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Divide and Conquer

I think if you can get somebody to laugh at something, they're on your side already, says bassist Chris Freeman of Pansy Division, the pioneering San Francisco band that found itself in the media spotlight when it accepted Green Day's invitation to join the 1994 tour that catapulted Billie Joe Armstrong's punk trio into multi-platinum stardom. Pansy Division's presence on this hugely successful arena tour introduced mainstream America to queercore -- the '90s buzzword for gay and lesbian punk rock -- and gave Freeman, singer/guitarist Jon Ginoli, and an ever-changing cast of drummers multiple opportunities to voice their queer viewpoints on MTV. With early songs like Fem in a Black Leather Jacket, James Bondage, and The Cocksucker Club, Pansy Division helped cajole gay culture out of its AIDS-induced mourning and showed Green Day's teenage fans that gays could rock just as hard and as playfully. Jon was heavy into ACT UP, and noticed there was a lack of humor about it, Freeman recalls while supplying details to the history outlined in Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band, a feature-length documentary he edited and co-produced that's currently making the gay film festival circuit. And because everyone was against gay people, he thought, 'Let's show them how happy we are.' As a band, we're a public service announcement for clean, safe sex, and making sure that information gets to youth. This is no idle boast. Starting with its 1993 debut disc Undressed, Pansy Division has explicitly celebrated the masculine pleasures of queer sex. Albums like 1994's Deflowered contain safe sex guidelines along with helpful step-by-step diagrams that illustrate how to put on and use condoms. A cover version of Judas Priest's Breaking the Law (included on Pansy Division's 1997 singles compilation More Lovin' From Our Oven) rewrote the lyrics penned by Priest's leather-clad gay frontman Rob Halford to turn the heavy metal anthem into a willful rejection of sodomy laws. (Sample lyric: You don't know what it's like, or maybe you do/To wanna stick that nightstick up the ass of some cop who's hassling you!) Although Ginoli and Freeman went through four drummers during the Green Day tour, the pair finally settled on Luis Illades in 1996, and then added a fitting second guitarist, Patrick Goodwin. It's this quartet that recorded 1998's Absurd Pop Song Romance, a polished slice of pop-punk overseen by indie rock super-producer Steve Albini. Pansy Division had finally hit its musical stride, but the artistic breakthrough didn't expand the band's audience as expected. This disappointment together with the disappearance of affordable rehearsal spaces in San Francisco meant that maintaining the band full-time became financially impossible. Freeman moved to Los Angeles and now works as a compliance auditor of financial aid programs; Illades relocated to New York and opened up a successful health food store/caf, Urban Rustic; Goodwin left to devote himself to his own hard rock band, Dirty Power, and was replaced by token straight guitarist Joel Reader, who now works in Boston as a librarian. Only Ginoli has remained in the Bay Area, where he's employed at San Francisco's world-famous Amoeba Records. Yet these Pansies are by no means past tense. The foursome is three songs away from finishing its next album, That's So Gay, which is scheduled to coincide with the Spring 2009 DVD release of Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band, the publication of Ginoli's completed book about the group, and another tour. As the documentary makes its way to Austin, Dublin, Bern, and beyond, the band will perform at selected cities. Right now we're more about maintaining our legacy and making sure we don't release sub par records, Freeman says. To me there's nothing worse than a new Rolling Stones album. We think about what's going to add to our catalogue, not dilute it. Send a letter to the editor about this article.
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