“We were anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate”: A brief history of queercore

From a basement idea in the ’80s to a full-blown movement in the three decades since, this is the story of queercore: one of punk's most vital subcultures.

“We were anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate”: A brief history of queercore
Paul Travers
Bob Mould photo:
Shelly Mosman

Queercore was the original scene that never was, dreamed up as a what-if-it-were utopia. “People thought that Toronto was the centre of this hardcore movement,” said Bruce LaBruce, the co-founder of seminal fanzine and queercore springboard J.D.s, in the 2017 documentary Queercore: How To Punk A Revolution. “But it was just me and two women who sat in their basement and churned out alternative publications and experimental movies.” Promoter Mark Freitas, who would go on to create a queer punk haven in Chicago alongside Joanna Brown with their regular Homocore nights, agreed. “Bruce and G.B. Jones had created this zine that depicted this scene that didn’t really exist, other than in their minds,” he told Out magazine. “They made themselves larger than life, the superstars of this ‘gigantic’ queer-punk scene in Toronto.”

From this case of sharply-focused wishful thinking, however, a genuine scene – with actual bands – would eventually coalesce. Bands who were influenced, inspired and sometimes challenged by the words, art, ideas and politics that grew out of that inky mid-’80s manifesto. The original scene would eventually implode in a welter of infighting, but by then it had spawned festivals and record labels, spread its tendrils overseas and paved the way for out and proud generations to come. Not a bad legacy for a movement that was born from a fanzine fantasy.

Of course, just as it didn’t end with the dissolution of that scene, punk’s entanglement with LGBTQ+ culture did not begin with queercore. The first recorded use of the term ‘punk’ (or at least ‘puncke’) was in a ballad called Simon The Old Kinge composed some time before 1575, with the word denoting a female prostitute. Shakespeare kept the same meaning, but by the late 17th century the word was being used to describe a boy or young man being kept by an older man for sex. At various times since, it’s been used to describe men being used for sex in prisons, and as a derogatory term for the contemptible, the no-mark, the petty criminal; for anyone deemed worthless or lesser by mainstream society. Punk’s progenitors certainly matched that description, even if they were not necessarily queer. Many biographers and fans take Lou Reed’s bisexuality as a given, even if he was evasive about his sexuality during his lifetime. The staunchly heterosexual New York Dolls attracted outrage with their androgynous look, while rumours persisted that Dee Dee Ramone’s lyrics on 53rd And 3rd from the Ramonesseminal debut album were in part autobiographical, referring to him turning tricks as a male prostitute during the depths of his smack habit. Ironically, that would have aligned him with one of the earlier definitions of a punk before the term had properly stuck for the music his band pioneered.

But you can’t talk queer punk without mentioning Jayne County. She was hugely influential on the protopunk scene under the name Wayne County, and went on to become the first openly transgender artist in punk and rock music in general. In Los Angeles you had electropunk pioneers Nervous Gender and The Screamers. Over in England, as punk rock continued to drench the mainstream media in filth and fury, the Tom Robinson Band shone the spotlight on rampant homophobia and queer-bashing on (Sing If You’re) Glad To Be Gay. ‘Don't try to kid us that if you're discreet / You're perfectly safe as you walk down the street / You don't have to mince or make bitchy remarks / To get beaten unconscious and left in the dark,’ the openly gay singer spat on what would become an anthem and rallying call.

And yet, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a lot of punk remained closeted. Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks would not come out as bisexual until the band split and he started his solo career, although there were hints in the pansexual wank anthem Orgasm Addict and the gender-neutral writings on songs like Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve). Darby Crash of the Germs, who helped kick off the entire LA punk scene, kept his sexuality secret until his suicide in 1980. Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould did not come out publicly until the mid-‘90s, although he says his sexuality was an ‘open secret’ in the punk and alternative rock scene.

Reflecting on that decision in a Pride Month interview for Yahoo Entertainment in 2019, Bob said: “I think to have a voice and to have not used it fully for some moments, a couple years where maybe it could have made more of a difference… it’s not a regret, because everything is good as-is, but I would tell my younger self, ‘You've got an audience. You should tell them things.’

“I think one concern was just really how people are going to look at the work… that people would go back and look at my whole catalogue and go, ‘Ooh, that song must have been a gay song!’” he added. “I think especially in the ’80s, if one were to come out as a ‘gay artist’, you got framed that way. But maybe in the ’80s, if a lot more of us had been out, we would have resolved some of that sooner, because I think pop culture at that time still had the ability to change the world, or change the perceptions of people.”

The ’80s also saw the emergence of the rougher, tougher hardcore scene, which could be forward-thinking in many respects, but also had its hyper-masculine element. Texan band The Dicks were fronted by one of the scene’s few openly gay musicians in Gary Floyd, while the UK’s anarcho-punk scene produced The Apostles. In general, though, the hardcore end of the punk rock spectrum was not always the most welcoming or tolerant of scenes. At the same time, many believed that mainstream gay culture was itself too conservative.

As journalist Adam Rathe explains in the Queercore: How To Punk A Revolution book: “Queercore wasn’t just against homophobia and the martyring of gay people. It was against the mainstream gay society, against the idea of upper-class white men going to the gym and spending their nights at the baths. It was against dance music. It was against small dogs and summer houses.”

In the film, Bruce LaBruce talks about being rejected by both subcultures before he started the zine that would birth queercore. “I would get beat up for ‘looking queer’ at hardcore shows. And I would get kicked out of gay bars for wearing swastika earrings,” he said.

“What we were fighting for back in the day was our right to exist on our own terms, outside the conventions of the dominant ideology, and to imagine new social and political configurations that allowed for more equality,” he added. “We were anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate.”

To that end he started J.D.s with G.B. Jones, who was also the drummer in the all-female post-punk band Fifth Column. They churned out words and art and no budget films (No Skin Off My Ass was said to be one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite films) and, most importantly, they traded and spread ideas. J.D.s movie nights were held in Toronto, New York and London. More zines sprang up, including the likes of Pansy Beat in New York and Homocore in Chicago. Bruce and G.B. had an acrimonious falling out but by that time the scene was snowballing. One of the key moments was an event called SPEW: The Homographic Convergence, which brought together editors and creatives in what was described as ‘the first-ever queer zine convention’.

Promoter and zine publisher Steve LaFreniere told Out: “That evening, we went to a place called Hot House, a performance club run by crazy lefties. Fifth Column and Vaginal Davis performed. Vaginal brought down the house. It was this amazing night. Oh, and I got stabbed.”

He continued: “I was standing outside with Vaginal, right after she came offstage. Some guy drove by and yelled, ‘F*ggots!’ Having just seen one of the most momentous performances of my life by this incredible creature from another world, I ran up the street, and, when the car got to the light, I got my head in the window and started screaming at the guy. He got out of the car and stabbed me in the back. The next thing I remember is being lifted into the ambulance. He missed any kind of internal organs that would have meant my demise. They never did catch the guy.”

Along with Fifth Column and Vaginal Davis, who veered between genderqueer drag cabaret and speed metal, other bands started to appear as music became the dominant medium for the queercore manifesto. Bands such as Tribe 8, Pansy Division, Cypher In The Snow and Sta-Prest.

“I formed Pansy Division with Chris Freeman because there were no other gay bands,” Jon Ginoli told Out. “As it turned out, a few others formed around the same time. At the second Pansy Division show, we were on a bill with Tribe 8 – we hadn’t heard of them. I thought, ‘Great, we have comrades!’”

The San Franciscan punks were the most visible of the crop and went on to have an impact that rippled far beyond queercore’s still somewhat ghettoised reach. They signed to Lookout! Records – home to Green Day and Operation Ivy – and wrote songs about being gay in an AIDS-ravaged era when homophobia was rife.

“We were this openly gay rock band, and MTV did a piece on us and we had that sort of impact on other musicians, so that they could come out of the closet and feel as if they are safe doing so and have no adverse reaction,” Chris Freeman told The Guardian. “Now Sam Smith can have a Number One album and not have to worry. That, for me, is the world we wanted.”

One band that Pansy Division definitely had an impact on were labelmates Green Day, who took them out on tour as Dookie was blowing up and turning pop-punk into a cultural phenomenon.

“I had a feeling Pansy Division would definitely get a mixed reaction,” Billie Joe Armstrong recalled to Out. “I got letters from teenagers saying [that] after seeing Pansy Division, they had the courage to come out. I saw certain idiots in the crowd yelling ‘f*ggots’ or throwing shit. But I also saw people dancing and having a good time. Homophobia has no place in the punk scene or the mainstream. I think we share that belief with Pansy Division. Punk rock has been rather queer since the beginning.”

Queercore would also have a major impact and somewhat tangled relationship with a burgeoning riot grrrl scene and alternative music in general. “There would be no Bikini Kill without J.D.s and Homocore and G.B. Jones,” Kathleen Hanna notes in the Queercore: How To Punk… book.

The original fanzines and artists that jump-started queercore went onto other things and the scene itself split and branched, but the ethos persists to this day in artists such as Ssion and Arca. Yony Leyser, the director of Queercore: How To Punk A Revolution, cites the likes of Germany’s Peng or Russia’s Pussy Riot as keepers of the queercore tradition, bringing art, music and activism together.

And in 2021, sadly, such activism is still needed, both within the punk scene and without. “Punk was supposed to be so open and accepting,” wrote Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace in her memoir Tranny. “But when it came down to it, it was still hard to be queer in any way and not face judgment for it.” Culture wars continue to rage and – while there has been progress in many areas – the war is far from won. In Poland, where LGBTQ+ people have few rights and face brutal discrimination, Ola Kaminska is a founder of the Girls To The Front activism group and a member of the queer post-punk band NANA, inspired by the queercore movement that started before she was born.

“We all take ideas from somewhere,” she told Teen Vogue. “Queercore is definitely something that works for us now. We still have something to get done here. Nothing makes me happier than sending a zine to a really small Polish town where there are no LGBTQ+ venues.”

More than three decades after it was dreamed up in a Toronto basement, it seems queercore remains as relevant and necessary as ever.

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