QUEER PUNK HISTORY: 1575 – PRESENT
By Nathan Leigh
June 22, 2020
“I went through a lot when I was a boy. They called me sissy, punk, freak…”
— Little Richard
The most reductive possible version of the story goes like this: On February 12th, 1976, a quartet of straight white boys called The Sex Pistols took the stage at The Marquee Club in London and with the first wail of feedback, punk rock was born. There’s just one problem. By 1976, the word “punk” had already been in common usage for 400 years. Punk rock had even already at that point been declared dead (for the first of at least a billion times) by a music critic in Ontario following a disappointing Alice Cooper show in 1972. For a literal century before John fucking Lydon gentrified punk rock, the word had denoted a thriving mess of contradictions, derisions, and rebellions. Long before Sid Vicious ever sneered into a microphone as part of an extraordinarily elaborate viral marketing campaign for Vivian Westwood’s clothing line, punk had been loud, Black, and queer.
“Punk” as a word has a long and storied history. First showing up as a reference to a sex worker in a 1575 song called “Simon The Old Kinge” (with an appropriately stripped down chord progression, but the least punk of all time signatures: 3/9), by 1899 it was appearing in print as a description of amateurishly performed music. By the mid 20th century, punk had, on one hand, evolved to be synonymous with the ever-problematic “thug,” while the general-purpose term for a sex worker of Shakespeare’s day had become very specific. Mezz Mezzrow, an unsuccessful white clarinetist but reasonably successful weed dealer from the 1930s who was obsessed with documenting slang in the jazz scene, defined it in the most awkwardly problematic possible language as a “young man who plays the feminine role in a homosexual relationship.”
If disco was the manifestation of post-Stonewall queer joy, glam rock was the righteous anger of the first thrown brick: still wearing heels, but not here to fuck around anymore. Queer men who filtered through a prison system which criminalized homosexuality emerged wearing “punk” as a badge of pride in New York and San Fransisco in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Presented with nihilistic camp, bands like The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, and The New York Dolls—all of whom had members intimately familiar with institutionalization—were among the first to be called punk-as-in-genre. Their gender-bent presentation and raw sound were the unified factors, presenting a version of rock that was free from the musical pretensions and relentless heteronormativity of the prog generation. The MC5 are often credited as the first band described as punk in a dismissive review of their debut record by the legendary Lester Bangs. The band was founded as something of a musical wing of the White Panther Party, a badly-named anti-racist organization inspired by Huey P. Netwon’s declaration that if white people wanted to help the revolution they should form a “white panther party.” It was of course a band called Death, however, inspired by The MC5 and The Stooges “Detroit straight-ahead rock & roll,” that were the first to perform punk in its fully-realized DIY-focused form.
But before all of them, was a man who inhabited punk in all its definitions. A queer, Black man, who played his music loud and fast and with a defiantly masterful un-polish. Little Richard set the stage for everything that punk would become while inhabiting every sense of the word with pride. John Waters once declared Little Richard “was the first punk.” Though he wasn’t called punk in the contemporary press, that’s only because the impolite professional journalism of Lester Bangs didn’t exist yet. You didn’t use those kinds of words in respectable magazines, or even acknowledge that queerness exists if you could help it. But by his own admission, the late great Mr. Penniman was called a “punk” derisively throughout his life.
It’s that transmutation from derision to embrace, and shame to pride that’s the heart of what it is to be queer. That same ownership of the elements that the larger society deems transgressive is the heart of punk. As it began to coalesce, the early punk scene was rich with gender and sexual expression, experimentation, and transgression. Pure Hell formed out of that proto-scene, their dyed hair and thick makeup like a drag caricature of high fashion, but with a sound harder and faster than most of the bands they inspired. The famous wave of ‘77 punk bands that followed in the wake of Pure Hell and their glam counterparts is probably best described as punk’s second wave. By any definition, punk had already been happening in name since The MC5’s debut in ‘69 and in spirit and sound since Little Richard’s first liberated holler pushed a microphone preamp into overdrive in 1947.
That legendary show at the Marquee that launched a thousand bands, wasn’t the genesis of anything. It was the moment at which the swirling cosmic dust of queer liberated rage, anti-racist revolution, and the democratization of music formed a planet through the inevitable force of gravity, all of which shared one word in common: punk. The Sex Pistols never invented or started anything. They merely figured out under the guidance of marketing mastermind MacLaren how to package the revolution that was already underway, and sell it to white teenagers. As is the nature of colonizers, they then claimed it hadn’t existed before they discovered it.
As the wave of ‘77 touched down, it kicked up smaller revolutions wherever it hit. This ripple is what many people think of when they think of the word “punk.” But while the straight white male bands may have gotten the press attention, they were far from the driving engine. The war for the soul of punk continues to be fought with toxic white machismo on one side, and those who see the energy of punk as the engine of their liberation on the other. Queer bands like The Bags, The Buzzcocks, and Nervous Gender each gave their own anthems of defiance 12 years before Pansy Division recorded a single note, but it took a Black intersex woman in LA to pioneer one of the most enduring aspects of punk culture, the DIY zine.
Vaginal Davis emerged as a singer in the early LA scene, choosing her name in tribute to Angela Davis. In those early days, it was a community largely dominated by queer women and people of color, before bands like Fear led the push to the more conservative stance LA’s scene is often known for. Her first band, The Afro Sisters’ music remains out of print, but her prolific zine making helped kick off a wave of queer zines that sustained during the macho hardcore era that dominated the ’80s. Self-printed and published, Davis’ Crude and later Fertile La Toyah Jackson Magazine were the blueprint for queer zines. They were eclectic, ephemeral, and unapologetically emotional. Her performances re-appropriated the drag conventions that had become a cornerstone of punk fashion, creating what would eventually be dubbed “terrorist drag.”
That new merging of punk and drag would go on to influence the most famous drag performer alive. RuPaul got started as a teenager with a public access punk show in Atlanta called The American Music Show before becoming the singer in Wee Wee Pole in the early ’80s. By 1985, RuPaul joined Vaginal Davis as a back-up singer with gay punk icon Glen Meadmore. Meadmore and Vag later formed Pedro, Muriel, and Esther, whose barely in print singles remain some of the high-water marks in the history of queer punk.
By 1991, the strains of queerness that struggled to occupy space in the often homophobic scene of the ’80s exploded into the queercore movement. Starting with a convergence in Chicago called SPEW, the new scene-within-a-scene sought to take back the heteronormative and often glibly fascistic forces that all but dominated punk at the time. Though like its classmates in Riot Grrrl, the forces of commercialization, commodification, and personality conflicts drove the movement to disperse as an organized force within a decade, its reverberations continue to be felt today. Elements of the sound, philosophy, and visual iconography are found in the askew aggression of bands like Aye Nako, the defiant playfulness of Danny Denial, and the liberated joy of Counterfeit Madison.
Though it’s tempting to call the current wave of Black queer punk acts a new phenomenon, it’s not new. It’s a renaissance. Punk has never not been queer. It’s just that some folks chose to very loudly pretend that wasn’t the case for a while, and we’re finally figuring out how to shout them down. During this moment of intersection between Pride, Black Music Month, and an international anti-racist uprising, it’s essential that we remember and celebrate that history louder than ever.