Queer to the Core
By Adam Rathe
Photo above: Queer punks crash the San Francisco Pride parade (June 25, 1989). G. B. Jones (center) sits on the hood of a battered police-car float, smoking a cigarette next to a sign referencing the Stonewall riots. (Photo by Danny Nicoletta)
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.
There was a gay element to early punk, such as the Los Angeles group The Germs -- whose singer was the closeted Darby Crash—as well as Seattle transplants The Screamers, The Apostles in the U.K., and, in Texas, The Dicks. The original scene encompassed a proto-stage of what would become Queercore.
GARY FLOYD: The thing that set Austin apart in 1979 was that there were always a lot of queers in the scene. There was a big influence from the artsy radio and television department at the university. I started The Dicks. I met the other guys, and, while it wasn’t exactly true, I told them I already had a band. The scene was so young and uninfluenced; we didn’t have to live up to anything. Soon, other bands that had gay people started showing up. The popular bands in Austin were fronted by openly gay guys.
We weren’t touring much in the first few years; other bands came through here, like Black Flag, Fear, and The Minutemen. I didn’t meet a lot of queers; Hüsker Dü came, but were in the closet. They stayed at my house. One night I caught Bob Mould looking at a gay magazine we had on the table. He put it back real quick.
BOB MOULD: I don’t know if I was actually going through Gary’s porn collection, but you couldn’t help but see it. Sort of like saying to somebody else, “I see you’ve got the new Vanity Fair on your coffee table.”
In the ’80s, a group of disaffected twentysomethings, horrified by mainstream gay culture and the emergence of straight-guys-only hardcore punk, documented a gay punk utopia in fanzines -- even if it was mostly imaginary.
DENNIS COOPER: You’re talking about something that started around 1985, but didn’t seem to be hugely healthy until the end of the ’80s. Just before that, there had been Queer Nation, which was hard-lined about gay identity and how it should be portrayed and what it should mean. Queer punk came out of the energy of punk rock. It brought lesbians and gays together on a more even footing than they had been and was even inviting to straight people, saying that you don’t need to fuck people of your own gender to be queer.
BRUCE LABRUCE: I was getting my degree from film school. I lost interest in academia and started hanging out in the art and punk scenes in downtown Toronto. There was a particular restaurant circuit where people worked as waiters and cooks. They were these bohemian places—one was called Just Desserts, and the owner was this ex–art student hippie who hired all the punks and junkies. That’s where a lot of us ended up meeting. I was at work, at Just Desserts, probably in 1985. There was this striking, imposing woman with red, fright-wig-type hair. I was fascinated by her.
G.B. JONES: These two smart women with incredible style -- Kathleen Pirrie-Adams, who played bass, and Janet Martin, who played guitar -- told me they were looking for a drummer. I had only drummed once before and didn’t know how. I said right away that I wanted to join, because they were unlike anyone I’d ever met.
BRUCE LABRUCE: Fifth Column was a hardcore feminist punk band. Their first LP was To Sir With Hate. They were anti-patriarchy women playing in a male, macho scene. They were intimidating. When G. B. Jones -- or Gloria, at the time -- and I became friends, we had an intense relationship. For six years, it was almost like lovers, but without sex. It was romantic and intense. She’s a brilliant artist. She mentored me, basically.
TOM JENNINGS: In the summer of 1987 or ’88, there was an anarchist gathering in Toronto, which was a watershed event for lots of queer people. While the macho, dickhead punk-rock boys were off overturning mailboxes and getting into fights with the police, the rest of us were networking, realizing there are all these weirdo punk, queer, street culture people who are not particularly interested in that macho stuff.
MARK FREITAS: Bruce and G. B. Jones had created this zine that depicted this scene that didn’t really exist, other than in their minds. They made themselves larger than life, the superstars of this “gigantic” queer-punk scene in Toronto.
BRUCE LABRUCE: It was J.D.s, as in Juvenile Delinquents. That was the initial inspiration [for the zine]. It also stood for James Dean and J. D. Salinger. And I was drinking a lot of Jack Daniels at the time. We borrowed from The Situationists quite heavily -- this idea of creating a spectacle and propping it up in the media, even though it was fiction. We created personae that we hid behind, in a Wizard of Oz style.
JENA VON BRUCKER: People in small towns were writing G. B. and Bruce, “Oh, my God, I thought I was the only person on Earth who felt this way!” Suddenly, there were people all over North America printing off fanzines and sending them to each other.
TOM JENNINGS: The reason I went to Toronto was J.D.s, done by Bruce, G. B., and Bruce’s roommate, Candy. She’s fallen off from punk-rock queer stuff, but had published a zine called Dr. Smith, named after the character from Lost in Space. She was this faintly chubby girl with pigtails. Bruce, G. B., and Candy just made shit up. They made up that there was a queer-punk underground. I went back to San Francisco to make my own zine, Homocore: core, as in essential; homo, as in queer.