What's So Funny 'Bout Punk, Love, and Understanding?
'Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band'
It's director Michael Carmona's 25th birthday, and he's chosen to spend part of it with me, talking on the phone about a band a couple of decades his senior. His doc, Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band, chronicles the life and times of the country's longest-running queercore band (15 years and counting) – purveyors of gay-identified rock influenced by the performance-driven activism of groups such as ACT UP and Queer Nation and the DIY feminism of riot grrrl – from its 1991 inception playing for 30-odd people through its zenith, opening for Lookout! labelmate Green Day on its Dookie tour, and back again.
"The first time I heard of them," says Carmona, "I couldn't have been more than 11 years old. ... I don't think I even knew what 'gay' meant."
Carmona met Pansy Division bassist Chris Freeman (who co-produced and edited the film) at Columbia College Hollywood, where Freeman was a financial aid officer. After Freeman mentioned his band (founded and led by guitarist/vocalist Jon Ginoli), "It started coming back to me, and then I took a look at everything they had done," says the director. "I [thought]: 'This is important. This should be made into a movie.'"
In some ways, it's a boilerplate Nineties story: Band cultivates small regional following, tours with breakout indie-label pals, quadruples sales, and records album with Steve Albini, which fails to be promoted properly because label has been sold to kids who don't get it; band returns to relentless touring and, eventually, day jobs. Along the way there are 12 drummers, a semisecret solo by Metallica's Kirk Hammett, a round of "Breaking the Law" with Rob Halford at San Diego Pride, and an MTV News segment in which Kurt Loder pronounces them "delightfully poppy" and stiffly parses the "homocore" movement.
The similarities to any number of bands that floated through Nirvana's backwash end there. Pansy Division staked its identity on being unapologetically both punk and gay, confronting and affirming with songs and lyrics such as "Fem in a Black Leather Jacket," "We're the buttfuckers of rock & roll," and tribute number "For Those About to Suck Cock." It's an identity they notched down not a whit when fame came calling, the band having the "brass balls," as current label Alternative Tentacles' Jesse Townley puts it in the movie, to flaunt it in front of the "tens of thousands of douche bags in front of [them] ... going, 'Faggot! Faggot!'" who were increasingly becoming Green Day's audience, despite the more popular band's steadfast championing. "It's the single best thing that could have happened to queercore," says Outpunk label head Matt Wobensmith in the movie. "We were trying to redefine what 'queer' was."
Ironically, the band has always found more of a following in straight punk circles than among gay men. "To this day, we'll play a Gay Pride event, and we'll realize that most of the people will be in the beer tent listening to the Village People," says Freeman in a phone interview.
Nevertheless, one of the last queercore bands standing is coming out of a five-year hiatus with the film, a new album and tour, and Ginoli's band autobiography. By dint of stubbornness and courage, they've stayed true to Ginoli's vision, informed in part by seeing Austin folk-rock lesbian legends Two Nice Girls in the 1980s: "Those were the things he said he wanted to do [with a band]: to be fun, to be inspirational to people, to be joyous, and to have some information content." So far, they're four for four.
Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band screens Friday, Sept. 5, at 5:30pm.