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Basslines and Protest Signs

Basslines and Protest Signs Part 8: Queercore

Pansy Division / Photo credit: Alan Bearce

Last week we looked at the history of the gay community and the progress that has been made, in that the industry is less likely to push a gay musician into secrecy (as far as the record buying public is concerned). Things are far from perfect but steps have undeniably been made.

One movement that we didn’t mention but undoubtedly deserves its place in the record books is queercore, an offshoot of punk rock that began at some point in the mid ’80s.

It’s tough to put your finger on exactly when the queercore scene began — there were openly gay and trans musicians such as Jayne County (covered last week) and Gary Floyd of Austin band The Dicks in the punk scene, along with Andy Martin of UK anarcho-punk outfit The Apostles (interestingly enough, some of The Apostles’ early lyrics had led to accusations of homophobia — perhaps that was a bit of early self-loathing). But at what point queercore splintered off into an actual scene, the lines are blurred.

It doesn’t much matter though. What is important is the fact that the LGBTQIA+ community was attracted to the spirit of rebellion so fundamental to punk. Sure, there was a right wing “skins and Doc Martin boots” element but that didn’t account for the majority in the punk rock scene. The music, and the culture, was all about not fitting in, not doing what society told you was ok and acceptable. If it upset the conservative masses and the status quo, then that was just fine and dandy. And that mentality was extremely attractive to many in the gay community.

Pansy Division formed in San Francisco in 1991, and singer/songwriter John Ginoli recently told this writer that, “One of the reasons I started the band was that I just didn’t see any gay bands. There were a few gay people who were out in music and a lot more who were rumored. But at the time we started, I hadn’t been looking to start this band — I had been waiting for one to come along. When it didn’t, that was the impetus to start the band. The only way I’m going to hear what I want to hear the way I want to hear it is to do it myself. When we appeared, a few other bands appeared right about the same time. It seems like the evolution of acceptance of gay people in our society had evolved to the point where a whole bunch of people had similar ideas and acted on them at about the same time, which was the end of the 1980s and beginning of the ’90s, when there really weren’t gay musicians out, at least in rock ’n’ roll.”

That’s interesting because it suggests that, as late as ’91, there were still very few gay punk bands that were out and so a “scene” was still to come. Pansy Division certainly smoothed the way — and it helped that they lived in a city as open and progressive as San Fran.

“I had the idea to do a band like Pansy Division before I lived in San Francisco, but it wasn’t until I got here that I realized it was possible,” Ginoli said. “I could then envision an audience. What was interesting to me was I thought we’d got the kind of band that would be huge in San Francisco, New York, and a few other big cities, and probably no one else would care. But we found out very fast, even before we did our tour with Green Day, that there were people already listening to us in various pockets all over the country.”

Just prior to that, J.D.s Top Ten Homocore Hit Parade Tape, a compilation of queercore bands, helped to change the game, as did the J.D.’s and Homocore fanzines. Other key bands on that era include New York’s God Is My Co-Pilot, London’s Sister George, Portland’s Team Dresch and San Fran’s Tribe 8.

Gay For Johnny Depp

The late ’90s and new millennium brought with it a whole new set of bands, many of which edged towards the “hardcore” side of the punk spectrum, such as the New York bands Limp Wrist and, a little later, Gay For Johnny Depp. The former’s best known song is wonderfully titled “I Love Hardcore Boys, I love Boys Hardcore.” Meanwhile, Gay For Johnny Depp are known for homoerotic lyrics, often concerning the actor featured in their name.

“Make them suffer

Make them suffer

And the pink shall inherit the earth

Lust and greed, it brings the world down to its knees

This is Johnny’s World!”

Gay For Johnny Depp – “Sex In Your Mouth”

Bringing the whole thing right up to the now, John Ginoli has opinions about who we should be looking out for:

“I’m a fan of the band Flesh World, they’re a more recent band. I know there’s still activity going on. Despite the changes in San Francisco, there’s still some of the defiance here and that’s what a lot of the queercore scene came out of back then. I’m a big fan of the band PWR BTTM, and I’m thrilled to see how popular they’ve become in the last year or so. They were born at the time our first album came out. It’s a new generation but [it’s trying to do] the same thing: trying to turn something that is a negative into a positive.”

Meanwhile, musicians have got to pay the rent, so a lot of the queercore peeps have been popping up in awesomely enjoyable, gay-themed tribute bands. Black Fag have been around for a while, and Pansy Division’s Chris Freeman plays in the magnificent GayC/DC.

“The thing that I learned in Pansy Division is that most gay people are not interested in rock, no matter what it is,” Freeman told this writer. “They don’t want to know about it. They want their EDM, their disco or their showtunes. They really don’t want to be bothered with rock. It just doesn’t fit. For me, as a young kid growing up, liking rock and really loathing disco, that music resonated with me, whereas for a lot of gay people it does not. I don’t think our audience is a specifically gay audience. I think there are gay people who appreciate it like we do, and that’s going to be part of our audience.”

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