Whether you buy into the schmaltzy notion that punk rock is an “attitude” or ascribe to the more pragmatic conclusion that it is nothing more than just a music genre and subculture, the fact remains that progressive politics have predominantly been at its helm since its ascension in the 1970s.
Even then, being a punk musician did not shield members of the LGBTQ+ community from societal stigmas, even in their own social circles. While it's true that punk subcultures were generally more humane toward queer people, punks who labeled themselves as such still put a target on their backs by doing so and made a hell of a statement in being who they are.
The subculture surrounding punk music isn’t perfect, but strides have been made to give queer people a strong voice in it. Here are just 10 of many bands to thank for that.
British stalwarts the Buzzcocks were one of the first punk bands to sign to a major label, and “Orgasm Addict,” a song about sex addiction, was the first single they released on United Artists.
The following year, the same label released another one of the band’s singles, “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve),” which more boldly alluded to the late Pete Shelley’s bisexuality and has since been described by BBC as a “pansexual punk anthem.”
And not to relitigate old wounds, but BBC also reportedly banned Shelley’s solo single “Homosapien" in 1981 for its blatant references to gay sex.
Nervous Gender formed in Los Angeles in 1978 after founding member Edward Stapleton listened to electronic punk bands like Suicide and The Screamers and asked then-fresh city transplant Phranc (born Susan Gottlieb) to join. The latter’s androgyny defined the band’s image as they played punk and industrial shows in L.A., but Phranc departed from the band two years later.
Nervous Gender is just one short chapter of Phranc’s prolific career, but it was with this cacophonous outfit that she honed her stage persona and became one of punk music’s earliest open lesbians.
Along with Big Boys, The Dicks were one of Austin’s flagship punk bands in the 1980s and one of the few contenders in the genre with an openly gay vocalist. In The Dicks’ case, vocalist Gary Floyd achieved a reputation as a “Texas punk mad man” with more flamboyance but equal tenacity as Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers, Bobby Soxx of Stick Men With Ray Guns and David Yow of Scratch Acid and Jesus Lizard.
Of course, queer artists don’t have to appease stereotypes by singing about promiscuity, but Floyd still saw fit to do so on songs such as “Saturday Night at the Bookstore,” which is about an anonymous hookup at a bookstore glory hole. In the live recording, you can hear the audience reacting to the lyrics with hostility.
Although they lasted only four years, Los Angeles outfit The Bags stand as one of punk music’s seminal LGBTQ+ acts. After their breakup in 1981, vocalist Alice Bag played in other bands such as Castration Squad (which, to go full circle, included Phranc in its member rotation) and continues to release solo material.
Bag was also one of the earliest Mexican American women to be part of the then-burgeoning punk scene. The ban joins the likes of Black Flag, the Germs and Fear as a pioneering punk band out of Los Angeles.
Pansy Division still owes much of its name recognition to the fact that they opened for Green Day on their 1994 Dookie tour. The band members, all openly gay, specifically sought to counteract stereotypes, but that didn’t stop their sexual orientation from being a hot-button issue in the music community.
“To make a statement about what kind of people they were, Green Day selected us to be their opening act in the year they went from playing clubs to headlining arenas,” wrote Pansy Division vocalist Jon Ginoli in his memoir Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division. “We had things thrown at us, people yelled abuse at us and gave us more middle fingers than you could count. (Green Day was getting pelted with things, too — it was just a wild, enthused, crazed crowd.) Despite the boos, a good portion of the crowd did get into it. And we noticed that girls seemed to be much more accepting than boys, so we tailored our between-song stage patter to reach them. Our bassist/vocalist Chris Freeman used to point out, ‘Girls, most men are assholes.’ (This would induce a huge, high-pitched roar.) ‘We have to date them, too!’”
The band also did a cover of Pete Shelley’s “Homosapien.”
In 2015, Advocate ran a feature titled “Carrie Brownstein Doesn’t Want to Be Defined by Her Queerness,” so in the interest of honoring that, we’ll just beseech you to listen to Dig Me Out if you only know the Sleater-Kinney vocalist for her work in Portlandia.
Even before the pandemic, Philadelphia band Limp Wrist seldom ever played live. The band's members all relocated to different parts of the country and focused on different endeavors. Even with this distance, the hardcore band belted out a fierce record in 2017 called Façade, which finds vocalist Martin Sorrondeguy tackling issues facing the LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities.
Against Me! vocalist Laura Jane Grace publicly came out as a trans woman in 2012, right as her band was working on a follow-up record from 2010’s White Crosses. The result was the 2014 LP Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which stands out as one of Against Me!’s most acclaimed albums since their 2002 magnum opus, Reinventing Axl Rose.
Since Grace’s transition, Against Me! has released empowerment anthems such as “True Trans Soul Rebel” and songs expressing insecurity and dysphoria such as “Delicate, Petite and Other Things I’ll Never Be.”
Hunx and His Punx
We haven’t seen much of California-based queer punk outfit Hunx and His Punx since bassist Shannon Shaw became more focused on Shannon and the Clams and vocalist Seth Bogart channeled his creative energy to visual art and fashion design. That’s a damn shame, too. Most of the band’s contemporaries and Hardly Art labelmates serve as relics of the indiesphere’s weird fixation on surfy garage rock in the early 2010s (looking at you, Burger Records), but records such as 2011’s Too Young to Be in Love have remained evergreen.
During G.L.O.S.S.’s two-year run in the mid-2010s, the 2016 EP Trans Day of Revenge saw the band members living up to the “Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit” acronym with songs that scathingly call out a deeply penetrative culture of violence and hatred against trans people. Fittingly, the extended play was released one day after the Orlando nightclub shooting.
The Olympia-based hardcore band broke up months after the EP’s release but still reached a level of hype that prompted Epitaph Records to offer them a deal.