Striving Toward the Light: How Teri Gender Bender Overcame Tragedy and Fueled Her Feminist Fire

TGB by Monica Lozano

Photo by Monica Lozano 

Teri Gender Bender is calling me from Mexico and just minutes in she declares, “I’m blanking because I’m so nervous…I’m terrible at interviews!” It doesn’t take long to realize that this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the Mexican songwriter is so open about her life—from growing up in Guadalajara, to pre-teen traumas and the effects from her father’s death—that it almost feels like I should be sharing in return. Her candidness is free-flowing, answering questions before I even ask them. Gender Bender is a lot of things, but “terrible at interviews” isn’t one of them.

Her band Le Butcherettes is currently on the road for a mix of headline shows and spots supporting At the Drive In. At a recent show in Connecticut, Gender Bender was everything: powerful, aggressive, passionate. Along with bandmates Rikardo Rodríguez-López (bass/synths) and Alejandra Robles Luna (drums), Le Butcherettes delivered a mix of garage rock and punk amplified by a frantic keys-synths combo. The overall execution is entirely by design, bolstered by her Mexican roots and feminist flair. Gender Bender (vocals, guitar, keys) unleashes live, growling, howling and writhing across the stage, owning it, owning you. It’s headbanging music that’s entwined with the singer’s powerful messages and ideology.

“I carry a notebook of poems and [the songs are] very oriented towards female empowerment, and feeling oppressed and how to overcome it. Sometimes, it’s not even overcoming it, it’s just about feeling lonely or something,” she said.

These themes are omnipresent throughout Le Butcherettes’ albums, especially 2015’s A Raw Youth. Album opener “Shave the Pride” touches on the frustrations against society and the media’s narrowmindedness. “Sold Less Than Gold” stems from the selling of women into marriages or sex slavery, and the abuse they suffer. “The Hitch Hiker” details a woman’s experience that darkly turns into kidnapping and murder. Even Gender Bender’s performance is influenced by the injustices around her, like the hundreds of female homicides in the city of Juárez, Mexico since 1993, which peaked in 2010. At the time, Mexicans used pink crosses to represent the dead—Gender Bender instead donned a mutilated pig’s head on stage to represent the literal pigs that murdered the innocent women. But she’s cognizant that her songs and actions can hold different meanings to her audience. In fact, she encourages it.

“The great thing about art is that people can interpret it in their own ways. Art connects you to different parts [of yourself] that you wouldn’t have had access to before.”

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Gender Bender learned to express herself through art having grown up with artists for parents. Her mother (“the real deal artist of the family”) was an actress, while her late father’s passions were philosophy, writing and music.

“Living with a real deal artist had its overbearingly negative effects because people like my mother suffer a lot,” said Gender Bender. “I would always see her suffering up close, see all her emotional distress, especially after my father passed away. But they both gave everything up for a greater cause—to keep each other in their lives and to give everything to us.”

She was 13 when her father passed and she dealt with it like any teen would: by prioritizing her own grief over her mother’s.

“He was her best friend. I was very self-absorbed so I thought, ‘Oh, poor me, I lost my dad,’ but she lost her everything. She was dealing with her own demons,” said Gender Bender. “Sometimes at night, I’d walk in on her howling to the moon. I grew up in a household where I would think things like that were normal, so I have that ingrained in me. At first it was very shameful and I’d never want to invite people over or have sleepovers because I was ashamed of my family…but essentially that’s who I am. Now, they’re my pride and joy.”

Throughout our conversation, her parents consistently weave in and out of her story as her true framework, the source of her heart and greatest inspirations. Though Gender Bender never got to see her mother on stage, she insists that her mom can turn anything into art. She recalled one specific memory of waiting in line at a bank.

“She’d start humming a song and singing very unashamedly and I’d be super embarrassed. I’d be like, ‘Mom, please calm down, we’re in a public place!’ but now I see it and I’m like, ‘Damn, she nurtured me that whole time.’”

So where does Le Butcherettes’ fire come from? “It comes from my family’s love, passion, frustrations, and loss,” she said.

As she speaks, I can feel the love she emotes for her family, the weight of her words. Her sincerity and empathy, the products of retrospection and growing up. Gender Bender opens up to me more than my closest friends and family do; I fight the urge to tell her that.

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TGB2

Photo: Instagram, by @robinlaananen

Gender Bender was born in Denver, Colo. where her dad was a well-respected prison guard. It was there where she experienced bullying and trauma that to this day remain difficult for her to talk about—trauma that would later feed her feminist fire.

“There were a lot of boys who did things to me. They’d corner me and touch me and I never said anything. I kept it inside because I thought it was embarrassing to me instead of seeing it for what it was. They should’ve been fucking embarrassed for doing such horrible things.”

All of her confused feelings led her to discover Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Sylvia Plath, a writer her father loved. She felt connected to the stories of these women who felt the same as she did at her impressionable age. Through them, she coped with feelings of not being taken seriously, having not defended herself better, and feelings of uselessness. She continued to learn about herself, the significance of her existence, and of the world around her by reading Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex.”

Shortly after her father’s passing, her mother moved the family to Guadalajara, Mexico, and out of her tragic loss came a silver lining: “I was striving for independence. Guadalajara opened my eyes,” she said.

She found inspiration from a band called Aves A Veces and began thinking: “Wow, they have jobs and some of them, kids, and they’re still making the time to be in a band. I only have school on my plate. I can do this, I can make music.”

With Hanna, Plath and de Beauvoir by her side, Gender Bender began creating sketches of women in bloody aprons cutting up meat. “I wanted to make a band that had notions of feminist empowerment. The meat represented how women are seen and how they are made to be felt when they are walking down the street or waiting for the bus. In Mexico, it’s very culturally accepted to be called ‘mamacita’ or be told ‘que buena’ like you’re a Grade A piece of meat,” she said.

Even before music, she wanted to be a poet, naming herself “Teri Gender Bender” as a nod to Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” in which the author examines the 1950s housewife. She learned that even people with money could still feel empty while sacrificing everything to raise a family—just like her mother did. “Gender Bender” took it one step further.

“It doesn’t matter what your sex is. We’re always going to have a little bit of femininity and masculinity, and it’s up to us to connect the two to be complete again. If you don’t keep yourself in check, you’re always going to be miserable and unhappy. If you heal yourself, things will eventually get better for your environment.”

She paused to reflect before confessing:

“Literature literally saved my life.”

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I ask about her favorite frontmen and -women of all time. The irrefutable Freddie Mercury and Janis Joplin come to mind, but she’s avid about Mon Laferte, a Chilean singer and composer who blends genres, mixing cabaret with folk and traditional Latin music. “Her stage presence is beautiful. Her voice is gorgeous and there’s emotional depth to it. You look at her and you can’t take your eyes off her.”

Teri_Outer

Which is exactly how I’d describe Gender Bender. Watching her on stage is like watching some primal performance art. It’s from the soul, aggressive at times, but with true meaning behind it, as if she’s reclaiming power from former tormenters. It’s invigorating. Once the last notes are played, she’s jumps off the stage and hugs everyone in attendance; a switch has flipped and she’s just Teresa Suárez again.

“When you see that people are actually giving a shit and supporting your dream, it’s very emotional. I see it as we’re all one…and it’s a two-way street.”

After reading about her affinity for The Spice Girls, I can’t help but ask about it, though I make the mistake of calling the British Girl Power squad a “guilty pleasure.”

“You know what? Fuck it! It’s not guilty anymore, I wear it with pride!” She giggles and beams simultaneously at first mention of the group. Gender Bender’s love for pop doesn’t end there. American pop culture had its hold on her, from Cher and The Monkees, to Britney and Christina. Her other influences get heavier as she names them: The Dead Kennedys, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and Garbage, whose singer Shirley Manson can be heard on the track “Shame, You’re All I’ve Got.”

“Shirley’s such a sweetheart. She wears her heart on her sleeve and says what she thinks all the time. She has no filters,” says Gender Bender. “She’s always been very supportive. She’s another influence to me…her power and directness.”

Collaborating is something Gender Bender’s gotten used to. Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins and John Frusciante can also be heard on her records, and she remains incredibly grateful for the experiences.

“It just ends up happening…the planets aligned,” she said before taking me on a virtual trip through her mind’s eye. Gender Bender is a spiritual storyteller. She connects her life to God, the cosmos, the universe. She likes to go on pensive walks to thank the world for everything—great weather, the opportunity to have known her father, for her mother because “even though she’s crazy, I love her.”

While on her walks, she gets “greedy,” (her word not mine) asking God and the cosmos for the strength to write a good song or get ideas flowing. One time, she even asked the universe to let her work with Iggy Pop.

“Then, I had a dream that we were riding in a convertible car together, very weird, but it came true! I went into the studio with Iggy Pop and he had no reason to invite us, but he was like, ‘Hey, why don’t we go on a stroll in my convertible, it’s your first time in Miami!’” She takes a moment, as if to center herself or collect her next thought. “Be aware of what you want, but don’t let the ambition take the fun out of it. It’s hard, but it’s good to try.”

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Thanks to an opening gig for Jello Biafra’s band, her next musical undertaking was just around the corner. Standing in the crowd that night was Buzz Osborne of Melvins fame. Before she knew it, Le Butcherettes had an offer to join Melvins on tour (“I’m not going to lie, I cried happy tears.”). The chemistry was a fit, leading to a second tour and eventually some studio hangouts with King Buzzo, Melvins drummer Dale Crover, and Omar Rodríguez-López. Thus, Crystal Fairy was born—a gritty, thrashing homage to 80s-style punk and metal. It’s dark, unapologetic, and unveils more of its mysteries with every listen.

The writing and recording of the self-titled record came pretty quickly for the group, with everyone adding pieces to the puzzle while free-associating and rearranging. “It was kind of like being thrown into a pool. You don’t want to sink, you just have to keep moving, keep the water flowing,” she said.

The original plan was for Crystal Fairy to hit the road and tour as much as possible, but with all the band members’ main projects thriving, that plan’s been put on hold. “Hopefully in the future when we all have some time, it’ll happen.”

In the meantime, Le Butcherettes are spending what little free time they have to head back into the studio to work on their fourth record, one that will surely be another musical piece of Gender Bender’s soul, another page out of her notebook of poems. It may even revolve around the great unifier: death.

“At the end of the day, what unites humanity is loss. My obsession with death, I think, is a main theme throughout everything in my life, but I’m trying to strive more towards the light now, because you never know—you could die one day, or tomorrow or in an hour…that’s horrifying.”

One thought on “Striving Toward the Light: How Teri Gender Bender Overcame Tragedy and Fueled Her Feminist Fire

  1. Had the pleasure of meeting her this year, after their Tempe show. She’s not only brilliant, she’s also a gem with her fans. Wishing them nothing but the best.

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