2021 (PM Press)
The fascinating and rewarding oral history Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution reads less like a walk back through history than being shoved into the middle of a mosh pit. The book is more than just a complement to the 2017 film of the same name, directed by Yony Leyser; if that documentary film is the original LP, think of this Queercore book as the deluxe & expanded release, complete with bonus songs, rough tracks, demos, liner notes, and much more.
Most people in the public sphere perceive punk as a phenomenon worlds apart from the gay liberation movement as we know it today. It´s just a fashion statement from the ´70s, right: the mohawks, the jeans held together with safety pins, the profanity and the attitude? Further, folks think punk, as an artistic style, is limited only to music--to (predominantly white and heterosexual) bands like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Clash. However, as both the film and especially the book Queercore (edited by Leyser, Liam Warfield, and Walter Crasshole) emphasize repeatedly, since its origins in the ´60s punk has frequently been central to the creativity, politics, and identities comprising the LGBTQ+ community. Queercore is transgressive and disruptive, but also combustible, igniting the community while simultaneously being pushed to its fringes as gay politics goes mainstream. Rather than seeking to fit in and create a uniform platform of ideas, these punks live in the cracks between straight and (mainstream) gay, relishing instead their place as outsiders.
Queercore is dirty, dangerous, sexy, in your face. As a movement, it´s far, far left; their actions and principles often legitimize a more political center of the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. Working across multiple genres of style and expression, the punks interviewed in this book often disagree on the details, and sometimes have feuds over methodology and recognition. But generally, whether working in music and film or in literature, zines, and performance, their energy pulses with a kind of Marxist-feminist-queer-anarchy brew of rocket fuel. As a number of the people interviewed remind us over and over again, punk originally meant a boy who passively took cock up the ass. The art and activism of queercore contains that same immediacy and irreverence.
Such visceral etymology is vital towards beginning to understand the philosophy of this movement, if such a term is even appropriate to encompass the totality of a revolutionary yet chaotic international community of complicated, dynamic, and boundary-defying artists. Framed to examine the creative and political activities over a thirty year span beginning in 1969, the book opens with an introduction by Anna Joy Springer & Lynn Breedlove, setting the tone for what follows. Each chapter contains transcripts of conversations with various people within this scene, many of who are still creating and producing work today. Rather than stiff and formal, all of these subjects speak with their boots are up on the table, leaning back, not giving a shit. Unapologetically real, frequently fun, and often edgy, Queercore demonstrates that, far from being any sort of monolithic movement, punk and homocore have as many varying expressions as the people within the scene.
Chaotic, disparate, and delightfully idiosyncratic, queercore challenged mainstream understandings of identity, gender, and sexuality, whether within the gay or the straight communities. Intersecting with class and race, these individuals are the misfits, the non-binary individuals, the drag queens, the people that don´t fit in anywhere else, who found mainstream gay politics too boring and bourgeois. These are women who demand to be called dykes instead of lesbians, who want to listen to Kim Gordon and Tribe 8 instead of Melissa Etheridge. Rather than fight for marriage equality or have the right to join the military, the people of queercore wanted to shave their head, do sex work, and whatever they wanted. Rather than fit in with the dull mainstream, queercore sought to remain defiantly true to themselves.
As the book progresses, one can definitely see queercore´s influence on such essential groups as ACT UP and Queer Nation, as well as in the work of many artists who are continuing to make work today. Transgender cross-disciplinary artist Justin Vivian Bond will join actor/countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the live cabaret Only An Octave Apart at St. Ann´s Warehouse in New York this autumn, for example; Canadian live performer Peaches recently published her interview with The Talks; and one of Bruce LaBruce´s films will appear as part of a festival here in New York this month. As Warfield notes in his introduction, this book is not meant to be "definitive."
Or completely representative. Some may criticize a book about the queercore scene as echoing criticisms of the "straight" punk scene: that it´s overwhelmingly male, predominantly white. A lot of artists--from dance artist Ishmael Houston-Jones and writer/visual artist David Wojnarowicz to the theater collective Split Britches, and many others--are surprisingly absent from these pages. Plus, as Springer said recently during the (virtual) book launch organized by Bluestockings in New York, "punks are not just the artists onstage. It´s all of the people at the venues, talking with one another, working backstage. Many, many people are a part of this scene, all participating in different ways."
As Deke Nihilson remarks towards the end of the book, "Punk´s not dead, it just smells like it is". And in our digital era of tweets and posts--constantly seeking followers on our social media platforms--reading about how these brilliant misfits in Toronto and San Francisco created their own community with zines made on Xerox machines and handing out flyers to people on the street is refreshing and inspiring. More of this, please!