Since the mid-’80s, an enigmatic force has pulled curious people underground into the queer, hardcore pleasures of punk. They’ve been unable to resist the force of its allure, gripped by its primitive rhythms and latex-bearing idols, dedicating themselves to its cheeky political rabble-rousing. Nearly four decades before Pride Month became an opportunity for brands (and some bands, let’s be real) to pretend they care about the well-being of the LGBTQIA+ community, queercore (homocore, if you’re nasty) salvaged punk, taking a nihilistic genre and making it smart and fun again. And punk, we should point out, has always been gay as hell, from the very beginning of the four-letter word. “Losers, freaks, and deviants started this movement,” says Penny Arcade in the 2017 documentary Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution.
As a subgenre, however, queercore added more fodder to the already established laundry list of gripes of nonconservative, non-jerks. Rightfully so; take a look around at how the world has been since the start. But just as punk’s original meaning was derogatory, signifying a “criminal” or “hoodlum,” old definitions of queer have the same air, intimating a “weirdness” about a person and making them “deserving” of exclusion. Both terms defy societal myopia, both have been embraced by the communities they’re meant to reject, both advocate for a new world. In a sense, punk and queerness are a match made in hell—it’s a lot more fun than heaven, anyway.
But the ways in which punk has been written, historically, are mad privileged. Joe Strummer’s dad attained the rank of second secretary in the foreign service. And for some of these fools who didn’t benefit from incredible class privilege, they certainly benefited from their whiteness, their cis het identities. Queercore, and its many intersectional marginalizations, offer an insider’s perspective to being an outsider; it is punk, but, like, more punk. And here’s how it happened.
In a sense, punk and queerness are a match made in hell—it’s a lot more fun than heaven, anywaY
Queercore is rooted in DIY zine and music making. It first sprang up in 1985 in Toronto, Canada, thanks to the queer punk zine J.D.s (Juvenile Delinquents), started by filmmaker Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones of the post-punk band Fifth Column. Their song “The Fairview Mall Story” is credited as being the track that started it all, detailing the story of 32 men who were arrested and faced 49 sex-related criminal charges (mostly gross indecency) for engaging in consensual group sex in a public bathroom at the Fairview Mall in St. Catharines, Ontario, in December of 1984. (All cops are bastards, and they were then, too.) J.D.s and Fifth Column were integral to the movement in the eight issues and one compilation they released, and the handful of movie nights they hosted. But they weren’t the only ones. Elsewhere, queer punk bands were forming, preparing to build an underground network.
One thing queercore bands actually kill at is wordplay, particularly within their band names. Just look at Pansy Division, the early-’90s San Francisco band whose name essentially tells you exactly what to expect, a co-option of the oppressive language used to marginalize “effeminate” men. (Note that their band name formula followed Joy Division’s, spinning off from the Nazi tank faction the Panzer Division.) While Fifth Column planted queercore seeds in Canada not long before Pansy Division formed (in fact, Pansy Division’s Jon Ginoli learned about Fifth Column shortly after his band got together—they held the title of first openly gay punk band like a badge of honor despite, you know, not being that), bands like no-wave New York queercore act God Is My Co-Pilot and S.F.’s all-lesbian, scissoring-centric Tribe 8 were steadily gaining traction. (For the heteronormies reading, Tribe 8’s name is a play off of tribadism.) Unlike the post-punk and no-wave of those queercore acts, Pansy Division offered a fun-loving, musical COCKtail of pop-punk and power pop.
They had all the workings of what helped to define the subgenre, going on to be considered one of the most commercially successful queercore bands ever. With songs like “The Cocksucker Club,” “Smells Like Queer Spirit” and “Bill & Ted’s Homosexual Adventure,” it should be pretty obvious why.
But it wasn’t all death dicks and homo Christmas all the time. Their overt cheekiness aside, Pansy Division had a specific appeal and energy that established them outside of the non-queer bands who supported them. The band started out as the unintentionally solo work of Ginoli, following his time fronting the Illinois punk band the Outnumbered in the ’80s and relocating to the Bay. Undressed, Pansy Division’s 1993 unofficial debut, was recorded entirely by Ginoli. By the time of their first official release, Deflowered, Ginoli wasn’t familiar with their Lookout! Records labelmates Green Day when they were booked to be the opening act on their 1994 tour—a fact Ginoli recollects in the band’s 2009 memoir Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division. He also shares how, according to Green Day drummer Tré Cool, they were booked as opening support as a means of offsetting the “dumb jock following” Green Day had acquired after getting played on MTV. The tour pairing, however, is thought to have helped put queercore on the map—if the map is defined as “something straight people also know about.”
North of the Bay Area, where Pansy Division waved their dicks with pride, sits Olympia, Wash., a queer-feminist enclave in the early ’90s and home to a band called Team Dresch. (And K Records, Kill Rock Stars, the Yoyo A Go Go festival, riot grrrl, the Go! Team, Sleater-Kinney, but who’s counting?) Throw a rock, hit a music movement motivated by sociopolitical resistance that Dresch was part of, in some way or another.
To put it simply, frontwoman Donna Dresch is to queercore what Robert Smith is to sad goths: EVERYTHING. That’s not just hyperbole—Dresch was one of the scene’s key figures since the scene first started scene-ing. She started out not only as a contributor to queercore’s bibles, J.D.s, Homocore, and Outpunk zines, but also as the founder of the ’80s fanzine—and, later on, record label—Chainsaw. What she’s probably the most known for, though, since it literally bears her name, is Team Dresch.
The band released its first single “Seven” on the ’94 Kill Rock Stars compilation Rock Stars Kill, which gave them a lot of traction despite being relatively unknown at the time. Yet when their debut, Personal Best, came out the following year, both Dresch and bandmate Jody Bleyle (vocals, guitar) had the newly expanding labels Chainsaw and Candy Ass, respectively, which they co-released the record on. It’s praised for directly addressing LGBTQIA+ (though in society back then, we only openly recognized the first four) issues in an understandably raging but accessible manner, even centered on a 1982 lesbian film of the same name. It remains highly regarded as a straight-up punk and queercore masterpiece—when society isn’t built for you, there’s always shit to be pissed about.
In the Midwest, in the early ’90s, there was one guy to know: Martin Sorrondeguy, and by extension, both his hardcore bands, Limp Wrist and Los Crudos. Sorrondeguy started Los Crudos in Chicago back in 1991 in opposition to the incredibly vanilla (in skin, not in sound) population that dominated punk and hardcore back then and, let’s be honest, today. Made up of straight-edge Latinx musicians, representation was a marker of their moment, directly confronting issues affecting their community like racism, immigration, xenophobia, classism, and, of course, homophobia—all sung in Spanish. While a lot of other hardcore and queercore bands had yet to discover intersectionality, the Uraguay-born Sorrondeguy and Los Crudos attacked white supremacy and its heteronormative oppressions. A solid example of this is actually one of their only English-language songs, “We’re That Spic Band,” written in response to someone at one of their shows calling them that slur.
In 1997, Sorrondeguy came out. In 1998, Los Crudos broke up, and Sorrondeguy joined up with guitarist Mark Telfian (Hail Mary), bassist Andrew Martini (Kill the Man Who Questions), and drummer Scott Moore to form Limp Wrist, a gay-as-fuck punk, thrash, and powerviolence band. Their last record, Facades, came out in 2017, and even though it’s not known whether they’re working on new music or not (and with the perfect outro of: “They created a box/To squeeze all queers in/Their definitions have flattened us/Stay fucked and never go in,” on “They Tell Me”, who could blame them for taking a hiatus?), eveyerthing that they have made has certainly been integral. “I Love Hardcore Boys, I Love Boys Hardcore” is a queercore classic.
A shift took place at the turn of the new millennium. Punks rediscovered synthesizers and all their various pleasures (synthwave, synthpop, electropop, techno, all variations within), and queercore led the charge. More in line with Pansy Division, Oakland’s Gravy Train!!!! didn’t really encompass any of the “harsher” elements that genres suffixed by “core” typically have, but they went hard in their own venereal way. Mixing electroclash with the punkier aspects of queercore and some heartful attempts at rapping, they were openly and intentionally vulgar in regard to sex and food (and, sometimes, sex involving food—simmer down, perverts) for more than just the shock value. While other queercore bands took a more serious route with what they were communicating, Gravy Train!!!! had no problem holding the kitschy, risqué class-clown role, offering a bit of comedic relief that still challenges subject matter generally sung about. Public professions of fantasies and sensual endeavors usually arrive with at least the smallest tinge of finesse and sentimentality, yet Gravy Train!!!! chose the route of expressive bluntness. Going from “I’m a filthy little slut, I like to take it in the mouth,” to “You can’t bone my mouth when my mouth is bone dry,” within a few lines of each other on “Kottonmouth BJ,” an ode to a stoney blowjob, is evidence enough. Or “I had a fantasy since I was nine/’Bout blowin’ loads in a butt while loads are blown in mine/Don’t blame me for bein’ sick for dick/Sometimes it’s titties that I wanna lick,” on “Double Decker", a... creative way of communicating sexual fludity. Their political act was unabashed verbal vomit in a slightly crude sense and it was fucking fun.
When society isn’t built for you, there’s always shit to be pissed abouT
What comes up must come down, shatter, and be rebuilt again in the image of a great society—against racism, police brutality, capitalism—a gay utopia sans electroclash, where straight-up, hard/fast/loud hardcore bands like Olympia’s G.L.O.S.S. (Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit) can thrive. The trans band did the ultimate mic drop, coming out hotter than global warming with a demo and a five-track EP before dipping. (2014–2016, R.I.P.) Then and even now, TRANS DAY OF REVENGE is touted for the impact it’s made on trad hardcore without even being more than seven minutes long.
Their release arrived at a contentious time in American politics, but honestly, when is there peace? Trump was newly in office and the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, where a man killed 49 people and wounded 53 more at the queer club, happened just one day prior to its release. Frontperson Sadie “Switchblade” Smith made it apparent that G.L.O.S.S. were a response to the cisgender-dominant narrative of society, while also infusing incredibly direct commentary on anti-pacifism (of which they were pro-), ableism, sexism, transphobia, and the like in their songs. Smith and the rest of the band were forthright about their disdain and irritation toward straight, white, cis het bros—the societal norm—in the hardcore scene, which they (rightfully so) believed was meant to welcome “outsiders.” There was no apathy in their music or in their presence, intentionally seeking to re-create the violence and aggression typically experienced in their scene.
Across the country from G.L.O.S.S., in the weirdo underground music haven of Philadelphia, a queercore supergroup was born: the HIRS Collective, a reference to the “hirs” non-gendered pronoun, a lettered blend of his and hers. (And don’t worry, unlike in the case of, say, classic rockers forming a supergroup—like Mick Jagger, Joss Stone, Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, and A.R. Rahman, the Indian singer-composer of Slumdog Millionaire fame—this ain’t no SuperHeavy. HIRS rule.)
Since forming, they’ve had a rotating cast of participants throughout the years—obviously, it’s a collective—and collaborators, including founding member Jenna Pup (co-owner of Get Better Records), Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Garbage’s Shirley Manson, Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females, Sadie Smith (of the aforementioned G.L.O.S.S.), and Martin Sorrondeguy (remember him?) on HIRS tracks, specifically, on 2018’s Friends. Lovers. Favorites. Falling somewhere on the spectrum of grindcore, hardcore, and the obvious core, HIRS were and are as adamant about their message as ever. Like in the song "Outnumbered" and its lyrics: “We are gaining power in strength and in numbers/You’re outnumbered”—the “we” being the LGBTQIA+ members continually shunned, harassed, and abused in society; the “you” being the cis/hets who seek to keep them ostracized.
Those who can’t take the heat should get out of their kitchen, but news flash, the kitchen is everywhere. Queercore is not just a subgenre of punk, it is a microcosm of our world and a fight for equality. It’s about time those who haven’t accepted it or the people within it get with the program. Besides, there’s much more at stake.