it’s a very difficult experience. I’m a pretty tough cookie, I’m from a long line of scary women. I have a great supportive network, and my GP is amazing. But I still find the referral path an absolute mother fucking bastard of a nightmare. It’s terrifying, it’s slow, it’s intimidating, it makes you anxious, confused, doubt yourself. It’s overly personal at times and intrusive. Yet it also feels like an only option. There’s loads to be done and you can read more in depth at this via Action for Trans Health (click here). But at the moment the current UK system does not adhere to EU legislation and recommendation that self-identifying trans people have the right to their healthcare. Never mind the support you need around it. Our NHS is under huge strain, so this isn’t a slight on them. But I personally believe we do have the money to fund the NHS, and Gender Clinics as part of it, not just to support it but too improve it. If there’s money for warfare there’s money for healthcare.
PS: Actually, for that matter, what needs to be done to improve treatment for trans people generally?
QZ: The first thing we need basic factual education on it, the younger generation are more understanding with gender because they’re teaching themselves through the internet. Because it’s really not a hard concept to wrap your head around, some people identify with a different gender than they are born with. It is fairly common. It happens in nature. It has been observed for hundreds of years. Yet without this education people only have a Daily Mail narrative on the matter and believe we’re all from space and are here to cancel Christmas and turn toilets into terrorist sex cells or some bollocks.
PS: There seemed to be clues to your gender in some of your earlier material, especially in songs like Anxiety which was on your first demo. Was this intentional and conscious, or did they just kinda come out that way?
QZ: I’d like to say it was all a master plan but it was actually just me writing personally. All my lyrics are personal, very little is fictitious. It’s actually a goal of mine to attempt to be more fictitious within my lyricism. So those early mentions like “If giving a black eye makes me a man, then I’d rather be a girl” in Who Needs Shotguns, one of our earlier unreleased songs and “These broken hands feel so complete touching you under the sheets” in Rotten Hands, I was referring to myself as broken because I felt that way. I didn’t want to be seen as just a pansexual or bisexual man, because I had realised my identity went further than just sexuality. As I said when I was starting Queen Zee, I was starting to address these aspects of myself.
PS: I feel like the trans community are too often forgotten when people think of LGBTQ+ issues – it’s like once we got same sex marriage, some organisations forgot about the people who still need fighting for. Do you agree with this? Is it something that you have faced often?
QZ: So a group was allowed to lead London Pride with banners describing trans women as perverts, sex offenders, fake, and stating they’re not part of the LGBTQ+ community. So yes, there is a divide. What was incredible was the swell of support among the community in support of trans people. It was a trans woman, Marsha P Johnson, who started the Stonewall Riot which lead to rights we have now as an LGBTQ+ community. It was a trans woman chucking bricks at police that got them the very Pride parade they hijacked, it was a frankly unacceptable and disgusting display of hate speech. In terms of something I personally face often, of course it is. When they hold up banners denouncing trans women’s existence that means all of us, when the Daily Mail runs a story saying we’re here to molest kids that’s aimed at all of us. When they take away our rights to health and social care, they take it away from all of us.
PS: How do you combat this on a personal level?
QZ: Slowly and patiently. Unfortunately the burden of education and peace falls upon the trans community ourselves, so even though it is exhausting to constantly explain yourself. I do my best to use the platform I’m so lucky to have with Queen Zee the best I can.
PS: Do you feel like the reaction to trans people is changing slowly, though?
QZ: I do, rapidly as well. I think we are going to get a point in the next ten or twenty years where attitudes have changed. The flip side of this is while it is such an openly discussed topic, the backlash is openly harsh.
PS: I’ve seen you speak in the past about how you didn’t relate to mainstream Queer culture growing up, and how you were always more into punk and things that were more angsty. Do you think that mainstream queer culture is often a little too limiting or too focused on one group of people?
QZ: Assimilation. It’s deadly. If you’re trans they want you to look cis. If you’re gay they want you to act straight. If you’re black you should adhere to white beauty standards. Or at the very least fit the stereotype. Cis gay men like Alan Carr who are camp and fun and flirty, that’s fine. As a kid I loved Queer culture, I love old school Drag, I loved Lily Savage. I loved digging into musicals, into nightlife. It was exciting. But I never ever felt at home in a gay club. I was a freak. I was ugly, I was skinny, I smelt bad, my clothes were always ripped and pinned to together. I was a proper gross crusty teenager. Of course the beautiful gay men in the nightclubs, in their designer clothes, going on holidays breaks to Spain, trying to advance themselves in a straight world didn’t look at me like one of their own. I was always more at home in a punk club than a gay club. That was when I discovered John Waters.
PS: Since you mentioned John Waters, what were your other queer influences?
QZ: I loved musicals and singalongs as a child, stuff like The Wizard of Oz. So John Waters films always felt like the dirty fucked up cousin to those sort of films. When I was maybe 10 or 11 I discovered Rocky Horror Picture Show which totally changed my life. Then punk came into my life and the androgyny of Iggy Pop and Poly Styrene really set off an explosion in my mind and I haven’t stopped since then.
PS: Ah! Iggy! Did you know he was gonna start playing your tunes, or did it just come out of nowhere?
QZ: We thought he was going to sue us not support us. In Lucy Fur, which we performed during our BBC Maida Vale session, I reference his song I Wanna Be Your Dog with the lyric: “I wanna be your dogma, I wanna be your dog, like I’m Iggy Pop“. Our publisher wasn’t happy, worried we were gonna get sued by his estate, and they ran it past them. Iggy personally checked us out himself and got back to us saying he loved the band and the song, and wanted a writing credit on it. So Lucy Fur is lyrics by Zena Davine and Iggy Pop. I had no idea he was going to play Victim Age on Radio 6 though. That was rad.
PS: I’m never going to experience anything like it – so how does it feel to have that kind of seal of approval from one of your inspirations?
QZ: It’s bizarre how desensitised to this kind of thing you become when you get behind the scenes of the record industry. You’ll be with someone and they’ll go; “Yeah so I was doing coke off Madonna and Noel Gallagher was fighting Jimmy Page in the loo“, and it becomes like, “Yeah that’s totally believable story”. So at first it didn’t really sink in, but when I actually heard him on the radio I had an outer body moment that was just like, “Holy shit that’s fucking Iggy Pop”.
PS: Have you ever found your overt, proud queerness an issue for the band in terms of being shunned by people because of it, or reaction from audiences?
QZ: Yeah obviously people fucking hate it, and when people want to hate you because they don’t like the music or are jealous of your success and want to tear you down, it’s what they reach for. But as if I care, my life is bizarre and brilliant in equal measure. You don’t have to like me, I probably don’t like you. Yet people also love the band for being overt, I think it’s what people want. We’re in the bland generation for music at the moment. Too many drab bands making landfill indie rock, pop stars who don’t perform, rock stars who are terribly polite. Queen Zee is injecting it with a bit of flamboyancy and fabulousness, some people just can’t hack it.
PS: Was it at a festival in Cheltenham recently where you literally scared everyone out of the tent? What happened there?!
QZ: Yeah the actual festival was rad. We were backstage with Dr and the Medics and Feeder, who I loved so I was fanning out. But it was a proper family festival and when we screamed “You fuck like a porno movie!” And I whipped my kecks off, it was too much for a Sunday afternoon at Cheltenham Racecourse.
PS: I kinda feel like you are “flying the pink flag” in a way that is almost unprecedented in the city. Obviously we’ve had queer representation in the past from people like Pete Burns and Holly Johnson, but you’re operating within guitar music, which is a tradition of the city, feels more subversive, and you’re doing it with a huge level of visibility. It’s still early days for you, but do you ever get the feeling that you are breaking some new ground?
QZ: It would be too egotistical to say “Yes, we are pioneers”. Because we’re really not, I think we are just a melting pot of influences from everywhere, including Queer culture. But I agree there isn’t really anything like us at the moment coming out of Merseyside, and we never really came from a scene. We’d play with the punks, and the drag queens, and the indie kids, and at pop shows, and DJ at gay bars, so if variety is the spice of life it’s safe to say we’re burning up.
PS: Although you do put trans and queer issues at the centre of the band, at your core you are really just a great punk band. So, what is it that you want to achieve in that respect?
QZ: This band is a joke that got out of hand. We’re crass, we’re obnoxious, and yet last week I was flown to Ireland to record a song about my friend’s foot fetish with the producer who did Snow Patrol. Originally all I wanted to do was play one gig and relive my teenage years of being in a band, so I’ve already achieved it. I just want to see how far we can go now. Can we be the first band to play in space?
PS: It’s your debut album that you’re working on in Ireland. How is that shaping up?
QZ: MC5 covering The Beach Boys after dropping acid. It’s A LOT more tuneful, we’ve finally had the chance to dig into our influences more. With our EPs and singles we were a very young band, and most was just put together in bedrooms. Now we get to show the fact I think Dick Dale is the greatest ever guitarist, or that Guy Mitchell wrote the greatest song in the world, or that we all love The Kinks. Yet at the same time I think it’s probably our rudest work so far.
PS: Do you have any particular plans for its release?
QZ: Were only gonna make one copy and give it away to whoever brings us Donald Trump, alive, dressed as Mr Blobby.
PS: And finally, what have you got in store for your performance at Pride?
QZ: It’s Queen Zee, we were born to play Liverpool Pride. This is hometown, in our element, no holds barred. New songs, new show, new faces and maybe a cover or two as always.
Queen Zee play Liverpool Pride‘s main stage on Saturday 28th July. For more information on issues facing the trans community, click here to visit Action For Trans Health , and here to visit Mermaids UK, supporting young transgender people and their families.
Lead Image: Jazamin Sinclair