Andrew Belonsky

Punk and Gay: The Reunion Tour

Filed By Andrew Belonsky | June 01, 2010 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Media
Tags: John Boehner, Michele Bachmann, music, Punk, Queercore, Richard Hell, Riot Grrl, Tom Emmer

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. godsavethequeen-1.jpgThere'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.


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Oh, please don't tell me queercore and riot grrrl is forgotten. :/

http://www.queermusicheritage.us/jul2009.html

Punk hasn't died, it just mutated into something more commercially viable. Green Day's album American Idiot being turned into a successful Broadway show should tell you everything you need to know about where punk currently fits into the American psyche.

Also, speaking as someone who was actually there: The original punks, my generation, were notoriously homophobic. For fans of early punk bands like the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Generation X, and then later the Clash and the Sex Pistols, as well as the local punk bands we'd go to see every weekend, homophobia and hatred of queers was an integral part of the scene, not only among the audiences but even in the lyrics of the music itself. If you want to hear a good reflection of the attitudes of the time, spend some time reading or listening to the lyrics of Johnny Thunders.

At the time, I was a deeply closeted teenager, terrified of exposure, and I wasn't enthusiastically homophobic, but neither did I stand up to it either. There were exceptions of course, most notably Wayne, later Jayne, County.

For most kids like myself, though, we'd never get into the clubs where the more radical punks like County played because those shows were never, ever, open to underage fans. Those shows were increasingly filled with crowds of wealthy scenemakers and the influx of cash and media attention that came with them also pushed out the poorer, working-class fans from what became the scene for wealthy style-hounds with their Tiffany's 24K gold safety pins, $2000 studded leather jackets, and the rest of what we kids called the "fake punk", "pseudo-punk" or "money punk" scene.

It's also important to remember that there was a major culture war raging at the time which definitely contributed to the homophobia. On one side were the punks, the real punks not the scenemakers, and on the other were the the disco/Studio 54 crowd, who were seen by the punks as just a bunch of rich, cocaine-snorting queers who didn't really care about the music, just about their own celebrity. Both sides detested each other and wanted to nothing to do with each other, unless they were actively mocking them.

Queercore and Riotgrrl came much later, in the early 90's, after the true punk movement had faded because all the fans grew up, got straight (read: off drugs), got jobs, and started living adult lives...those of us who survived, that is.

Now we see "London Calling" used to sell Jaguars and clips from Ramones concerts used in Pepsi commercials. The real punk movement and its music have now been commercialized and romanticized to the point where those who are learning about it now through modern media aren't really getting the whole story, just the slick, commercial, sanitized version the media likes to tell now.

Between 77-80, the punk movement in San Francisco had a lot of gay (and some trans) members. Even the main punk promoter, DIrk Dirksen, was gay. Other early bands like the Screamers from LA were very gay identified. The New York scene... not so much. A lot of them were straight bridge and tunnel yahoos (although there was certainly Wayne County who moved to London pretty early on).

I think the gay people into the initial punk scenes were usually Bowie and Lou Reed fans who migrated to the younger demographic.

I went to college in NY during the late 70s, then moved to SF early 80. My recollections in NYC were of many people who moved back and forth between 'genres' - Paradise Garage one night, CBGBs another.
And as for SF - one of the 'hip' fanzines of the time remarked that 'punk' meant 'queer' in SF (with a qualifier of "or at least 'bi'").
Both 'punk' and the gay scene of that time seemed to focus on the immediate. And the intersection between 70s gay 'anything goes/sex and drugs' and punk's 'anarchy/no rules' is where a lot of us began our journeys.
There was a lot of anger in early punk, no doubt. And I was called my share of homophobic slurs. But then again, even the most 'punk' would be verbally accosted by other punks.
Early punk was, first and foremost, a clique. And those who weren't in favor were abused - verbally, even physically. But sexuality wasn't a necessary signifier. At least, not in my experience.
It is interesting to note that Darby Crash (lead singer of The Germs) was outed in the 90s (he committed suicide via od in 80). I did not know Darby well, but I interacted with him at times. He was always a jerk with me, and I always assumed it was because I was open about being gay.
His friend who outed him in The Advocate remarked that he was afraid of being outed while alive.
My old school punk ethos would have told me that anyone who cared about my sexuality wasn't 'really punk'. Or they were overcompensating.

Interesting differences between the NYC and SF scenes, but to be expected I suppose. A friend of mine got high with Darby a few times after shows (trading drugs for access to the band, especially for out-of-town bands who didn't have the time, contacts, or often money to buy for themselves, was a common occurrence in those days) told me that he was such an asshole that if he wasn't (to us) "DARBY CRASH, PUNK MEGASTAR" no one would have wanted to hang out with him.

Reminds me of one of my favorite punk songs, Police Story:

This fucking city is run by pigs
They take the rights away from all the kids
Understand we're fighting a war we can't win
They hate us, we hate them

It's not really an authoritarian mentality like that espoused by Michelle Bachmann.

Alex,

You don't think Michelle Bachmann listens to Black Flag?

As to 'Police Story':

"Another image which drew considerable attention was the artwork created for the "Police Story" single, showing a police officer being held with a gun in his mouth with the speech blurb "Make me come, faggot!" The image was plastered on flyers all around Los Angeles and added to the police pressure on the band." Black Flag (band)...Wikipedia

The tactics were confrontational and provocative, if perhaps not quite 'correct'. In light of Juro's comment I guess the question of whether this is homophobic could be asked.
But 'back in the day' it gave some voice and vision to many of us.


Andrew Belonsky Andrew Belonsky | June 1, 2010 7:37 PM

I just have to say I love these comments so much. Totally making my day. Thank you to all!

THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS!

I grew up on punk, we had an awesome scene in Detroit in the 90s. Punk is like comfort food for me. The Kinks or Lou Reed or Clash is always good to put on when I'm feeling vulnerable or disheartened. I'm from the town MC5 is from! Lincoln Park! Motor City boy with Iggy as a sort of spiritual neighbor (even though he never lived in the country, let alone the area, as long as I lived in Detroit). Punk is a fundamental part of my identity.

Thank you for reminding us all of this important connection, and generating a discussion that just tickled the shit out of me!

MC5 kicked ass.

"Kick out the jams, mothafokkaaaaah...".

I actually always assumed (perhaps just because I learned about these things at similar times) that the negative connotations with the word "punk" were directly related to the fact that the word is slang for a man who bottoms in anal sex. That is, I thought it was not just similar to gay in usage and relation to a movement, but related in meaning.