By Sossity Chiricuzio, PQ Monthly
Max Voltage has been known for producing and performing in radical queer art that entertains and educates for over a decade in Portland, like their musical theater piece, “Homomentum.” Now the boy band concept from that production is a spin-off project about to make their big Portland debut! The Turnback Boyz are experienced musicians and very serious about their skills, but they see humor and camp as an accessible way to talk about important topics. I sat down with them to explore what is different about what they are doing in a community where masculinity is king.
PQ: When did you know you wanted to be in a boyband, and what does it mean to you?
Max (aka Peter): My first boyband performance was playing Justin Timberlake to a room full of screaming, preppy, Catholic students–it flipped a switch in me, and sent me on my queer artist gender-bending path. My art has grown so much since then, and I love coming back to my boyband roots, but with all these added layers; no longer lip synching, using my own words and voice.
Che (aka Oliver): I have always wanted to be in a boyband. I love to sing. I also love to write music, it is so cathartic and creates something for someone else to have as their own. Boybands have always been a genre that had cheesy songs, but the songs are FOR the people listening.
Ruth (aka Tommy): I don’t remember when I first wanted to, but something definitely clicked when I saw the audition call. It means another opportunity to do the things that are “for boys,” a frequent limitation when I was growing up.
PQ: I see that you have your own dreamboat “magazine,” Cougar Beat, which includes tips on being a feminist boyfriend. Tell me about how you handle the opportunity to be a role model in that arena?
Max: Some of my favorites from that list: “I’ll cook dinner if you do the dishes. Chores have no gender.” and “Physical Contact without sexual expectation.” For me being a feminist is very tied into my genderqueer identity, embracing all parts of my complex, layered gender, and empowering others to do the same. Not buying into the devaluation of the feminine, in myself or in others. Part of the subtlety of this project is dislodging gender essentialism.
Ruth: I work in a very male-dominated and physical field lifting large heavy objects, often by myself. I won’t run over and take something away from someone (as has been done to me in the past) based on assumptions of ability. Feminism is about checking your assumptions and learned behaviors on a daily basis.
Che: I try to employ simple things like holding space for everyone to talk, and MAKING space in mixed groups for women/femmes to speak. When I have been called out by femme partners in the past, I take in the information and then step back to reflect on what else I may have done, or what else there is for me to learn from this feedback. It isn’t ENOUGH to want feedback, you have to dig deep and work on your shit on your own time.
PQ: Obviously you all see that there are problematic things about the existing models for masculinity. How do you aim to shift that with this project?
Max: In college my straight guy friends would be congratulating me on “getting the girl,” and at first it felt fun to go along with it, to get to be one of the guys. But then I realized it was a connection based on misogyny and seeing women as conquests, so I started challenging that dynamic. I guess we’re using boybands as a map to find our way back to a sincere, authentic masculinity.
Ruth: We’re all just really performing gender, right?
Che: I think our existing models of masculinity are deeply riddled with inherent, unearned privilege based on misogyny. So, if queer masculinity does nothing to deviate from/challenge it/transform it into something that encompasses feminist thought or creates right-relationship to privileges offered to those who ID/appear more masc: it is doing a deep disservice to everyone involved. We are using the art of song and dance to challenge/transform queer masculinity into something that is able to be feminist and in right-relationship.
PQ: Speaking of the problems of queer masculinity: femmes are often invisible in queer performance as well as culture. What do you do to push back against this?
Che: I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on this as I was a very femme presenting self-identified dyke from the moment I came out at 14 ‘til I started exploring more nuances of my gender at 23. I am still a femme, and femme can look/feel so many ways–as long as there have been queers there have been femmes of all genders. My goal is to raise femme visibility and generally bring awareness to this very real experience. Also, FEMMES TO THE FRONT!
Max: My radical artist training ground was the drag king community, where femmes were such a huge creative and political force, and yet the whole thing was centered on masculinity. As the community and conversation progressed, that stage became less about facial hair & packies, and more about radical queer art. This project is coming full circle and focusing on masculinity, but not at the expense of femmes. Like how white people need to unwind our inner racism and have hard conversations with each other, masculine folks need to question our inner misogyny and teach each other how to do better.
PQ: Pop culture has many overlaps with rape culture—how do you deal with that issue?
Che: I love this question, it’s at the heart of why we chose to write “Consent is Sexy.” We tend to bring our opinions of consent into our onstage banter quite a bit. I want there to always have overtones and explicit lyrical content that not only address this issue but put out positive reinforcement towards consent and respect.
Max: What’s often missing from the conversation, in our blame-the-victim world, is holding masculine folks accountable, and helping them unlearn entitlement to feminine bodies. I believe art is one of the most powerful tools of social change, so to have the Turnback Boyz write a song combating rape culture really early on in the project feels like a great foundation that we can build upon.
Ruth: Consent is sexy and empowering, and it sucks that we live in a place and time where people need to be reminded of that. Like this lyric: “You said no and that’s great / other things we can negotiate / we could just cuddle, that’s okay / more than okay, really gay.”
Find out more on the PQ Blog, at their February 20th show at the High Water Mark, and on turnbackboyz.com!
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