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TWO articles about Queers and the DC punk scene...

Discussion in 'Music, punk scene & subcultures' started by QueerPunk, Mar 9, 2011.

  1. QueerPunk

    QueerPunkExperienced Member Experienced member Forum Member




    Dec 29, 2009

    Music History: Why Doesn’t the D.C. Punk Scene Have a Bigger Queer Following? Part 1

    Submission by A.M. Bowen, TNG contributor

    In early 1989, two of the queer punk world’s most prominent voices asked a provocative question: Had both punk rock and the gay movement—reflections of similar ideals—failed?

    G.B. Jones, a lesbian, and Bruce LaBruce, a gay man, were authors the magazine J.D.’s, which they both described as “a gay soft-core pornography fanzine for punks.” “Gay” in this sense used as an inclusive term for the sexually subversive and gender-nonconforming. I’ll use queer throughout in a similar way. In a February 1989 issue of the punk periodical Maximumrockandroll (MRR), Jones and LaBruce noted they liked punk because it was, in their view, pretty much an extension of queerness: “a highly visible and disruptive subculture looking sexually deviant and seeming to behave that way.”

    The thrust of the MRR piece, though, was that both movements had, to varying degrees, been “co-opted” by “the dominant ideology,” with its heterosexuality and its machismo. Gay culture yielded to “a veiled misogyny,” while “subversive gay boys and girls” found punk—a “highly masculinized world”—unwelcoming.

    What the authors didn’t mention was that in Washington, DC, a revolution against this macho punk culture was already about four years old, and in about two years would help foster the feminist, queer-friendly movement known as Riot Grrrl.

    The people who enjoyed punk for its subversive, countercultural possibilities spearheaded the preeminent part of the D.C. punk scene. When skinheads and other violent, hyper masculine, hetero forces threatened punk’s sexual, gender, and racial inclusiveness in the 1980s, a powerful bloc of D.C.’s punk scene stood up for the rights of minorities, specifically queer people.

    I interviewed several people, from different eras of D.C.’s punk scene, to get an idea of the queer dimensions of D.C. punk’s over thirty-year-old story. While there were punk scenes around the United States that were more strongly identified with queer bands, (D.C. had relatively few compared to, say, the queer powerhouse cities of the Pacific Northwest) D.C.’s movers and shakers were astounding allies, standing up for queer rights while Lady Gaga was still just a glimmer in her parents’ eyes. Thus, I sought to answer the question: Why don’t the D.C. punks have a bigger queer following?

    harDCore and Its Discontents

    Ian MacKaye, co-founder of Dischord Records, and a member of many bands central to the scene—namely Minor Threat, Fugazi, and The Evens—went to his first punk show circa 1978, at the age of 16. Reflecting on his first punk experiences, he saw sexual subversion in the movement.

    MacKaye said, “When I first saw the punk scene here, people at shows, I thought, ‘These are all deviants,’ and what I mean by deviants is not a negative thing, but just rather they are deviating from normal ideas or conventional ideas of ways of living.” Among the punks MacKaye was first exposed to, he recalled, “There were obviously political radicals, and…it was a given that there were sexual radicals.”

    While MacKaye is not queer, he was raised to be comfortable with sexual radicals. His family went to St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., with a congregation that approved a same-sex “holy union” in 1976. It wasn’t legally a marriage and the actual ceremony was at the meeting place of Metropolitan Community Church, but St. Stephen’s blessed it all the same. There are also several gay people in MacKaye’s family.

    D.C. developed a notable punk scene in the late seventies and early eighties, when it became a bastion of hardcore punk—a harder, faster, louder take on punk. Unfortunately for queer people, the hardcore movement—or harDCore, as it came to be known locally—had some ugly elements.

    For starters, there was Bad Brains’ lead singer, HR. The band Bad Brains helped solidify the hardcore sound in the late seventies, but HR was notoriously homophobic. Then there were the after-effects of punk’s rising popularity, which attracted a scary crowd. In MacKaye’s view, media coverage depicted punks as “nihilistic and destructive.” As attention to punk grew, punks were viewed by some as “the other, the enemy,” which led to fights between punks and their detractors, according to MacKaye. “Furthermore,” said MacKaye, “People started to come into the punk scene who were violent and ugly because that’s who they thought they were supposed to be.” A subset of the scene — partially comprised of the often-Fascistic group subculture known as “skinheads” — engaged in anti-queer violence, attacking queer people in Dupont Circle, specifically the P Street Beach area, which was a popular cruising spot.

    As it developed, harDCore had a strongly masculine and heterosexual cast. D.C. had a prominent outlier band in the early eighties—Nuclear Crayons—whose guitarist was gay, and which played at Pride Day and other queer community events. However, MacKaye felt that in this early period, some people got involved in the D.C/ scene “who were really homophobic, and quite nationalist, and also quite racist.”


    “That era,” MacKaye said, speaking of the early 80s harDCore scene, “Really underscored for me the necessity of breaking away from those people and establishing…a new community…of more flexible thinking, more open ideas, and more acceptance to people’s decisions about how they want to live their lives.”

    One of MacKaye’s allies in his struggle to change the scene was Mark Andersen—another ally of the queer community, co-founder of the D.C. activism collective Positive Force, and co-author of a D.C. punk history called Dance of Days— who came to D.C. from Montana in 1984. Andersen cited, as early inspirations, punk artists like the transwoman Jayne County, and Tom Robinson, who sang “Glad To Be Gay.” “Back in the day when I would play ‘Glad To Be Gay’ for my peer group, it really freaked people out,” Andersen said. “And sometimes when people get freaked out, things recourse into violence.”

    He arrived when the Dischord Records crew began its revolt against the negative aspects of the punk scene. Positive Force started organizing shows for the Dischord bands in this period, and Andersen noted, “There were gay, lesbian, and bisexual members of Positive Force from the very beginning.” Positive Force put together a show in the mid-80s opposing anti-sodomy laws with the queer-inclusive bands Broken Siren (which included bisexual and lesbian members), and Bad Pieces, which included members of Nuclear Crayons.

    This mid-80s period also saw the formation of Fugazi, which from the late 80s through early 2000 would become one of the most respected bands in independent rock. Fugazi was also a great ally to the queer world. The band in its infancy played a show in support of the 1987 March on Washington. A few months later—as Andersen recounts in Dance of Days, and as can be seen in the Fugazi documentary Instrument—Fugazi played in a show in 1987 where it addressed the skinhead assault of a gay man at P Street Beach. MacKaye changed the lyrics of the song “Suggestion”—originally about sexual assault of women—to focus on the beating of gay men. While talking to the audience, MacKaye said, “[Y]ou do not beat up people for being gay, you do not beat up people for being black, you do not beat up people for being women.”

    As the 80s ended and the 90s began, the D.C. punk scene was dominated by bands that centered on Positive Force and Dischord Records. The skinheads were not entirely vanquished, but a decidedly more inclusive punk scene took hold, as expressed by the Dischord bands, another local punk label called Teenbeat, and scensters throughout the D.C. metropolitan area. That this scene was political and inclusive—if, at the time, still very male and white—created conditions that would help the area be a vital location for the Riot Grrrl movement.

    “Remember 1994, When Everybody was Queer?”

    Riot Grrrl was a feminist punk movement that sprouted up in 1991 and lasted, arguably, until about the mid-90s. Encompassing music, zines, meetings, conventions, and other forms of collective feminist action, Riot Grrrl started among musicians, activists, and writers in Olympia, Washington, and Washington, DC—and spread throughout the world. The early Riot Grrrl bands Bikini Kill and Bratmobile started in Olympia, but Bikini Kill moved to DC, and Bratmobile was based partly in DC. The Riot Grrrl name was coined in DC, and the first Riot Grrrl meeting took place at the Positive Force house in Arlington, VA.

    As Sara Marcus—participant in Riot Grrrl DC meetings, and author of the new book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution—emphasizes, the Riot Grrrl movement resisted labeling of sexuality, and its proponents embraced fluidity of sexuality. In an interview for this article, Marcus explained that Riot Grrrl “in both DC and Olympia had very strong participation from young women who identified as bi or queer.” That said, as to her own experiences in DC, she noted, “My specific friend group within the scene was queer-friendly, but in a way that was extremely comfortable with ambiguity, fluidity, resistance to fixed categories.”

    Hugh McElroy—who played in a band with Marcus, later played in the Dischord band Black Eyes, and currently runs his own label (Ruffian Records) and plays with the band Cephalopods—took part in the Riot Grrrl scene. He recalled that in the DC scene during the Riot Grrrl era, “[T]here was an explicitly feminist, explicitly queer take on punk that was current, and pretty vibrant.” McElroy recalled that when he was reminiscing with some friends earlier in the 00s, he and his friends joked, “Remember 1994, when everybody was queer?”

    McElroy qualified his statements, however, noting the scene back then was nevertheless “a small social group,” and that the queer character of the Riot Grrrl scene in the 90s “was still very much a thing that was available to or comfortable to or useful to or attractive to queer women than it was to men. It nonetheless did a lot to open up a space that was explicitly comfortable to a lot of queer people, regardless.”

    Katy Otto, who runs the record label Exotic Fever, and is one half of the group Trophy Wife, went to Riot Grrrl meetings as a teenager. Otto remembered the D.C. punk scene of her teenage years as an inclusive one. “I realized when I traveled out of the area that people weren’t always the most accepting,” Otto said, “and some punk subcultures are really just replicas of jock mentality and things that were painful to me in high school in the first place.”

  2. QueerPunk

    QueerPunkExperienced Member Experienced member Forum Member




    Dec 29, 2009

    Music History: Part 2: Why Doesn’t D.C.’s Punk Scene have a Bigger Queer Following?

    Submission by A.M. Bowen, TNG contributor

    A bunch of punk rockers in DC made a nearly ideal queer music scene–just not ideal enough for most queer people to take notice.

    The D.C. punk scene is less centered now than it was even ten years ago. Fugazi hasn’t played a show since 2002, and several other big bands broke up around that time. But it’s still worth considering the scene’s accomplishment: a lot of people, queer and not, worked very hard, and against some violent people, to make an inclusive space—something resembling the punk that Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones wrote about. The city’s scene nurtured the Riot Grrrl movement, which, as Sara Marcus argues, largely rejected pat identification of sexuality.

    Nevertheless, while the D.C. punk scene was open to queer people, it wasn’t particularly notable for its queer population or queer bands. Among the people interviewed for this article, a recurrent theme they spoke to was this lack of specific queer presence in the D.C. scene.

    With regard to the Riot Grrrl era, Sara Marcus said, “I didn’t have a sense of the DC punk scene writ large as being particularly queer at all—neither in the period I was writing about nor during the time that I was a teenager in the scene.” The Riot Grrrl DC scene was not the queerest of the Riot Grrrl scenes, Marcus noted. Furthermore, she recalled, “I can’t remember any punk bands during my time in DC that made a thing about being queer at all. I don’t remember…bands based in DC that were queer or even explicitly feminist (although I’m sure all the musicians involved did consider themselves feminists and queer-‘friendly’).”

    Jon Ginoli of the San Francisco-based band Pansy Division—itself part of a punk movement called “queercore”—looked upon the DC scene fondly. Ginoli recalled playing “a queer and queer-friendly rock show” with the Dischord band Circus Lupus before the 1993 March on Washington; he even referenced Fugazi’s album Repeater on the Pansy Division song “Smells Like Queer Spirit.” Ginoli said that the size of D.C. punk’s queer following “depends on if you slot Bratmobile and Bikini Kill as D.C. bands, or Olympia bands, cause they both had big queer followings.” When it came to Dischord, though, he said, “I’m not aware of any overtly queer bands on the label….”

    Hugh McElroy’s band Black Eyes was not exactly a “queer” band, but several of the band’s songs discussed queer issues. McElroy nevertheless echoed the notion that DC wasn’t exactly a Mecca of queer punks, relative to other cities. “I didn’t know a lot of queer punk dudes in D.C.,” he said, “But I had a lot of queer punk friends by mail in Vermont, and Tennessee, and New York, and Philadelphia.”

    Thus, there is the “no strong queer presence in the punk scene” theory, and then there’s the “mainstream queer people, especially gay male people, don’t like DC punk music” theory.

    Ryan Little, of the latter-day band Tereu Tereu, argues, “D.C. punk’s a niche, regardless of your sexual identification. So it’s not like it’s this big thing that other people get, because they don’t. I don’t think D.C. punk fits in with a lot of aesthetic preferences of gay culture. It’s not anywhere near the typical aesthetic preferences of queer culture. It’s not dancey, it’s really aggressive. It’s the opposite of glamorous or fabulous or whatever. It just doesn’t fit in with what’s mainstream in queer culture according to what’s idealized.”

    Thomas Redmond, of the extant band True Womanhood, echoes Little, in saying, ‘[O]ne of the unique things about D.C.’s take on [punk], was there was an anti-fun element to it for awhile. Any time I talk to people who are from New York or Philly, they’re like, ‘Oh man, D.C., you’re not allowed to move, you can’t dance.’

    “For some people, music is fun and recreational…. It’s not necessarily your reason to exist. For some people, they’re just like, ‘I want to have a good time and go out and dance, and I can’t do that at these shows.’”

    All of these theories make good sense, and they both tie in, in different ways, to the other prevalent theory among interviewees: that mainstream gay and lesbian cultures tend to be quite conservative, and given the reach of those cultures in Washington, DC, the vegetarian-to-vegan punks of Washington, DC have a huge barrier, if they’re to connect to masses of gays and lesbians.

    Perhaps the simplest formulation of the queer-punk divide in Washington, D.C. is a quote from Caroline Ely of the mid-80s band Broken Siren, found in Mark Andersen’s Dance of Days. Said Ely, “The dykes wouldn’t come out to see us because we were too punk—and the punks wouldn’t come out because we were too dykey.” This statement is, like all the others, rooted in one person’s experience at one point in time, but it speaks to an historical conservatism on behalf of some lesbian and gay people in the city.

    Ian MacKaye recalled that experiences of a friend spoke to a conservatism in the city in the early 90s: “I had a friend, a woman who moved here from the west coast, and she’s a gay punk rock person, and she said the gay scene here just was so straight it blew her mind. This was in the early 90s. The women were all government people, and everybody was, the lesbian world [had] no vegetarians. She just couldn’t believe it.”

    Hugh McElroy said, focusing on mainstream gay male culture of today, “There’s a political passivity to a lot of mainstream gay culture that doesn’t encourage the kind of active engagement with life” that punk does. He continued, “There are plenty of people who are all up into dancing to Junior Vasquez at Cobalt every Saturday night who are also deeply awesome members of the community who do cool shit. But that strand of gay culture doesn’t…engage with those questions at all. It’s not necessarily its job to, but…that cultural space doesn’t necessarily engage those things that are really important to me and a lot of people in the punk scene who identify with some aspects of it, growing your own food, being vegan, caring about prisoners’ rights, and a whole host of other shit that gay politics doesn’t speak to. Again, isn’t necessarily its job.”
  3. punkmar77

    punkmar77Experienced Member Staff Member Uploader Admin Team Experienced member




    Nov 13, 2009
     United States
    Great read QP thanks... \m/
  4. JesusCrust

    JesusCrustExperienced Member Experienced member Forum Member




    Apr 17, 2010
  5. DirtyRottenThrashPunk

    DirtyRottenThrashPunkExperienced Member Experienced member Forum Member




    Nov 11, 2010
    Hmm, interesting article...reminds me of another reason I like the Crust/Anarcho subculture a lot better then the Hardcore one :) (well the first part does the second part goes off on a different tangent)
  6. Carlos

    CarlosExperienced Member Experienced member Forum Member




    Jan 1, 2010
    +2 respect points to Ian Mackaye, Ive always known he was a smart guy.