Discover more from radical love letters
when queer punks gather.
radical love letters | on queercore history & remembering our dead
Hey folks, it’s been a busy work week and an intense life week, so you’re getting what should’ve been a Monday essay on Friday. The usual Friday note (with the Reading/Watching/Listening links) will resume next week. Thanks for understanding. As for what you’re about to read: content note for gun violence and death.
Two weeks ago at a backyard punk show at a Minneapolis space called Nudieland two men opened fire into the crowd, injuring many and killing one. I heard the news the way most of us hear about mass shootings— on the internet— but this time it was first-hand reports from some friends of mine who live there, people using Instagram stories to say they were safe but not okay, and eventually links to support the victims. I didn’t know August, the 35 year-old who died there, but everytime their photo was shared, my body responded like I did. They were a punk, and they looked like one, with piercings and tattoos and a weird haircut, and a really cute, sweet face to boot. The looked like the kind of person I’d see on the street and feel affinity with right away, and wish for a second that I dressed more crusty so as to be more recognizable as also a punk, but would try to give them a little nod anyway, and even if they didn’t see me back, I’d still feel warm the way I do, I’d still feel my heart sing, “aww, punks are so great.”
I’m sad but not surprised to share that the first-hand accounts from people who were at Nudieland reveal that the shooting was inarguably an example of anti-queer violence. Apparently the men had been hitting on two queer women who turned down their advances; they returned angry and began shooting into the crowd of joyful queerdos. I don’t want to say more about August because I didn’t know them and there are plenty of people whose grief deserves more space than mine. I will say that I feel like I love this person the way you end up loving people at punk shows at that point in the night where everyone is singing along and the world feels like it belongs to us, and I will say that I am gutted that they are gone.
What I can say more about is the space of the DIY punk show, especially the kind of DIY punk show that is part of a queercore lineage. The Minneapolis scene—and probably the majority of DIY punk scenes these days—is a particular iteration of punk that has its roots in a scene that emerged in the 1980s at the intersections and on the fringes of the gay movement and the punk movement. “It was dykes and fags and transgender people together and everyone already fighting against not only the bourgeoisie within the gay orthodoxy but against the macho punks who weren’t as radical as they claimed to be,” says Bruce LaBruce in the documentary Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution. The gay liberation movement began with deviant freaks, of course, but the push toward assimilation came fast. Queercore was a rebellion against the turn towards homonormativity, taking political cues from anarchism and inspiration from the Situationists. LaBruce’s explanation of how queercore became a movement is a definitional example of the anarchist concept of prefiguration: “Our strategy was to pretend that Toronto had a full fledged gay punk scene already happening.” All power to the imagination, says Situationist graffiti. “Revolutionary action…is the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free,” says late anarchist thinker David Graeber.
My first introduction to punk was not particularly queer— back then the scene in Cleveland was certainly inclusive of queer people, but the music was cis-straight-dude-heavy and although Left politics were salient, they were rarely fabulous. I got little tastes of queer and feminist contributions to punk through bands like Le Tigre and Gossip (both showed up on the Life Changing Mix Tape that my older, effeminate punk rock boyfriend made for me my junior year of high school, which I’ve written about before), but I had a pretty siloed understanding of the cultures. I knew theater gays and club gays, and I knew punks, and I felt a pull towards both, but I didn’t know there was a world at the crossroads that would feel the most like home.
That changed when I got to Chicago in 2003 (exactly 20 years ago this week, and yes I have been feeling intensely nostalgic and reflective about this anniversary). Shortly after my arrival I joined an anti-war group of anarchists and communists, some of whom were punks, some of whom were queer, and a few who would be the key to the world of DIY spaces that exuded the homocore ethos. Soon enough I was in living rooms, backyards, and basements with queer punks whose uniform was similar to the straight punk scene I came from but just a little showier, a little more gender-fucky, and with a lot more spectacle in the air. But maybe most importantly, it allowed for a spaciousness that meant it was okay if you weren’t in the uniform. It was in the space of queer, DIY punk that I felt my femmeness emerge most. Even if most of the room was in ratty denim vests with Crass patches sewn on the back, I could show up in high heels and a vintage dress and not be looked at weird! And the spaciousness extended beyond fashion: to be part of the queer punk scene you didn’t necessarily have to be, like, sexually gay, nor did you necessarily need to like capital-P punk. One of the most queer punk evenings I remember was at a living room show where Kimya Dawson played; Dawson’s music is tender folk, not hardcore punk, and the show was attended by people of various sexualities and genders, but the vibe of the night was pure queercore. It was a veg potluck, zines were everywhere, the people who lived at the collective house were actively organizing against the war. Queercore is about music and sexuality, sure, but the place the mycelium connects is, ultimately, in radical ideology and an insistence on creating culture (punk music and its many related artifacts and genres) around it.
DIY spaces also have the opportunity to do the powerful work of dismantling spatial and interpersonal hierarchies. “The emergence of the house as a DIY venue explicitly and implicitly challenges conceptions of the home as cut off from public life. Houses are transformed from somewhat isolated private spheres to pseudo-public spaces when punks decide to host shows in their homes,” writes Daniel Makagon in his book Underground: The Subterranean Culture of DIY Punk Shows. Hosting music at a house rather than a concert hall usually means there is no stage, which also acts as a spatial affront to traditional musician/fan hierarchies. Instead, the audience is literally on the same level as the musicians, and everyone hangs out in the same crowd between sets. There are problems that can arise because of this — these spaces are often overwhelmingly white, they can be clique-y, sometimes houses are not accessible, sober people may feel alienated, and so on— but punks don’t shy away from these kinds of criticisms. In anarchist/queer/feminist spaces, there is (or should be) a constant commitment to interrogating the way domination and oppression show up in our interpersonal lives and communities, and working to undo it.
Confronting problematic in-group dynamics is an integral part of queercore lineage, which burgeoned alongside splits in the fight against AIDS. ACT UP, Queer Nation, and other more informal organizations knew that the struggle against state-sanctioned homophobic mass death could not be won through assimilationist pleas. The spirit of early gay liberationists at Stonewall and the Compton Cafeteria riot was revived in the late 80s and 90s by the radical political and cultural rebellion of queercore.
In the aforementioned documentary, Silas Howard (film and television director and former member of the punk band Tribe 8) remembers seeing a contingent of queer punks in the 1989 Pride parade in San Francisco who had painted a truck to look like a cop car and adhered a papier maché high heel on top of it. Howard, who was young and trying to find his place in the LGBT movement, recalls the punks beating the mock car with baseball bats, “and I was just like, ‘yes!’” he says. Queer performer Justin Vivian Bond was also there when they were young and remembers the same contingent, but recalls the smashing as taking place with high heels. (In the documentary, Howard shares a sweet chuckle over his butch memory of the events, and Bond’s femme one.) “It was a life-changing day,” Bond says of the parade that gave them community. “It was like falling in love,” Howard concludes.
That’s how it feels to find your people; queer community is always already a romantic kind of belonging. And when you add radical politics and DIY culture, it becomes a potent display of what José Muñoz describes as “queer worldmaking.” Queercore culture was and continues to be, to borrow Muñoz’s words, a “warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality”; it is the “longing that propels us onward.” Different realities bloom when queer punks gather in a space and show up in ways that mainstream society tells us we can’t. We are being realistic; we are doing the impossible (living outside of binaries, nurturing community, sharing, making ‘bad’ art, being weird, articulating modes of being that don’t rely on markets or domination…).
To be entirely honest, I never felt like I was capable of living this ethos 24/7, especially as I got older. But that’s one reason the space of the show is so powerful; the majority of us have to be in the world the way the normative world demands, and shows like the ones at Nudieland give us those temporary autonomous zones that keep us believing. When the normative, oppressive, violent world invades those spaces, it is an attack on our version of the sacred. And when any punk is lost, our whole community feels the heavy weight of their now-hollow space in it.
Not all punks will like this comparison, but I’ve said before of queer punk spaces that I feel the thing that Christians describe about Jesus: wherever two or more are gathered in his name, the Holy Spirit will be there. This is a version of what happens in DIY/queer/punk spaces like Nudieland and so many others. We gather, we laugh, we flirt, we dance, we sing, and through that we conjure—the spirits of our gay liberation ancestors who threw bricks, the spirits of past elders who knew it was the state (and not their desire) that caused the AIDS crisis, and, devastatingly, the spirits of our contemporaries who we lose to depression, to queer- and transphobia, to prison, to our necro-capitalist medical system. This recent tragedy has shaken the queer punk community, especially in Minneapolis, but I know there is a commitment to keep going. Queer punks will keep convening — at the mic, in the pit, for the meeting — and we will bring our ghosts with us.