The parable of the blind men and the elephant has roots all over the world. Regardless of its origin, the story's outline remains the same: A number of blind men examine an elephant solely through touch in order to learn what it is. The group is in total disagreement, because each member placed their hand upon a different part of the animal.
"I see a similar energy in angry punks trying to express themselves and angry protesters trying to express themselves," says Stephen Houldsworth, a man who has spent much of his life with both groups. "For me, it's all one system that's being railed against."
On December 6 the activist and avid music fan will perform an interactive spoken-word show at Foam Coffee & Beer. Titled "Protests & Punk Shows, While Making Other Plans: Musings of a Grumpy Old Gay Man," the event aims to explore the intersection of DIY music and activism in St. Louis.
Houldsworth might be the best person to make those connections. In 2012 he and his husband, Graham Matthews, were named "Best Fans" in the music section of our Best of St. Louis issue. In this historic year of protests and civil disobedience in St. Louis, Houldsworth was also voted "Best Activist" in our readers' choice poll.
"I think the reason for that is who votes. I think if you ask activists who the best activist is, I would not be high on the list," Houldsworth says. "And I wouldn't vote for me. But I think that within the music community, I might be, for some of those people, the only activist that they know well. That, to me, explains that vote. In the activist community, I might be seen as that guy who goes to all the music shows."
Over the last few years, Houldsworth has developed a public persona. Whether he attends a protest in Ferguson or a punk show in a south-city basement, he is asked many of the same questions. One component of the show is a Q&A section where he hopes to answer them in a public setting.
"I don't like doing anything unless there's a real chance for it to fuck up royally," he says. And indeed, once the floor is open, the talk could go anywhere — including places he isn't fully prepared to visit. But at its core, the event is a carefully mapped mix of personal stories and spoken prose.
"My understanding of storytelling comes from years of teaching," he says. "Storytelling is more of an interaction, of reading the crowd and feeling what people want to take deeper. You can look at the crowd and say, 'All right, it's all glass-eyed, no one is getting this,' and then try to explain things another way."
Houldsworth earned his master's degree in counseling at Cambridge College in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1988 and went on to teach as an adjunct in the area for roughly six years. In 1996 he relocated to St. Louis and took a job at Webster University, where he taught several graduate-level psychology courses and held various administrative positions, including program director of the master's program in gerontology, chair of the Multicultural Studies Committee and coordinator of Webster's collaborative program with the Lutheran School of Nursing.
When he first moved to St. Louis, he knew little about the city's layout, so he made cold calls to spots in every direction surrounding Webster's satellite campus in downtown St. Louis. To his surprise, the places north plainly warned him against moving into the neighborhood.
"I was astonished by the division, the race division, in terms of housing when I first got here," he says. "That was my introduction to the problems with race in St. Louis, and that was different than what I'd experienced in other places."
Houldsworth is a long-time fan of Olivia Records, a label at the forefront of the womyn's music movement in the '70s. He taught this piece of music history, born of lesbian-feminist collectives, and capped the curriculum with a lesson on what he felt came next: the punk-centric riot grrrl movement. Some of his students just happened to play in punk bands, and Houldsworth was soon invited to his first St. Louis basement show to see groups such as That's My Daughter and Mustardfish.
In the last five years, Houldsworth and his husband have become key figures in the St. Louis music scene. To merely call the pair "music fans" would discredit their enormous contribution to the community. While his husband manages one of the largest local music channels on YouTube, Houldsworth's own Facebook page is a raw gallery of more than 10,000 guerrilla-style photos taken at events all around the greater St. Louis region and, in some cases, beyond.
The two are accomplished documentarians who cover a wide range of genres, but Houldsworth likes to hold the magnifying glass up to one scene in particular: punk. His first public photo exhibit, 12 Drummers, is currently on display at south city's Box through December 19. The pieces feature drummers from several bands performing in basements, dive bars and lesser-known spots throughout the city.
In recent years Houldsworth has held several positions at Saint Louis Effort for AIDS.
He continued working full-time until late 2013, when he was stricken with idiopathic heart failure. His days of attending, on average, more than two shows a week suddenly came to an end.
"That was a very scary time. I couldn't work for almost a whole year," he says. "My heart was not functioning at a level where my doctor would clear me."
As Houldsworth recovered, a historic event took place that he describes as "kairos," an ancient Greek term that denotes major change or a significant moment in time: the killing of Michael Brown by former police officer Darren Wilson.
"So many wanted to dissect and argue the specifics of the incident of Mike Brown's killing when that really wasn't the point — on some level," he says. "Obviously it was a tragedy. The killing of any human is a tragedy, but there was a bigger narrative."
On the day after the shooting, Houldsworth was among the crowd standing outside the Ferguson Police Department. He felt a major shift in the attitude of the people, which inspired him to join the protests. But for a man just getting over heart failure and relying on serious medication, marching in the dog days of summer was dangerous.
"That was also the moment in time when they were enforcing the 'seven second rule,'" he explains. "If you stopped moving for more than seven seconds then they would arrest you, because now you were loitering and not protesting." Houldsworth was never arrested, but he came very close twice. "There were times when I stopped to rest and police literally said to me, 'If you stop again, we will have to arrest you.'"
With his health now stable, Houldsworth is again out at local shows and protests. His dogged dedication to each is impressive, especially for, as he puts it, a "grumpy old gay man." Still, he recognizes that both scenes thrive primarily on the energy of youth. "Both the protests that I'm at and the punk shows that I go to are basically the province of the young," he says. "I'm coming to this with a different perspective. This is not my first time at the carnival. This is not the first time that I have seen an attempt to change the system by the young standing up. And I've also seen it work."