Desert Companion

Ask About Emily

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Emily Matview
Photography by Christopher Smith

When Emily Matview came out as transgender, she discovered an unlikely support network — a punk rock community she helped build herself

Emily Matview had always wanted a professional manicure. One August day last year, she worked up the nerve and finally did it. She and her friends went to a nail salon on West Charleston. As she walked in, Emily’s mind was a whirl of feelings. She was excited, but also nervous, a little scared. Would anyone look at her funny? Would someone say something? Besides that, she wasn’t sure what kind of nails she wanted to get; she wasn’t even sure what kind of nails she should want to get. At 37 years old, Emily was so new to all of this.  

“Getting my nails done is something I’d always wanted to do,” she says. “But I had always been too scared to do it before. Like, I had always been picked on so hard for already being too feminine or whatever, so it wasn’t like I was ever going to do anything to draw more attention to myself.”  

Emily had come out as transgender to her closest friends less than a year earlier, in November 2019.  

The vibe at Gel Nails & Spa was welcoming and kind. There was laughter and chatter. No one batted an eye. Nothing happened, and yet, in a way, everything happened, because the outing was so happily unremarkable, so natural.  

Support comes from

“I felt like a normal girl that day,” Emily says. “It felt like I was living my life the way it’s supposed to be, and that’s a really nice feeling.” For her nails, she got a gel polish in lavender, and she splurged on a pedicure, too.  

The Crowd at Punk Rock

The crowd goes wild at a Punk Rock Bowling show (2015). Photo by Emily Matview

“She has to deal with so many things (during her transition), and she handles it all so well, and with such grace,” says Samantha Carbonaro, the friend who invited her out for manicure day. “But it can be such a struggle. So when we said, ‘Want to come with us to the nail salon?,’ she was super into it.”  

That day at the nail salon was also important as a kind of sneak preview of comfortable selfhood. One thing about transitioning, Emily points out, is how torturously slow and expensive the process is, turning it into one long hurry-up-and-wait scenario — except you’re waiting in a body that doesn’t feel like your own. Growing your hair out long is slow. Hormones take time to arrange and months to kick in. Hair removal? Painfully slow. Surgery is an epic quest all its own. Nails let you be a little more yourself right now. 

“Nails can just happen,” Emily says, “and they help me express my femininity, and also help others know how to gender me.” 

Evel Pie

Tiny Stills (2018). Photo by Emily Matview

As Emily transitions — a process that reached a milestone in April after she underwent gender confirmation surgery in Thailand — she has a curious support network backing her up: the Las Vegas punk rock scene. It was her punk rock friends who turned a fraught, nervous episode into a fun afternoon at the nail salon. It was her punk rock friends who listened to Emily over the years as she confided the truth about her gender, her deepest self, as they hung out in the parking lot at Zia Records, as they lingered over dinner at Fuddruckers, as they nursed cocktails at ReBar. Her punk rock friends paid patient attention as Emily explained concepts such as misgendering and deadnaming; her punk rock friends are doing their best to be sensitive and compassionate, minding their pronouns, shaking their vocabulary of their classic, seemingly innocent exclamations like “dude!” (Misgendering is referring to a transgender person by using a word that does not correctly reflect the gender they identify with; deadnaming is using the birth name or other former name of a transgender person without their consent. Both can be hurtful, even traumatizing. That’s why we’re not using her previous name in this story.)

“We’re all learning,” Carbonaro says. “But our community is so accepting, it’s what we know. No matter how abrasive the music is, when it comes down to it, we toss our shit aside and take care of each other.” 

This is a punk rock support network that Emily helped build herself with the popular website she runs, Punks in Vegas (punksinvegas.com). The story of Punks in Vegas is interwoven with the story of Emily’s transition, but not in the way you might think.

Lucero at Beauty Bar

Lucero 2012

‘An easier way’

Punk culture has stereotypically been the arena of rebels and underdogs — and, let’s be honest, the aggro energy of angry white men — but the image of punk as showcased on Emily’s website has little of that. The splashy, sunny Punks in Vegas logo looks like branding for a kids’ cereal. The writing is unabashedly enthusiastic, bracingly earnest, and free of snark. Sure, there are plenty of pics of guitar-wielding dudes frozen in mid-scream, but the site also has an impressive video vault of “Stripped Down Sessions” in which bands strum out spirited acoustic sets amid cheery domestic settings — think Tiny Desk Concerts you can mosh to. Indeed, the big tent for “punk” on Emily’s site stretches wide to include indie, blues, bluegrass, even folk and spoken word.

“I’ve watched her build Punks in Vegas from the beginning,” says Aaron Bautista, Emily’s friend since high school, “and she’s helped bring so much exposure to local bands and the local scene. But it’s not just locally. She’s attracted bigger bands to town (on tour stops) that might not otherwise even know we have a scene.”

“She always had a good sense, artistically, for bands that were going to be big,” says friend Austin Jeffers, a local musician whose bands Emily has featured on Punks in Vegas. “I swear, it borders on clairvoyance.” 

Emily fell in love with punk rock in the eighth grade. A classmate offered her an earbud, and what poured forth hooked her immediately: Green Day, The Offspring, The Bosstones, No Doubt. If the music hooked her, the appeal of a community forged among outsiders and misfits sealed the deal.

Eagle Hall

Eagle Hall (2013)

She started Punks in Vegas in 2011. It was germinating long before that, though, as a graduate project for her master’s in library science program at the University of North Texas. Back in the early aughts, Facebook was growing like a tidal wave, but MySpace was still a thing, a useful if clunky social media site for finding out about live music — that is, if you didn’t mind leapfrogging from promoter pages to venue pages to band pages to cobble together your own personal concert calendar.

“I just thought, there has to be an easier way,” Emily says. “So that’s what I did for my project in grad school, I made this show guide.” Emily had a eureka moment when her friend Bautista explained how to buy a domain name, and in February 2011, she launched Punks in Vegas. It wasn’t a mere punk show guide for long. Punks in Vegas would quickly grow into a veritable living digest of local punk bands, concert reviews, interviews, photo collections, performance videos, and even oral histories of older Vegas punk bands reaching back to the ’90s.  

“When she first started the site, she was like, ‘I’ll start blogging!’ Then she was like, ‘Maybe I’ll take photos, too!’ ‘And I’ll do interviews!’ It just all came together really organically,” Bautista says.  

There was a method to the madness. “I’d always ask bands and promoters, ‘Why don’t you come to Vegas?’” Emily says. “And it was always, ‘Well, we played there five years ago and no one came,’ or, ‘We didn’t know there was a scene, we just stop in Vegas to party.’ So I thought, what if I could actually push this idea out there that there’s cool stuff happening here?” The site’s upbeat look and feel make sense in a larger context: By day, Emily works as a children’s librarian for the Clark County Las Vegas Library District. In a way, her library job and her Punks in Vegas pastime are both literacy projects — the overarching purpose of both entails promoting community, communication, and exploration. “That’s the kind of stuff that I’ve always sort of gravitated toward with punk,” Emily says, “versus the whole other side that’s, like, let’s be offensive and gross and weird.” 

Of course, there were punks in Vegas before there was Punks in Vegas. But, as it developed, Emily’s website threw a spotlight on a local scene and subculture that had historically thrived on a kind of strategic, separatist obscurity. In adult-oriented Vegas, all-ages punk shows were notoriously difficult to put on, thanks in large part to a thicket of restrictions shaped around the city’s ubiquitous casinos and video-poker bars. Thus, the valley punk scene of the ’80s and ’90s survived on “underground” shows at warehouses, Elks Lodges, and far-flung desert spots at the valley’s edges. By the time Punks in Vegas launched, punk rock had long broken into the mainstream; what Emily’s site did was reframe the local punk scene as a bona fide branch in the broader Vegas entertainment ecosystem.

Her industrious zeal for building out Punks in Vegas with her raw, dramatic photos and enthusiastic reviews stemmed from her love of photography and music, to be sure, but it was also a vital distraction. During this time, Emily had begun to try to seriously understand the wrenching psychological discomfort she’d felt since childhood, a dysphoria she tried to bulldoze as an adult, by dating, by diving into romantic relationships, even by getting married. “I really convinced myself at one point that that’s what I needed to do,” she says. “It was a bad way to handle things, but I was just really young and confused and scared.” At the same time she was silently struggling with her gender identity, she was also unwittingly building a public persona as a punk-scene impresario — a frequent fixture at shows with tattooed arms, band T-shirt, camera at the ready. Sure, slightly aloof, somewhat withdrawn and standoffish, but maybe that was just punk rock cool?

Bayside“Honestly, I originally started taking photos at shows because I felt really awkward and uncomfortable talking to people,” Emily says. “And a lot of that, in retrospect, had to do with delaying this transition. It felt like I was talking to everyone through this weird mask, and taking pictures at shows helped. I felt like it gave me a purpose when I was at a show, and something to do to sort of separate me from everyone else. There was one year where I shot 137 videos for the site. I don’t think I necessarily would have been quite that dedicated if I wasn’t also sort of avoiding the inevitable issues that were going on in my life at the time.” 

Photography allowed her to take refuge behind the camera, but, perhaps ironically, it had a different effect. “But then in a weird way, I actually ended up becoming friends with people through doing that, and becoming friends with those people helped give me the confidence to come out as trans.”

What started as a ferociously — perhaps even obsessively — DIY webzine became a team effort as many of those friends became contributors, snapping photos, writing reviews, doing interviews, and producing videos for the site. Site photographer Aaron Mattern moved here from Portland in 2013. “Working for Punks in Vegas introduced me to an entirely new group of friends I wouldn’t have otherwise, kind of like going to college would,” he says. “And plus, I essentially learned a trade as a photographer, and got to meet some bands that have been heroes to me.”

Inviting those friends aboard taught Emily a simple skill she’s still perfecting in her new chapter: Asking for help. “Running Punks in Vegas has helped with my patience and ability to rely on others. Like, I was always the person who did the whole group project herself in college and high school. But there’s no way I could do that with Punks in Vegas.”

‘What I needed
to do’

“Coming out” is a deceptive term. It sounds so neatly singular and comprehensive, like there’s some grand public reckoning and, hurray, life moves on. It speaks to our appetite for dramatic climax. Obviously, it’s much more nuanced and complicated than that — and difficult. But in May 2012, Emily was inspired by the high-profile example of Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of the popular Florida punk band Against Me! — one of Emily’s favorites. Grace came out as a transgender woman, and began the process of transitioning. It spurred Emily to finally articulate the truth to herself, even amid knotty circumstances. 

“When Laura Jane Grace came out, that was the time that I sort of realized that this is what I needed to do to be happy and to be myself. But it was also really bad timing, because it was the same time that I got married — like, literally within the same couple months,” she says. “And I felt like I just didn’t know what to do, because it added that extra complication. Now that I’m far removed from the situation, it seems a lot more obvious what I should have done. But that’s kind of when I realized that that’s really what I needed to do.” Coming out happened in layers and phases over the subsequent years — in those heartfelt conversations with friends in parking lots, restaurants, and bars, in an amicable but nonetheless painful divorce. Emily set a goal to tell all her closest friends by Thanksgiving 2019. Some were surprised, some were not, many had questions, but all of them were unconditionally accepting.

“The first thing I said was, ‘Can I hug you?’” Samantha Carbonaro recalls. “There was no question, no wondering, no judgment. I just thought, nobody’s going to hurt this person.”

“When she told me, I asked every single incorrect question a person could ask. I hit every checklist item,” Jeffers recalls, laughing. “We sat on the side of Zia Records for three hours, drinking sodas and just talking. While I considered myself an ally, I was still as uninformed as any idiot raised in the ’90s, so it was really an eye-opening conversation.” The conversation struck a chord with Jeffers that’s still reverberating. “It made me realize a lot of things raising my own daughter now,” he says. “I can say I have a better understanding of what a moral and empathetic person is, thanks in large part to Emily. She helped make me a better person.”

Lately, Emily’s been getting into baking. Well, that’s not accurate. She always enjoyed baking, but it’s cast differently now; indeed, there are stubborn, gendered assumptions lurking even among the progressive prerogatives of punk culture. Better to say that lately she’s been getting into baking as an affirmative act of selfhood — not as something she enjoys as a woman, but something she enjoys as Emily.

“I liked baking before I came out, so it’s not like that changed for me, but I do think the perception changed for other people,” she says. “Like, people changed from joking that I didn’t know how to cook to actually complimenting me on my cooking, which is nice, but in the past, I just sort of let people believe whatever they wanted about me. I was depressed and hated myself and couldn’t find the will to push back and say ‘Actually …’ So, I feel like I’m better at asserting who I am — now that I know who I am. I don’t want to be a blank slate anymore.”

And she’s been back to the nail salon since that first outing in August. In fact, she’s kind of becoming a regular. “I’m happy that I’m confident enough now, thanks to Samantha, that I can do these trips on my own now, too,” Emily says. “It’s cute — the ladies at the salon always ask me about Sam.” And when Samantha goes to the salon, they always ask about Emily.

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