The Hollywood Forever Cemetery is one of Los Angeles' oldest graveyards and final resting place for hundreds of entertainment luminaries and rock & roll icons. New York City punk rockers Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone are buried here, and so is grunge architect Chris Cornell. I'm at the cemetery to meet with Oakland transgender punk musician and skater Cher Strauberry, who is in town to attend a reunion show of feminist punk band Bikini Kill at the Hollywood Palladium. And in true punk fashion, Strauberry is late. After an hour of meandering through the 100-acre park, I see an old silver Mercedes pull up; out hops a lanky and slender Strauberry dressed in a short cheetah print skirt and black Dr. Martens, an oversized blue denim jacket, dog-chain necklace and fishnets that expose her legs covered in DIY tattoos. As she gets closer, I notice that she's drawn in her signature cheek freckles, which look strikingly like strawberry seeds. Beaming with a jovial smile, she apologizes for her tardiness, citing car trouble, and then lights up the first of many Natural American Spirit cigarettes.
"Everything is changing hella fast for me right now. I'm getting thicker and I have a booty now," she tells me while proudly flaunting her budding curves. Strauberry has been undergoing hormone replacement therapy since January 2018 and is starting to experience some serious changes. "My boobs are shaking and have grown so much. It's insane, I'm literally transitioning in front of the whole world on the internet."
Indeed, she is. On March 5th, 2018, Strauberry announced on her Instagram profile that she was transitioning. She has become an internet sensation with coverage by Thrasher, Vice and The New York Times. She recently filmed a skateboarding part for Oakland punk band SWMRS' video "Trashbag Baby" and dropped the first-ever trans skateboarding part with Peach Sørensen titled "Strauberry Peach." Online retailer All Hail the Black Market released a Cher Strauberry signature skateboard, of which The Smithsonian secured the first deck ridden by Strauberry.
"I honestly planned to lay low for a few years and come back as Cher Strauberry, but things blew up quick," she says. "I'm low-key internet famous. I had no idea that I was going to be called 'a trans icon' on the internet, which is what they are calling me."
Sitting on a marble mausoleum bench, we cover some basic formalities. Strauberry adopted her first name from Cher Horowitz, the main character in her favorite movie Clueless. She's experimental with all kinds of recreational drugs and just tried ketamine for the first time the other night. And while she's not very religious, she does pray to Kurt Cobain from time to time, when she's in need of guidance from the afterlife.
Looking around the cemetery, Strauberry says she's been here before. "I left the last cassette copy of my punk band Pookie and the Poodlez on Dee Dee's grave, like, six years ago," she says. The formalities behind us, Strauberry tells me over the next few hours about the fascinating life story of how "a scrawny and shy punk boy" from small-town Antioch, California, grew up to become a 27-year-old trans punk-rock pro-skateboarding badass.
"Antioch is a shithole," she says. "I got the fuck out of there as soon as I could — I ran away as a teenager and never went back." Strauberry currently rents a closet beneath a staircase in Oakland for $150 per month. "It's Harry Potter style, I have a small mattress in there with clothes hanging from above," she says. "The walls are painted red and bombed with posters. I have a record player on milk crates."
Back in Antioch, Strauberry basically grew up at Higgins Chapel — a funeral home offering burial and cremation services where her mother worked as mortuary cosmetologist, receptionist and singer for ceremonies. "Luckily, the embalmer, Tom, was a guitar player and into heavy metal," she says. "He got me my first electric guitar and showed me how to play [Black Sabbath's] 'Iron Man.' He had a drum set and would be like, 'Welp, no one here can complain about the noise,' and we would fuckin' jam."
As Strauberry tells it, she was often driven to school in the mortuary's hearse, sat through countless funeral services from the back of the room while watching The Ren & Stimpy Show on a small TV, and when nobody was around to monitor her, she would sneak her friends in to see dead bodies. "I just knew where they were, so if Tom wasn't around, we'd go into the embalming room and lift the sheets and, like, see an old dead guy or whatever," she says. "But I never did that when I was alone. I was always freaked out that one of the bodies might come back to life or something."
It was during those formative days at the funeral home that Strauberry first discovered skateboarding. "Skateboarding literally became my everything," she says. "I literally don't remember doing anything else between ages seven and 14. I was doing board slides on caskets in the back parking lot of the funeral home, and then skating parks and contests. Heelflips were my thing — inward and backside heelflips over huge gaps, stairs and loading docks."
Strauberry dreamt of becoming a professional skater and was well on her way. Her parents let her drop out of school and focus on skateboarding. Then, at age 12, Strauberry took first place overall in the California Amateur Skateboard League. But tragedy struck when she broke her ankle just before the end of the season. "I had enough points to skate on my broken ankle, take third place in the last contest, and still win first place overall for the season," explains Strauberry. "But then I broke the same ankle two more times that year and the doctors said I was done with skating."
With her dreams completely shattered, Strauberry felt devastated and alone. She had no friends outside of skateboarding. "I was constantly called a girl or a faggot," she says. "Dudes bullied me around and kicked my fucking ass all the time." She tossed her skateboard in the garbage, abandoned her trophies and turned to drugs. "I felt like a complete failure in skateboarding and so I just turned away from it. I literally would only go to the skatepark to buy weed, and even that was painful," she says. The next few years would be a complete blur. "I was so pissed at life because I had lost skateboarding — it was all I had. So I just played in hardcore bands and snorted speed and took downer pills, Xanax and Percocet. I was like Darby Crash, you know, what-the-fuck-ever."
At age 16, Strauberry discovered The Alternative Music Foundation in Berkeley (also known as "Gilman"), an all-inclusive and all-ages collective music venue. "I saw this band there called the Younger Lovers," she says. "They were punk and gay, which I thought was sick as fuck, because I had just figured out that I like boys and girls. I was so fucking hyped, I went straight home that night and started my band, Pookie and the Poodlez."
Strauberry remained in the constant flux of taking drugs and touring. She had hitchhiked from Berkeley to Arcata to see her favorite punk band, Nobunny, and ended up becoming a member of the band. "It's so trippy that all these punk bands I looked up to as a kid are now all my friends," she says. "The coolest thing about punk rock and skateboarding is that all of your heroes are accessible. I guess I lucked out, but I've never really been into anything else, just punk and skate."
In 2016, tragedy struck again for Strauberry — her long-term girlfriend Danielle died of a heroin-fentanyl overdose. Before the year was over, Strauberry would also lose two best friends to overdoses and three friends to suicide. "I just stayed on tour to keep busy," she says. "But I was a mess — suicidal, lost and my spirit was crushed."
Life seemed insufferable to Strauberry until January 1st, 2017, when Unity — a queer skateboarding collective — was formed. "Lacey Baker came to one of my shows and she gave me a skateboard," tells Strauberry. "It's crazy, she was one of my skateboarding heroes and turns out she was a fan of my band and wore our T-shirt while she won silver at X Games. I hadn't skated in years, but that inspired me to get back on a board and go skate with a bunch of super sick women skateboarders. We skated all over and put up fliers for a Queer Skate Day at this DIY park in Oakland and all these people showed up."
With a fresh start, Strauberry was back into skateboarding and in a relationship with Mae Ross, a trans woman who also rides for Unity. As Strauberry tells it, Ross initiated the conversation that ultimately led to Strauberry's transition. "Mae was basically like, 'I've never met a boy with a pink bedroom, lace canopy over his bed and walls covered with posters of the Donnas. I don't think you're a flamboyant gay boy. I think you're a girl,'" she recalls. "And in that moment, I broke down and cried and realized that I had been a girl my whole life. All these years, I had been creating zines under the alias Cher Strauberry, and now — that's just me."
But that realization was just the beginning of a new, grueling journey: Transitioning comes with many challenges, not the least of which is navigating the awkward phases of the actual transition. "When I decided that I was a woman, I felt like a woman, but I looked in the mirror and still saw a scrawny man with facial hair," says Strauberry. "I call this 'the freak phase' because people look at me like I'm this fucked-up thing and they don't treat me like a woman. I just get stared at and called a faggot and then I try to endure that because I know who I am. I may not look like a pretty girl, I may never be pretty, and so I'm learning how to deal with that."
Along with the mental and physical fortitude it takes for someone to transition, comes a heavy monetary price to pay. In addition to hormone medication, which Strauberry will have to take for the rest of her life, the process can include mental and physical therapy, surgeries and procedures like laser hair removal. "I've always been fuckin' broke," she says. One way she earns money is by selling nude Polaroid photos of herself along with her zines. "I do what I can to earn the little money I need for food, cigarettes and my little closet room. So if I can sell my nudes as a trans woman — fuck yeah, that's empowering."
But Strauberry's expenses for transitioning far exceed her income from zines and Polaroid sales. So she ran a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to raise money for her transition. "I raised $8,000 in four days and opened a bank account. But when I went to get the money to start my appointments, the government had confiscated all of my money for an old fix-it ticket warrant that I never knew I had." The loss of the funds sent Strauberry into a downward spiral. "My transition fund was taken away from me. I became very suicidal. I would just take a bunch of Xanax and cut my arms in bed and bleed until I blacked out," she says.
Since announcing her transition, Strauberry says she has received death threats, verbal and physical violence and social media bullying. "People send me messages that say things like, 'You fucking faggot, you ruined skateboarding,' and, 'If I ever see you at my skatepark I'll kill you,'" she says. Strauberry and Ross collected screenshots of every hateful message they received on Instagram and published them in a zine called IG Bully.
"It's not all haters," she explains. "There are some wonderful pro skaters out there that have my back and support me — Corey Duffel, Karl Watson, Jim Thiebaud and so many great people. Tony Hawk just started following me on Instagram. That's so tight."
And somehow, through all of the social opposition, confiscated finances, loss of friends and significant others to drugs and suicide, Strauberry manages to endure. What's her secret to survival? "I'm just open about my shit now because I have really nothing left to lose," says Strauberry. "I lost my family, my girlfriend, skateboarding, friends, everything."
This spring, Thrasher magazine posted a short documentary about Strauberry and the struggles she faces. The overwhelmingly positive response to the film has inspired her, compelling her to press on. "I can't let everyone down," she explains. "I feel all this love and I need to reciprocate. I'm in the spotlight right now, transitioning in front of the whole world on the internet. It's overwhelming, and I've got one cigarette and don't know where the next one is coming from, but I'm grateful."
As we wind things down, Strauberry stands and adjusts her cheetah print skirt, gives me a hug and fires up her last cigarette. I ask her where she sees herself in five years. "Dead maybe," she says. "I just don't know how long this thing can go on. Things have been very day-to-day. But right now, I'm rocking it, baby. No one else is doing it. This is me — take it or fucking leave it."