They’re here, they’re queer, they play horns: Meet Utah’s Lavender Menaces

Mixing music and activism, this 13-member brass collective aims to make some noise.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this composite photograph, the Lavender Menaces practice in Salt Lake City's Fairmont Park on Sunday, July 9, 2023.

The flyer — in white, black and various shades of purple — asked a simple question across the top: “Are you a badass musician?”

That’s how many of the 13 members of Utah’s Lavender Menaces, a musical brass collective, say they were recruited to join the group founded by trombonist Jess Haskell.

The band — trombonists, trumpeters and saxophonists — is dedicated, the flyer reads, to “the empowerment of women, non-binary and transgender people.”

Haskell said she has been a member of similar bands over the last seven years, including Seattle’s Filthy FemCorps, When she moved to Utah, she realized the state had no honk bands — a term for street protest bands, and also a festival in Massachusetts — so she decided to start her own.

Haskell said she came across the name while she and her wife were browsing at Under the Umbrella, an LGBTQ+ bookstore in Salt Lake City, looking for a name for the band. She picked up a book about the history of LGBTQ protest symbols, “Queer X Design,” and flipped to a random page.

She said she saw photos of lesbians protesting at the 1970 Second Congress to Unite Women, a women’s liberation movement event that had excluded lesbians. Those protesters gave themselves a name, based on a phrase coined by author and activist Betty Friedan at a 1969 National Organization for Women meeting: The Lavender Menace.

Friedan meant the phrase as a criticism that lesbian activists could threaten the feminist movement, the journalist Linda Napikoski wrote. These lesbians adopted the term as their own, dyeing shirts purple and holding signs that read “Women’s liberation is a lesbian plot” and other slogans.

Haskell saw the phrase, she said, and thought, “Wow, that is a cool band name.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jess Haskell of the Lavender Menaces in Salt Lake City's Fairmont Park on Sunday, July 9, 2023.

As she looked into the history of the term “Lavender Menace,” she said, she “saw it had been reclaimed by people trying to exclude folks from the feminist movement, or scare them away. … The name just seemed to really fit what I was trying to do with making the LGBTQ community more inclusive towards trans people as well as non-binary folks.”

Haskell noted the similarity, in name and overall mission, between her band and the Black Menaces from TikTok, a group of Black students at Brigham Young University who are known for the questions they ask students on campus.

“Their questions and their form of just protest — by asking questions and making people think about things that they have not been asked to think about themselves before — I just thought that was just so effective as a means of protest,” Haskell said.

“We’re all here to say, ‘Salt Lake is for everyone,’ and we’re here to make it loud, say it proud,” she said.

The band’s logo — a raised fist of resistance, in lavender, holding lightning bolts — pays homage to the ‘70s protest group. The Utah band has added symbols for the transgender and nonbinary communities, as well as a small trombone.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Lavender Menaces in Salt Lake City's Fairmont Park on Sunday, July 9, 2023.

Music as resistance

Jackie Flores, who plays alto saxophone in the group, said the act of coming together and playing music is itself a sign of resistance — and a signal to others that there is a safe place for them.

“People would say we’re menaces to society, just by existing and being loud and showing that we’re here and we’re not going away,” Flores said. “It’s something that we’re proud of.”

The group, Haskell said, won’t literally be a menace to society — they don’t plan on breaking noise ordinances, and they will apply for a busking license. At most, she said, they might play loudly over a protester or two.

The group came together, the members said, in the middle of the Utah Legislature’s passage this winter of a law banning gender-affirming care for minors. This June, the national LGBTQ+ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign declared a national state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people. Meanwhile, in Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox drew criticism for issuing a proclamation of Pride Month that cut out “LGBTQ+” in all references.

In spite of such anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in the state, Haskell said she has never seen more pride flags in one city than in Salt Lake City.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jackie Flores of the Lavender Menaces in Salt Lake City's Fairmont Park on Sunday, July 9, 2023.

The Lavender Menaces are preparing for their first gig, in Provo’s Memorial Park on Saturday, August 12, for the Utah Transgender Pride celebration.

Braden Sawyer, who plays trumpet, said it’s important for him to be a part of the group because he’s just started to break out of gender norms and explore his identity.

“It’s really scary to do, especially on your own,” he said, “With Trans Pride being our first show, it’s very much my own personal protest against expectations on myself.”

Trumpet player Kaye Stokes agreed, saying for them the main motivation in joining the Lavender Menaces is to find a sense of community.

“I’ve only lived here for about a year in Utah,” they said, “and I found it difficult to find queer spaces that are accessible or work with my schedule.”

Playing the Trans Pride event as their first gig, Stokes added, “really sets the tone for what I would like this group to be about, which is being very visible in spaces in Utah that are going to be controversial, like [it] being held in Provo.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kaye Stokes of the Lavender Menaces in Salt Lake City's Fairmont Park on Sunday, July 9, 2023.

Rehearsing in the park

None of the 13 bandmates are professional musicians, so rehearsing on a hot July day in Salt Lake City’s Fairmont Park is a chance to work out some of the kinks.

The shade from the towering trees helps relieve the heat, as does the occasional breeze. A mother duck and a chick waddle past the musicians, on their way toward the big pond. The park is mostly deserted, except for one group of people nearby and the occasional parent and child drifting by on bikes.

The Menaces’ music stands are placed in front of them, clips holding the sheet music so they don’t drift off in the wind. The bright summer sun glints off the brass instruments. The musicians practice some songs, going through their arrangements and their arc formation.

They work through their choreography, trying to go from memory in the park, and welcoming newcomers — like first-timer Jennifer Klettke, who plays the sousaphone and hasn’t picked her instrument up in 10 years, she said.

The playlist, Flores said, highlights songs made famous by marginalized artists. The songs include Fifth Harmony’s “Boss” and Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever.” Haskell has on her wishlist tracks from Beyonce and Lizzo, as well as some brass favorites.

“We’re trying to get some music under our feet, do some memorizing, get a consistent baseline and drums and everything,” Haskell said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teresa Gregori of the Lavender Menaces in Salt Lake City's Fairmont Park on Sunday, July 9, 2023.

Eventually, Haskell said, the band is looking for more musicians to join. They also want to expand to include street artists, she said, to perform events like “brunch and busk” — where they meet for brunch and then go busking as a group at parks.

Horns long have been featured prominently in jazz and blues music — two genres, scholars and critics have noted, with roots in resistance and protest. (Take, for example, Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit,” which is now a jazz and blues standard.)

”All these traditions,” Flores said, “stem from other forms of resistance in the musical community that we should honor and pay tribute to.”

Studies have shown that brass sections in orchestras traditionally have been predominantly male. Before 1937, there were no women playing brass instruments in an American orchestra. (The first known female brass player in an American orchestra Ellen Stone, hired in 1937 by the Pittsburgh Orchestra.)

“When I was in school band, I was the only woman in the trumpet section,” Stokes said. Even now, working in the music scene, they see few women playing horns. “It’s culturally in that world. Then in Utah, it’s also an incredibly white, male-dominated space,” they said.

“That [dominant] culture is sort of an undertone to everything,” said Jamie Willmott, who plays alto and soprano sax — and has lavender specks in the frames of her glasses. “Because of that culture, such a strong counter-culture had to form.”

The members of the Lavender Menaces said they consider themselves part of that counter-culture in Utah.

“Sometimes going through trials and being oppressed and being marginalized,” Willmott said, “is what brings out that community, and really helps them bond together and form an identity and become better.”

Editor’s note: Prior to this story being published, The Lavender Menaces were scheduled to perform at Utah Trans Pride. The group decided not to go forward with the festival in early August.