Out of the Closet and Into the Darkness
IN THIS PHOTO: A promotional shot for the 2017 documentary, Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution/PHOTO CREDIT: Alice Wheeler
Queercore’s Glorious Punk Revolution – and Why a Reframed and Repurposed Movement Is Needed
MOMENTS after writing a piece about Madonna…
IN THIS PHOTO: Riot Grrrl leaders and Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution contributors, Bikini Kill/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
I looked back on what I wrote and a specific paragraph: the Pop legend’s role in bringing gay culture and rights the surface. During the 1980s, there was a lot of ignorance and intolerance of the LG.B.T.Q. (or L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.) community and, although there still is, many were not allowed express themselves – I often interpret her songs Express Yourself and Human Nature as wider narratives that bring in the gay community and breaks down numerous barriers. My experience of the gay community and fringes of the Queercore movement is peripheral and academic. Being a straight guy, my motive is to highlight equality and the need to fight against judgement – my approach is more academic and research-based rather than personal. That said, I am interested in how artists from the gay/L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. community have fared and been interpreted through the decades. I will conclude by looking at downsides to the Queercore movement and why there needs to be a fresh movement. Right now, I get to thinking about Punk and how explosive it was. The 1970s was an exceptional decade for music that boasted brilliant bands like the Sex Pistols, Ramones and The Clash. The best of British and American were telling their stories and rebelling against authority, conventions and The System. Whilst some see Punk as fleeting and rather weak-willed – in the sense that it did not survive far past the decade – its effects and legacy is still being felt today.
We have a much broader idea of what ‘Punk’ is and how far it extends. Post-Punk bands like IDLES and Shame are splicing Alternative strands; there are great Garage-Punk bands coming out of the U.S. and British stalwarts like Parquet Courts make a glorious noise! I feel there needs to be a revolution against a rather clean and safe musical core that is being infantilised and homogenised by record labels, market demands and a general sense of fear. At a time when there is a lot of inspection regarding sexism, sexual assault (against female artists) and the discipline of the music industry; is it possible to have a mass Punk movement that unifies straight and L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. artists?! I smell the yearning and scent of desire but it seems like a long way off – we have a lot to sort and organise in an industry that, like film, is suffering with its reputation a little. Punk, back in the 1970s and 1980s, was always about something masculine, straight and ‘normal’. One would find very little for the gay and alternative artist who wanted to talk about their experiences. One had female Punk bands and representatives but there was little vocalisation regarding the experiences of those who, at the time, were somewhat marginalised and outside of society’s acceptable circle.
There is still a lot of division and segregation when it comes to the gay community and assimilation into the mainstream – especially when it comes to ethnicity! In my piece about Hungama a club-night in London that is a safe space for expression for everyone, not just those in the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. community, but is a place where the Asian community can feel safe and accepted – I looked at the Asian community and members of the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. community and how there is a feeling of alienation, isolation and loneliness:
“There is a thriving and bustling Asian community in Brick Lane and the surrounding areas – I wonder whether we think too much as to why there is a larger Asian population in certain parts of London?! In any case; race and diversity are important areas we all need to address. I wonder, at a time when the nation is divided, the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. Asian population feels more divided and ignored than most”.
I will explore improvements, racial integration and a new movement later but, right now, a look back at Queercore’s foundations:
“Beginning in the mid-1980s, most notably in Toronto but with origins elsewhere, an underground culture was formed by a revolutionary group of self-proclaimed “queers” who were less concerned about mainstream acceptance of their sexuality and more geared toward creating unconventional spaces where they could be themselves. Places where, essentially, one could be gay without liking stereotypical “gay things.”
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
...Queer Nation, which was birthed in 1990 as a militant response to LGBTQ prejudice, demanded equal rights for gays and lesbians, which, like other LGBTQ activist groups, could eventually be viewed as an assimilation into mainstream society, and thus, capitalism. This was an ideology that queercore wanted to distance itself from.
But by the ‘80s, punk had changed to a more hardcore sound and the once inclusive counter-culture suddenly became filled with homophobia, sexism and “macho punks”.
That impression and abiding mandate of Punk (something rather manly and ill-inclusive in terms of sexuality) led to a need for change and revolution. Artists who formed the Queercore movement were displaying a comparative Punk spirit built around expression, liberation and not giving a damn. If some saw the positive advertisement and promotion of S.T.D.s, multiple sexual partners and explicit sexual language as offensive and not in the spirit of true Punk; it gave its players and fans a space and style they could embrace and feel safe in. The documentary, Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution, was released last year and charts the movement’s growth and aftermath. This article looks at the documentary and its messages:
“The documentary is called Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution, and it stars queer directors Bruce La Bruce and John Waters; female musicians Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon and Peaches; queer performers Genesis P-Orridge, Justin Bond and Jayne County and many others.
Two queer creatives in specific —G.B. Jones and Bruce LaBruce – helped lay the groundwork for the Queercore scene through their zine J.D., a publication which sought to expose the “bourgeois-ification of the gay movement and the problematic sexual politics of punk” by sharing their own work and that of other disenfranchised queer creatives.
The politics in Queercore dictated that there was no primary or pure way of expressing gender or sexuality — whether that meant building your identity around a fetish, being proud of having STDs, having many lovers, wanting to teach gay sexual health in schools, not caring about the gender of your preferred genitals or getting married to yourself and masturbating until death”.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
The Queercore spirit remains today: we query whether Pride parades should allow corporate profiteers and police forces with a history of racism and L.G.B.T.Q.(I.A.) discrimination in their ranks. Modern festivals like Another Country and Gay Bi Gay Gay highlight local Queercore bands but it seems like the spirit and potent cocktail has dissipated and faded somewhat. Curran Jacob Nault, in a dissertation about the Punk/Queercore movement, looked at the ‘queer’ elements that were existent in the original Punk movement:
“Respected punk photographer Lee Black Childers has also commented upon the “queerness” of the NY punk scene, asserting that, in the initial years of punk, “gay people made up most of the audience” (qtd. in Savage, 139). While this is anecdotal evidence and these may be overstatements on the part of Fields and Childers, they still suggest that early punk subculture was not as hetero- or a-sexual as may be initially assumed.26 It should also be mentioned that the term “punk” itself has queer origins. As John Robb explains its etymology: The word "punk" originally meant a prostitute, moldy wood or fungus. By [January 1976, when New York-based] Punk magazine took its name, it had gone on to mean a person who takes it up the ass in prison, a loser or a form of Sixties garage rock'n'roll. (150)”.
Maybe that impression of Punk is a little media-controlled and one-sided: there were elements of queer in the scene but not as overt and populous as Queercore’s movers hoped. The culture grew alongside Riot Grrrl (a feminist Punk movement that started in Washington in the 1990s) and there was a need for those excluded from the mainstream Punk movement to have their voices heard. Riot Grrrl, like Queercore, found its community provocatively and freely expressing their sexual needs and experiences through songs, magazines and underground publications. If Queercore and Riot Grrrl had different sounds and scenes then the core ideal was the same: a chance for equality, being heard and feeling unconstrained. That sense of being cut loose and having a network of support led to some of the most innovative and original music of the time. We know when Queercore came to be but, in reality, was there a need (for Queercore artists) to fight against homophobia in music or perform a brand of music that would not easily sit in the mainstream – a bit of both, it seems:
“After the sexual free-for-all that was 1970s glam rock, the pendulum swung back. The 1980s alt-rock landscape was impossibly straight. That’s ironic, since its holy trinity -- R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, and The Smiths -- was made of bands whose frontmen are now respectively queer, out, and sexually nebulous. But in the darker corners of the underground, bands were sprouting up that were defiantly -- and loudly -- gay. The Queercore scene grew out of a generation that bristled against what it saw as the bourgeois trappings of a mainstream gay lifestyle and the macho, hetero hardcore scene that punk -- a movement founded by women, people of color, and gays -- had become. Queercore was a call to arms and storming out of the closet. The literature came before the music. It started out as a loose collective, trading fanzines and letters, and evolved to include dozens of bands, as well as the extraordinary friendships and treacherous rivalries that come along with creative intensity. Here’s an oral history of Queercore, from its inky, Xeroxed beginnings until it rendered itself obsolete”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Lynn 'Lynnee' Breedlove/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
The article I have quoted above talked to those involved, directly or latterly, with the Queercore experience. Among those who were interviewed was Green Day’s frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong:
“I had a feeling Pansy Division would definitely get a mixed reaction. When our crowds were getting more mainstream, we didn’t want to represent the typical Mohawk stereotype. Pansy Division was truly challenging, and their songs are melodic and catchy. I got letters from teenagers saying, after seeing Pansy Division, they had the courage to come out. I saw certain idiots in the crowd yelling “faggots” or throwing shit. But I also saw people dancing and having a good time. Homophobia has no place in the punk scene or the mainstream. I think we share that belief with Pansy Division. Punk rock has been rather queer since the beginning”.
Lynn Breedlove, the queer founding member and singer of San Francisco Dyke-Punk band, Tribe 8, gave her thoughts:
“There were rocker queers and disco queers. In high school, I hung with the rockers. We were listening to Journey and Queen. There was no queer music. Freddie Mercury wasn’t even out! But we could tell by looking at him. We would come together at the discos, where we would take our fake IDs and do the hustle. As time progressed, my friends were listening to Black Flag, and I was like, What the fuck is this? It was sarcastic and hilarious, and gay in that it was camp, ironic, and making fun of yourself -- but totally hard-edged and “fuck you”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Pansy Division/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Armstrong’s tales of homophobic exposure and Breedlove sensing a lot of artists about to break free, as it were, give you an idea of why the movement needed to happen and how hard it was for mainstream artists to truly express themselves during the 1980s and 1990s. Queercore bands like Tribe 8, Pansy Division and Excuse 17 provided a platform for a Punk-edged representation of the L.G.B.T.Q. community. In the same way that Riot Grrrls wanted to explore feminine expression and strike against patriarchy; provide a sisterhood and wave that combatted the sexist attitudes in society; Queercore utilised zines and performances as interaction and communication between members of the subculture. The development and accessibility of the Internet (in the 1990s) made it easier to spread messages and interact. Among the best-known Queercore bands of the 1990s were Fifth Column, Pedro and Pansy Division; Queercore events were being set-up in the U.K. and U.S. and it meant the segregation of the gay community – clubs for gay men and ones for gay women – was ended. Women and men could be together and things started to change. The zine, Outpunk, was set up by Matt Wobensmith in 1992 and it became a record label – early recordings from Tribe 8 and Pansy Division were found on compilations. More smaller, boutique labels released Queercore music and, alongside the Riot Grrrl movement, there was this underground network of artists who were making up for lost time!
The 2000s brought new bands to prominence in the U.S. Limp Wrist are a contemporary breed of Punk. Butch Vs Femme formed in 2004 and are a Riot Grrrl-inspired Indie-Punk band that saturate their songs with lyrics of the queer experience. Other bands, like Gravy Train!!! and Hunx and His Punx are continuing the messages and legacy – the former are more explicit with their lyrics and sexual content; the latter are Power-Pop who take from the girl groups of the 1960s. Gay for Johnny Depp and Ben Aqua were among the 2000s players that portrayed a new and updated sound of Queercore; The Shondes (from Brooklyn) mixed Riot Grrrl and Classical with Jewish music. Although many of the more-recent Queercore bands are less Punk-focused; they have mixed in other genres and created a more eclectic, intriguing and accessible palette. Throw into the mix Riot Grrrl/Queercore favourites The Homewreckers and Your Heart Breaks and there was no sign of slowing during the 2000s. The U.K. was seeing a burgeoning and more visible Queercore scene. Groups like Queer Mutiny and Homocrime alongside Corey Orbison, Sleeping States and Little Paper Squares opened eyes to artists who mixed a D.I.Y. aesthetic with Punk sensibilities. Between 2000 and 2009, there was a flux of fantastic Queercore bands that helped bring it more into the mainstream.
Candy Panic Attack, Flamingo 50; Humousexual and Sailor Tongue were among the heroes and heroines and the scene was not focused in London. Unlike a lot of today’s music, there was a more even spread of attention and geography. Bristol and Manchester were big centres of focus; club nights like Riots Not Diets focused on queer-identifying bands; events like Pussy Whipped came to Edinburgh eventually – Leeds, since 2015, has enjoyed and hosted the Queer We Go festival (and Bentfest). Recent exploration of the homology between queer theory and practice has brought new interest and intrigue to the Queercore movement – as has the Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution documentary. Before I move on to a conclusion and recommendations; I found an article that spoke with one of Queercore’s key bands, Pansy Division, in 2016 (to mark the quarter-century of the movement):
“After the trauma of the Aids crisis and the homophobia it unleashed, Pansy Division wanted to assert to the rest of the world that being gay can be great. “We thought, if we’re being told that being gay is so wrong and we’re being ostracized for this, let’s point out how well-adjusted and enjoyable our lives are. So it really was a conscious effort to say, ‘We’re not going to be sour about this,’ because that’s exactly what I think they wanted – to show how unhappy it is to be a gay person. We were singing celebratory songs about it instead.” The band’s songs like Twinkie Twinkie Little Star, 20 Years of Cockand I’m Gonna Be a Slut celebrate not only gay sex, but the joys of being free to be who you are and love whoever you want.
The band’s frenetic music and wild live shows got them signed to punk label Lookout! records, home to bands like Operation Ivy, Rancid, Alkaline Trio and Green Day. They broke through to a wider audience when Green Day invited them to open for them on their Dookie tour in 1994. Suddenly, Pansy Division were blasting San Francisco queer culture at kids from smalltown America who, in those pre-internet days, had never seen anything like them before – or heard such brash lyrics about the mechanics of gay sex”.
Although there is not a massive Queercore presence in the modern time, there are artists talking about L.G.B.Q.T.I.A. experiences and straying from the mostly-white, heterosexual mainstream. FHAT, Christine and the Queens; Daya, Lizzo; Holland and King Princess are among a selection of artists whose lyrics and songs are essential for Pride and queer playlists. Although, too, there are a few Queercore bands around right now; it seems things have stunted and shrunk. One quarter, Em Casalena, talks about race in Queercore. Traditional Punk bands rarely talked of racism and anything beyond the straight and white: Queercore artists, too, have been accused of being too racially secular and, well, racist:
“Few queercore artists nowadays have tried to change this and it remains focused on the experiences of white queers rather than the racist, sexist, and anti-queer experiences of anyone outside of that little box. In gay culture outside of queercore, this still permeates communities and dating scenes. One can spend only a few minutes on Grindr before encountering the barring profile description of "No fats, no femmes, no Asians" underneath the flexing chest of an oiled up white gay man”.
I think we need to look back to Queercore’s origins and why it got started. Maybe revitalise Queercore or start a new movement that is more inclusive in terms of race, gender and sizes.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Queercore did integrate male and female artists/fans but there is that feeling that, although a lot of magic and progression happened, there was too much segregation and division – the sort of thing the movement was trying to cut out. Although the spirit and intentions were good, the mission statement and recruitment process was lumbered by a lack of consideration in regards race and the aesthetic. Maybe there was not a conscious effort to exclude non-white artists but you look at the Queercore bands and they are, for the most part, single-gender (few mixed bands) and white. The reason I wrote about Hungama was to show how, in 2018, there are barriers in the gay community and a real lack of total integration. The fact that so many members of the Asian and black communities feel they need their own space speaks volumes. Hungama does not fall into the easy trap of being all-Asian and male: it welcomes every race and person, regardless of sexual orientation, to experience Bollywood charm, brilliant music and something hugely memorable. I urge pioneers and forefathers(mothers) to look at that incentive and take it to heart. There is a much larger L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. network and so many artists/listeners who either struggle to have their voices heard in the mainstream or feel there is very little out there that represents them. Maybe we are years from seeing sexual integration where L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. is as common and accepted as heterosexuality but a way to see that happen sooner rather than later is to spark a reformed and repurposed Queercore movement.
IN THIS PHOTO: Ryan Lanji, centre, with performers at Hungama/PHOTO CREDIT: Iolo Lewis Edwards
There is an appetite for Punk in any form: the fact we have very few pure Punk artists and modern music is not willing to truly embrace the genre gives extra impetus. Perhaps a modern movement would not have to be purely Punk. Whether it mixed in other genres or was a Pop/Funk motivation – a distinct genre that would unify races, genders and all sizes from the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. community. Ensuring there was a mix of the explicit and rebellious aspects of Queercore – utilising the Internet but never being too obscene and controversial – and a connected network then something positive could form. Many might feel the current climate included L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. artists and there are no limitations. Whilst radio stations and labels do not ban music that looks against heterosexual ‘norms’; there is still an uneasiness and feeling that it is a bit risqué. Slowly, changes and acceptance is coming through but there is still too much homophobia, judgement and ignorance around. Listen to the brilliant Queercore sounds that have come through the years and I would not be surprised if that generated new ears and minds to follow suit. Whether that will happen now or later down the line, I am not too sure. Whilst Queercore achieved a lot (and still does) and was a brilliant fight against the overly-masculine and closed-minded Punk scene; it is clear that, alongside all the good and positive, there were many problems and limitations…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
THAT affected its durability and sense of inclusiveness.