11 LGBTQIA+ punk musicians who changed the genre forever
How Jayne County, the Screamers, Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks and more paved the path for Laura Jane Grace and Cher StrauberryJune 2, 2021
It stands to reason LGBTQIA+ culture informed, inspired and enmeshed with punk, down to the crossover with the ’70s glam scene that helped spawn it. After all, both worlds were essentially the Island of Misfit Toys, from the Rankin/Bass 1964 holiday special Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: a rebel culture for those whose ideas don’t fit in the mainstream, where your fellow outsiders accept you for who you are, rather than forcing you into a suit that was clearly not tailored for you. Perhaps you want to make hard guitar rock with lots of energy and an angry critique of “normalcy.” Maybe you wanna cut up your hair and your clothes into something ragged that looks beautiful to you. Maybe you recognized the oppressive character of norms surrounding gender and sexuality. Maybe you like doing all these things at once.
In the early ‘70s, San Francisco shock theater group the Cockettes performed loose, nearly amateurish musicals with titles such as Journey To The Center Of Uranus, featuring gay men wearing elaborate eye makeup, beards filled with glitter and costumes collaged from different sections of thrift stores. Classic John Waters star Divine guested with them on the latter spectacular. It’s unknown whether the New York Dolls witnessed the Cockettes’ act during the troupe’s 1971 Anderson Theater stint, but it is curious how they adopted similar sartorial elements. Andy Warhol and his collaborators, the transgender superstars Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling, walked out on opening night, unimpressed with the Cockettes’ deliberate lack of professionalism. Strange, considering a number of them had participated in a shocking theatrical production of their own: Andy Warhol’s Pork, especially Georgia-born playwright/performer Jayne County. When the entire cast uprooted for a London production, a pre-Ziggy Stardust David Bowie was in the audience, taking notes.
Back in the States, County wrote songs about being transgender for a new rock ‘n’ roll band; drummer Jerry Nolan would move on to the Dolls when original drummer Billy Murcia died of misadventure in London. Meanwhile, Cockettes Fayette Hauser and Tomata du Plenty had spun off their own drag cabaret group, Ze Whiz Kidz, in Seattle. In 1973, the duo brought their “guerrilla comedy” to NYC, performing at CBGB, among other venues. Upon returning to Seattle, they started a band, the Tupperwares, with a musician named Melba Toast. Among their fans were future Avengers vocalist Penelope Houston and Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx. County had meanwhile signed with Bowie manager Tony Defries, apparently so Mainman’s star act could borrow an idea or two. Across town, the nascent Ramones are practicing their first downstrokes; among their early songs is “53rd & 3rd,” bassist Dee Dee’s reminiscences of his time as a sex worker.
Obviously, this is where punk properly enters the picture. We already see the LGBTQIA+ strands being woven into the cloth. Here are 11 artists marking the intersection of the LGBTQIA+ and punk communities.
Like ex-Dolls Nolan and Johnny Thunders in the Heartbreakers, County exemplifies a glam luminary who transitioned into punk. She fronted the Backstreet Boys—featuring future Richard Hell And The Voidoids/Ramones drummer Marc “Marky Ramone” Bell—in full drag, performing material such as “Fucked By The Devil.” She was also an in-house DJ at Max’s Kansas City. Once the Heartbreakers become darlings of the London punk scene after coming over to open the Sex Pistols’ 1976 Anarchy tour, their manager Leee Black Childers summoned County. Bringing Backstreet Boys guitarist Greg Van Cook with her, they formed the Electric Chairs with English musicians. The group created a sensation, County ferociously snarling ‘50s-rock-meets-punk material such as “(If You Don’t Wanna Fuck Me, Baby) Fuck Off!!” and “Man Enough To Be A Woman.” By 1979, Jayne began to publicly identify as transgender, making her rock’s first trans performer. She’s still active as a solo artist to this day.
Key Tupperwares du Plenty and Toast relocated to Los Angeles in 1975, recreating the band as the Screamers. Toast morphed into Tommy Gear, manhandling an ARP Odyssey synthesizer, as du Plenty spazzed away up front, rasping out dangerous songs such as “122 Hours Of Fear.” KK Barrett abused a standard drum set, and David Brown (followed by Paul Roessler) distorted an electric piano through a Big Muff fuzz pedal. Behold Los Angeles’ first electro-punk outfit—guitars be damned! Dressed in electro-shock hair and stylized rags, Screamers kicked up an instant commotion in the early days of L.A. punk. Part of their aesthetic was du Plenty and Gear’s openly gay personae—the singer perhaps more camp than the keyboardist’s more foreboding S&M mien. They never released a proper record, holding for a label to fund the world’s first videodisc album. They still opened the door for a wave of queer-informed electropunk bands on the West Coast, including Nervous Gender, featuring future “All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger” Phranc. Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra took plenty of notes watching du Plenty writhe across the stage, too.
Britpunk had its share of gay representation. Most outrageous was the Raped: Paddy Phield, who later reformed successor group Cuddly ToyZ; singer Sean Purcell, a very camp remix of Billy Idol; guitarist Faebhean Kwest, who boasted of unsuccessfully auditioning for the Sex Pistols; and bassist Tony Baggett. The sense of danger was palpable, as Purcell sneered lyrics such as “My baby’s got a hard-on for me.” Then there’s the Tom Robinson Band, whose proudly queer leader penned the “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud” of the gay world in “Glad To Be Gay.” But the most prominent LGBTQIA+ member of English punk’s first wave was Buzzcocks chief Pete Shelley. The author of all those achingly unrequited love songs, such as “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?),” was bisexual. Hence the innovation of writing in a gender-neutral fashion, thus rendering those bruised-romance pop songs universal. Shelley launched his solo career in 1981 with “Homosapien,” an electro-pop paen to queerness and love.
Biscuit and Gary Floyd
Big Boys – “We Got Your Money” (live, 1983):
The Dicks – “Kill From The Heart” (live, 1982)
Early ‘80s hardcore was such a haven for toxic heteronormative masculinity that most of its gay adherents remained in the closet. All these jocks who shaved their heads and beat each other up while running around in circles at the Starwood would’ve had gray matter projectile spewing from their ears had they known Germs auto-destruction merchant Darby Crash was gay—a factoid kept well hidden until two decades after his death. Neither Bob Mould nor Grant Hart were widely known to be gay until years past Hüsker Dü’s 1987 breakup. Austin, Texas’ early ‘80s punk scene was an exception. The two biggest bands were the Big Boys and the Dicks. Both were fronted by burly, proudly and loudly gay Randy “Biscuit” Turner (Big Boys) and Gary Floyd (Dicks). Both were sweethearts…but you seriously did not want to fuck with them. Biscuit was more camp and fun-loving but capable of hurling a building block through a bullying fratboy’s windshield. Floyd was more menacing onstage and also had even surlier bandmates who looked like hungover convicts on the lam from the law. Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye claimed in liner notes to the Big Boys’ The Skinny Elvis compilation that the D.C. straight edgers were terrified of the Dicks when they shared a bill once. Hence, Austin punk/hardcore had better be more accepting of LGBTQIA+ culture. Otherwise, you might get a mic stand upside the head!
Enter queercore with Tribe 8 and Pansy Division
As the ‘80s progressed, much began changing as far as LGBTQIA+ norms in the punk world. U.K. anarcho-punks the Apostles were fronted by the openly gay Andy Martin, while political hardcore outfits such as MDC inserted anti-homophobic messages into their songs. Then two Toronto-based gay anarcho-punks, G.B. Jones and Bruce LaBruce, launched the ‘zine J.D.s in 1985. “J.D.s is seen by many to be the catalyst that pushed the queercore scene into existence,” Amy Spencer wrote in her 2005 study, DIY: The Rise Of Lo-Fi Culture. Applying anarcho-punk ethics to gay politics, Jones and LaBruce proselytized—via J.D.s and a 1985 manifesto in Maximum RocknRoll fanzine, “Don’t Be Gay”—for a queer-centric punk movement, smashing gay and lesbian orthodoxy, not just the mainstream hetero world’s prejudices. This gave rise to a string of similarly militant queercore ‘zines, including Outpunk, Donna Dresch’s Chainsaw and L.A. genderqueer performance artist Vaginal Davis’ Shrimp. Soon there was an entire scene’s worth of queercore bands going into the ‘90s. Among the best was San Francisco’s Pansy Division—essentially what the Buzzcocks would have been like if Shelley and crew had all been gay and all of their songs had been as explicitly queer-centric as “Homosapien.” Then there was the (literally) fire-breathing lesbianism of Tribe 8, fronted by Amazonian singer Lynn Breedlove, notorious for performing in a strap-on dildo that she wasn’t afraid to use on particularly toxically masculine audience members. One positive byproduct of queercore was riot grrrl, the militant gay politics of ‘zines like J.D.s helping inspire grrrl power’s radical punk feminism.
Beth Ditto and Hunx And His Punx
Gossip – “Heavy Cross”
Hunx & His Punx – “Teardrops On My Telephone”
Queercore spread exponentially come the turn of the century, with a rash of club nights (such as “The Freak Show,” hosted monthly in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood at leather bar The Gauntlet) and festivals (such as Olympia, Washington’s Homo-A-Gogo) sprouting across North America and Europe. Then Portland-based post-punk revivalists Gossip became a late ‘00s sensation in the U.K. via singer Beth Ditto, an outspoken lesbian who wails like Etta James. Her posing nude on the NME’s cover was a seismic eruption for both body positivism and lesbianism. Concurrently, San Francisco’s Hunx And His Punx evolved out of aggressively queer electro-pop act Gravy Train!!!!, marrying the high ‘60s drama of the Shangri-Las to vicious punk guitars, slathering singer Seth “Hunx” Bogart’s uber-campiness atop of the retro sonics.
Laura Jane Grace and Cher Strauberry
Against Me! – “Black Me Out”:
Twompsax – “Gemini”:
The ‘2010s into the 2020s seem to be the decades of trans punk—the grandchildren of Jayne County blossoming and grabbing guitars and mics. It began when Laura Jane Grace, the leader of millennial Clash-punks Against Me! came out in a May 2012 Rolling Stone profile. Her 2016 autobiography, Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, could be a manifesto for all those applying punk’s penchant for identity reinvention to their gender. Then over the last two years, Cher Strauberry, the East Bay skater, ‘zinester, and garage-punk musician—known for making twee, homemade, lo-fi punk in such bands as Pookie & the Poodlez, Evil Twins and Twompsax—emerged onto the scene. She’s now “low-key internet famous” as the world’s first mainstream transgender pro-skater. Her first signature deck is in the Smithsonian, and her solo debut, Chering Is Caring, drops June 18 on Black Crowes vocalist Chris Robinson’s Silver Arrow Records. Grace even wrote Strauberry’s artist bio for Shore Fire Media’s webpage. “Now that we’ve put this hole in the wall,” Strauberry says in a recent, brief video documentary produced by Vans, “there will be trans girls and boys and whoever who will skate better than us, be more confident in themselves, be more outspoken, who will just know more than we knew. And they’ll fuckin’ take the reigns, and I can’t fuckin’ wait.”