Written by Katie Hensch
The best bands in punk right now have one thing in common: they’re queer. A historically anti- establishment movement existing outside of cultural norms may seem unsurprising, but make no mistake that those involved are radical. Punks are setting an example for the mainstream by creating spaces for marginalized people to express their most unadulterated selves. The notion of LGBTQ+ people in the scene is not a recent phenomenon. A specific brand of punk, dubbed Queercore, emerged in the early 1990s.
The notion of LGBTQ+ people in the scene is not a recent phenomenon. A specific brand of punk, dubbed Queercore, emerged in the early 1990s. There were bands prior to this with gay members, but their sexuality was not expressed in their music. Both gay and straight culture encouraged a macho attitude that many men did not identify with. Bands such as Pansy Division emerged soon after with lyrics addressing the issue.
“I don’t like macho, put it away,” they sing on “Fem in a Black Jacket,” “Doesn’t appeal to me straight or gay / But I know a boy who catches my eye/ He don’t act tough, why should he try?”
Women in punk were experiencing a surge in bands thanks to the Riot Grrrl movement, whose female-fronted groups prioritized feminist ideals as a topic in their songs. It preached inclusivity but there was a discernable difference between Queercore and Riot Grrrl. A cornerstone of the latter was fluid sexuality while the former was certain of its orientation.
Jody Bleyle, lead Team Dresch in the 90s. The band was comprised entirely of lesbians. “The queer bands were filled with feminists, and so was the Riot Grrrl scene. There was an enormous amount of overlap. Team Dresch never considered itself a Riot Grrrl band; it was a Queercore band.” She continued, “When people think of feminism in the ’90s, they think of Riot Grrrl, but because Riot Grrrl doesn’t include Queercore, it usurps it. It erases it. You don’t want queer history to get erased, and that’s what happens when you don’t scream about it.”
Olympia, Washington’s Sleater-Kinney was a Riot Grrrl staple. They began to garner interest and, much to the excitement of it’s trio of female members, were to be interviewed for SPIN. Vocalists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein were casually dating at the time. Brownstein specifically was unsure of her sexuality but both parties had not come out to their families. The journalist interviewing them mentioned their relationship in the article, thus unethically outing them to the world. Though it, too, deserved a spotlight on it’s music, Queercore seemed to be a safer place.
Since then, the general attitude in America towards the LGBTQ+ community is more accepting and respectful than it was in the 90s. The queer community within punk has continued to be an outlet, with an increasing number of bands representing each letter of the acronym.
Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Riot Grrrl’s most well known band, Bikini Kill, formed Le Tigre in the late 90s. In 2000, J.D. Samson joined. The combination of Kathleen’s popularity and their politically charged lyrics lead them to success. Samson, a gay woman, soon became as much as an icon as Hanna due to her mustache.
She told Under The Radar in 2011, “When I first started off in Le Tigre I think I was completely unaware of… myself, maybe. I really had no idea that I was that different or looked that different or was sexy. I mean, I felt like the most awkward and ugly person alive at that point and I think it was really interesting for me to just all of the sudden develop this persona as being this sex symbol and an idol for queer youth to be whoever they want to be and ride the lines of gender and identity.”
She continued on to say, “I mean there were so many kids writing me, saying ‘Thank you, the fact that you have a mustache has made me come out to my parents’ or ‘the fact that you do what you wanna do or look how you wanna look has made me a better person.’” J.D.’s expression of her gender through an unconventional means is similar to what bands like New York’s PWR BTTM are doing today.
A PWR BTTM show is not one to miss. Ben Hopkins’ face is caked in glitter, stickers, and sometimes googly eyes. Liv Bruce, who’s gender-neutral identity lends itself to the pronouns they, them, theirs, is undeniably beautiful and wears a subtler look. The duo split the vocals on all of their sexuality-based anthems and often switch instruments in the middle of gigs.
The safety and comfort of their fans (who often show up as sparkly as the band) is of the utmost importance to them, which is why they do everything within their power to ensure that the venue’s bathrooms are gender-neutral. They’re just like their fans. There’s no hierarchy, just a community of queer people enjoying music.
Their excellent first full-length album, Ugly Cherries, was released in 2015 and they’ve been tearing up the scene since. The principle theme of the LP is queer pride. It shows in a unique, sarcastic way on every song, like when they play with pronouns on the title track (“My girl gets scared, can’t take him anywhere.”).
Bruce told NPR, “It wasn’t as much about intentionally adding my queerness to it as it was about refusing to subtract my queerness from it.” Their second album, Pageant, will be released May 2017. They have made it clear that they have no intention of changing with its first single, “Big Beautiful Day.”
“Who the hell gave you the right to tell me that I’m wrong,” sings Hopkins, “Curse every one of you who tells me that I cannot be who I want.”
The music across the genre is all worth listening to but some of the best releases have come specifically from transgender people. In 2012, lead singer of Against Me! Tom Gabel came out as trans in a Rolling Stone article that shocked. Tom was now Laura Jane Grace and finally living her truth at age thirty- one after years of painful gender dysphoria. AM! were known for a typically masculine, yet nonetheless well done, brand of punk and no one could be certain as to what this meant musically.
Soon after she came out the band’s label dropped them, members quit, and Laura’s wife divorced her. She was struggling to find happiness in her life as well as in her self. Out of this came 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues. It’s arguably AM!’s best release to date. The lyrics are painful and soul bearing. “You want them to see you like they see every other girl / They just see a faggot /They’ll hold their breath not to catch the sick,” she sings on the album’s title track. “I was touring, and people would come up to me afterward and be like, ‘I just started hormones!’ and I’m just thinking, ‘You’re going to ruin your f****** life. Don’t do it.’ I felt like I ruined my life totally,” she told Rolling Stone about her feelings at the time.
Grace feels differently now. Against Me! released Shape Shift With Me and Laura published her memoir entitled Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout in 2016. That same year, she stood proudly on stage in North Carolina and burned her birth certificate in protest of the state’s law, which prohibits trans people from using the bathroom of their choice. She yelled “Goodbye, gender!,” into the mic with a bright smile, holding the flaming piece of paper that didn’t matter to her any longer.
There was no band as unapologetically badass as G.L.O.S.S. (Girls Living Outside Society’s S***), whose short existence is unbelievably important since the group consisted of trans people. Their only two releases, a self-titled album and Trans Day of Revenge, were hardcore and dearly beloved by the scene. Lead singer Sadie Switchblade told BUST Magazine, “For most of my life before this band, I always felt like I was in the back of the room. When I was into bands, it was kind of only because those bands were the closest thing to feeling home, even though I never felt truly welcome in any hardcore scene. And I think that’s what is so important to me about G.L.O.S.S.—creating this new climate where people that are traditionally unwelcome or disregarded in the hardcore scene can come and have their space.”
The band was heavily covered in the media when another band, Whirr, tweeted a slew of hateful tweets about them. They included a screenshot of Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs with the accompanying caption, “This is G.LO.S.S.,” as well as saying that the band was, “just a bunch of boys running around in panties making sh**** music.” G.L.O.S.S. fired back saying, “’Boys in panties’ > boys with clean flannels and backstage laminates that hate women because they know women are superior to them.” Whirr was subsequently dropped from their label, Run For Cover Records, because of their behavior.
The group broke up in 2016 due to stress from the exposure that their success had earned them. They published their breakup letter on MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL, writing, “Being in the mainstream media, where total strangers have a say in something we’ve created for other queer people, is exhausting. The punk we care about isn’t supposed to be about getting big or becoming famous, it’s supposed to be about challenging ourselves and each other to be better people.” Since then, Sadie has gone on to her solo project, titled Dyke Drama. Her lyrical talent carried over to a new sound that’s softer than G.L.O.S.S.
All of the aforementioned bands are vital to the queer punk scene. However, the real pulse comes from the D.I.Y. segment. A core value of punk is that anyone who has something to say has the opportunity to do so and this is especially important for LGBTQ+ people.
Anna Theodora, a non-binary person, who uses they, them, their pronouns, lives in New York City. They have been going to shows since they were young. They feel that the D.I.Y. attitude is crucial. “I love that there are those spaces under the large umbrella of punk that push for inclusion and safety. D.I.Y. especially gives anyone a platform, like, grab a mic or write a zine or do something and there will be someone else there that’s rooting for you and someone else that you’re inspiring. We all end up inspiring one another and I really like that,” they said.
“More pushes for inclusion have been noted on a larger scale lately but what makes me feel better than that are the little pockets and niche groups of LGBTQ punks doing it for themselves and by themselves instead of trying to find a place in the mainstream (even the punk mainstream).” This doesn’t mean that more popular bands aren’t important. “However, bands like PWR BTTM and G.L.O.S.S. gaining traction is always great for younger kids and people new to punk that can see there is a space for them.”
Even with all this positivity, there is still a need to improve. “What I notice a lot are people, say wearing a pro-LGBT t shirt or filter on their Facebook profile but still mis-gendering their trans friends or staying silent when people use slurs. Passive homophobia and transmisogyny still hurt and everyone has to do their part to be better.”
Locally organized festivals where lesser known bands have the opportunity to showcase their music are a major part of the D.I.Y. scene. Cody Walker is a stage manager at this summer’s upcoming Punk Island festival, which includes themed stages (such as a trans band stage). When asked why it’s important to showcase LGBTQ+ punk at festivals he said, “Representation in the scene is very important.” He’s talked to people in the scene and says, “When I ask them what the like most about the current state of the scene, I’ve been getting the reply ‘It feels like I’m home and this is my family.’ I think it’s for that exact response that it’s important to be inclusive to everyone.”