Pansy Division's Punk Beat Smashes Gay Stereotype

The gays and lesbians fighting for equal rights have a lot going for their movement. There's the whole tide-of-history thing, of course, our deeply rooted inclination toward inclusion of those different from us that makes America great. But there's also anger; the passage of California's anti–gay marriage Proposition 8 has galvanized the gay community in a way not seen since the death of Matthew Shepard, and a little righteous fury is key to any civil-rights movement. But there's an important thing missing: an appropriate soundtrack. (Story continued below...)

The stereotype is that gay men's music tastes favor pop divas and show tunes, while lesbians dig sensitive folk, and to let Jon Ginoli tell it, that stereotype is truer than it is false. That's why, in 1991, Ginoli founded Pansy Division, an out-and-proud punk-rock band. Pansy Division's sound was influenced heavily by '70s-era punk bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Like those groups, Pansy Division keeps the songs short, sweet and snotty. And after taking a six-year break to work day jobs—homocentric rock music isn't exactly reaping a windfall—the band has returned with "That's So Gay," its seventh album. And not a moment too soon—"Gay" is a catchy call to arms for the gays and lesbians who say they want a revolution while their iPods tell a different story.

Pansy Division emerged as the best known of the gay punk bands that made up the queercore movement of the early '90s. A cadre of groups, Team Dresch and God Is My Co-Pilot among them, built a passionate cult of gay kids who needed to hear lyrics that empowered them. But unlike their predecessors, Pansy Division was introduced to mainstream audiences when, in 1994, Green Day selected them as the opening act for a national tour. "The reception was definitely mixed to say the least," says Ginoli, who has written a memoir of his experiences to coincide with the CD and documentary. "Some of the straight kids couldn't stand us, but some of them really loved us, but that's what we expected. It changed the makeup of our audiences for a long time." These days, he says, the audiences skew older and gayer, but that's fine, because the choir is in the mood to be preached to.

Music fuels revolutions, and is typically their most enduring cultural artifact. It's hard to imagine the black-power movement without James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, or the Vietnam War opposition without Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Protest music has to be pointed, confrontational and unapologetic. But the voices likely to deliver those messages for the gay community are few these days. Most of the bands that cropped up when Pansy Division did are missing in action, having stopped touring and recording, or having broken up completely. A new Team Dresch album, rumored to come out last year, still hasn't materialized. "That's So Gay" should fill the gap. It features songs like the title track, which addresses the use of the word "gay" as an umbrella epithet, a trend that has seen startling popularity among 13-year-olds of all ages. The band isn't humbly requesting tolerance on the track, they're demanding it: "I heard what you said, just a figure of speech/If you meant nothing by it, practice what you preach/ The next time you say it, you'd better think twice/Some pissed-off faggot may not take it too nice." "I got tired of hearing young people throw that phrase around," Ginoli says. "I felt like it was a threat that needed to be answered. It's a funny song, but an angry song." They're here, they sneer, get used to it.

But despite the tough talk, Ginoli believes that the well-worn tradition of non-violent protest is the way to go for acceptance of gays and lesbians, just as it was for African-Americans and women before them. But Pansy Division's music provides a constructive outlet for the frustration and rage that the band's audience has over being denied its rights. When the group's tour launches in June, fans will be able to come to the shows, dance until they're sweaty, then take that enthusiasm and energy and use it to get involved. Recent victories for gay-marriage advocates in Iowa, Vermont and Washington, D.C., show the changes that a fired-up constituency can help enact. "It's a pivotal time for the gay community," Ginoli says, "and it would be incredible if our music could play a part in that progress."

There's been equal progress in the band's own diversity. After its early years of being rigid about keeping the band all gay, it has since welcomed a new guitarist, Joel Reader, the first heterosexual member to join the band. "On a lot of college campuses now, the gay organization is called the Gay-Straight Alliance," Ginoli says. "It's much less an us-versus-them thing than it used to be. So I'm not worried that we'll lose our gay cred." Far be it from anyone to suggest Pansy Division isn't gay enough.