Words, as I've so often said, are mercurial. In one context, they're perfectly acceptable. In another, they're terribly offensive. We've already learned that lesson with "gay," which sad, misinformed people use as a pejorative and proud people often embrace. There's another word that's congenitally related: punk.
Last week, I wrote about how a Minnesota based church group, You Can Run, has been in bed with Republican leaders like Michele Bachmann and gubernatorial hopeful Tom Emmer. In that piece, I described the music-oriented ministry as "punk." Then, down the line a bit, I wrote, "[Rev.] Dean and his little punks also accepted a Republican-donated booth at a recent party convention, and helped Bachmann kick off her campaign earlier this year."
The comments were wonderful, and I truly appreciate them. A reader named Christopher, offered a particularly insightful one, however, when he lambasted me for misuse of the "p-word." "Not to quibble, too much, but they aren't punk. Hard rock, maybe. Christian Metal more likely, but not punk, by any stretch of the imagination." Christopher's right, and my misuse may have been two-fold.
First, You Can Run isn't punk in terms of aural leanings. They are, as the reader pointed out, hard rock. So, yes, my first usage of the word "punk" was categorically wrong. My second usage becomes a bit blurrier, and speaks volumes about the link between "punk" and "gay."
House Minority leader John Boehner received some bad press earlier this year, when, in the throes of financial reform, he urged bankers: "Don't let those little punk staffers take advantage of you and stand up for yourselves." Punk here, as in my piece, is used as an aspersion. It shouldn't have been.
The punk and queer movements are more alike than not. Both bubbled out of the revolutionary 1960s, exploding onto the scene in the gritty and glamorous seventies. Unlike today, the gay rights campaign then wasn't about assimilation. Not at its heart. Gay rights were about creating a new, welcoming space that went against the mainstream grain. Same with punk: the movement wanted to break down barriers, like racism and sexism, and form a consciously ambiguous perspective.
"The major problem with trying to explain punk is that it is not something the fits nearly into a box or categories," writes Craig O'Hara in his study, The Philosophy of Punk. "Not surprising, as punk had made the explicit aim of trying to destroy all boxes and labels." Neither the gay or punk expeditions intended on ingraining themselves in mainstream society. They were opposed to such cooption. Richard Hell, one of punk's heroes, remarked in The Downtown Book, about New York's glory days, "The Punk scream was one of frustration as much as it was of anger. This is why the real, pure thing tends to burn out and shut down: It doesn't survive in captivity..." Not its essence, at least.
Punk was an anti-establishment movement. No longer would these musicians indulge in long guitar solos and over-embellished sound. They were stripped down, rough and for more simple. Nor would they package themselves into social, and sexual, divisions. Yet, for all its fringe morality, punk indeed spread like wild fire, and helped inspire a slew of queer and queer-friendly spin-offs, like the Riot Grrrl movement and Queercore.
Debuting in the 1990 fanzine J.D., Queercore also defined itself by what it wasn't: establishment gays. "If you're fighting against how the majority tells you to act, then how can you act like the majority when it comes to sex-type-stuff?" The movement's leaders wrote in their manifesto, Don't Be Gay. "Who says girls can't be butch? Who says boys can't be fags?" Though punk and its cultural offshoots were inherently radical, they would eventually be neutered, and packaged for America at large. If you need an example of the punk movement's demise, look no further than the store "Hot Topic." Some may say the same thing about gay communities, which are often whitewashed for the general public.
Despite remarkable social acceptance, gay remains a bad word in some contexts. It becomes weaponized, sapped of its positive connotations and thrown in people's faces. Same, clearly, with punk: something that was once a badge of honor can be inverted into the negative, as if "punk" translates to "sniveling little shit," which I'm sure is what Boehner meant. To use punk as he - and I - did does the movement a great disservice, and unintentionally undercuts gay rights, which has more in common with "little punks" than perhaps many of us realize.