What the Fuck is QUEERCORE?

OR, BRUCE LA BRUCE: PUTTING THE ‘GAY’ BACK IN ‘PUNK’ AND THE ‘PUNK’ BACK IN ‘GAY’ SINCE 1985

The fictional Bruce LaBruce

Hustler White is the 3rd feature-length film by Bruce LaBruce, which follows 1993’s No Skin Off My Ass and Super 8½ which came out in 1994. It was co-directed with photographer Rick Castro and released in 1996 and features LaBruce in the role of Jurgen Anger. When it was released, the Sunday Mail called it “Disgusting, sick, filthy, pornographic, and scary” which of course LaBruce was delighted about and used this quote to promote the film. But apart from reactionary newspapers Hustler White was actually pretty well received. Reviewers picked up on its use of gay iconography, for instance: the way it deploys and subverts the visual vocabulary of Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Douglas Sirk… Sight and Sound’s Jose Arroyo said: “Hustler White communicates roughly and honestly, through trash culture with a camp inflection, but with no less complexity.”

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With the release of Hustler White in ‘96 and his autobiography, The Reluctant Pornographer, in ‘97, Bruce LaBruce secured his reputation as a leading young queer filmmaker and, as evidenced by his most recent film, The Misandrists (which was screened by Eyes Wide Open), 20 years later Bruce LaBruce is still making gleefully transgressive films that mock mainstream values and are wilfully anti-establishment.

Quite an impressive achievement – especially considering the fact that Bruce LaBruce began life as a fictional character.

He was invented by two young queer friends from Toronto in 1985. As they would later recall, Bruce LaBruce was a kind of idealisation – a figure that combined queer sexuality and punk rock and he was created in the pages of their zine as a kind of poster-child for a movement that didn’t yet exist: that movement was QUEERCORE.

Fifth Column and the birth of queercore

In the early 1980s, a band called Fifth Column was blowing up the Toronto music scene. Post-punk, mostly queer, and all female, the band would later get a kind of recognition (but if you ask me, not nearly enough) as one of the main inspirations behind Riot Grrrl, the famous grassroots feminist rock and zine scene that come to prominence in the 90s led by bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater Kinney, and Huggy Bear.

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Fifth Column’s first album released in 1985 was entitled To Sir With Hate, their most famous track was “All Women Are Bitches”, and when asked by a TV presenter in 1982 if they were feminists, responded that they were in fact, “dykes from Transylvania”. The band was made up of a rotating cast but most regularly featured Caroline Azar, Beverley Breckenridge, and Gloria Jones – all young Toronto-based artists and filmmakers who supported each other, collaborated, and performed in each other’s films.

Jones had a shitty day job at a restaurant called Just Desserts where she worked with a gay guy named Bryan Bruce, who Caroline Azar described as “a wild crazy guy that had hair like John Sex.” (Apparently Henry Rollins of Black Flag and Ian Mackaye from Minor Threat and Fugazi met working at a Häagen-Dazs in Washington DC… Maybe there’s something about punk collaborations and desserts – there’s probably an essay in there somewhere!) Jones hit it off with Bruce (he was a filmmaker too) and when she turned up for Fifth Column’s gig supporting The Jesus and Mary Chain, she announced that the band were to have a male go-go dancer. Flipping the script on the usual male/female, band/go-go dancer dynamic, Bryan Bruce danced provocatively around the stage as Jones, Azar, and Breckenridge thrashed out hits like “Boy, Girl”, “Incident Prone”, and “The Fairview Mall Story”.

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Jones and Bruce got closer and started collaborating. He recalls: “When G. B. Jones – or Gloria, at the time – and I became friends, we had an intense relationship. For six years, it was almost like lovers, but without sex. It was romantic and intense. She’s a brilliant artist. She mentored me, basically.”

They were both into punk music and style – something about the homoeroticism of sweaty, half-naked punk kids colliding with one another in the half-light of a basement club really got them off – but they also saw that, in spite of the rather queer roots of punk where androgyny, for instance, was affirmed – the punk scene had become more and more straight, male, and homophobic. They had no time for that. They also had no time for an increasingly commercial and mainstream gay lifestyle and aesthetic. As they would later write in a polemical piece that was typical of their style, entitled “Don’t Be Gay: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Fuck Punk Up the Ass”:

“The gay ‘movement’ as it exists now is a big farce, and we have nothing else to say about it, so we won’t say anything at all, except that, ironically, it fails most miserably where it should be the most progressive – in its sexual politics. Specifically, there is a segregation of the sexes where unity should exist, a veiled misogyny which privileges fag culture over dyke, and a fear of the expression of femininity which has lead to the gruesome phenomenon of the ‘straight-acting’ gay male.”

Inventing queercore and a zine revolution

Out of this resistance to homophobic punk culture and mainstream gay sexuality came their zine, JD’s. Named for Juvenile Delinquents, James Dean, or JD Salinger depending on who you ask, JD’s was charged, as they said with the task of “putting the gay back in punk and the punk back in gay”. The zine ran for six years, full of tell-all porno stories, comic strips, Sapphic illustrations, and photo-stories starring Bryan Bruce as Bruce LaBruce, a character they named “The Prince of the Homosexuals”.

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Mixed in with this original content they pasted naked or revealing photos of ostensibly straight punk band members and porno cut out of magazines. JD’s also had a Top Ten hits of what they started calling “homo-core” that featured punk bands like Nip Drivers and Gay Cowboys in Bondage who weren’t actually gay but had tracks like “Quentin Crisp” and “Cowboys are Gay” (a band called Aryan Disgrace had one called “Faggot in the Family”).

If you’re aware of the punk scene and all of the amazing zines that came out of it – like Sniffin Glue – this kind of DIY mingling of material mightn’t seem that strange and it wasn’t: Jones and Bruce were emulating lots of punk zines. What makes their zine different is that they were obviously queer but, more importantly, they weren’t so much documenting a scene as actually inventing it. LaBruce remembers that

“We borrowed from The Situationists quite heavily -- this idea of creating a spectacle and propping it up in the media, even though it was fiction.” 

There were hardly any punk bands at this time that were out and in the real world there certainly wasn’t any queer punk scene per se. But their readers thought there was: people started reading JD’s and believing that this amazing Homocore scene actually existed in Toronto. In Texas, Florida, California, queer kids were thinking “wow Toronto’s Homocore scene is awesome, I should totally start a Homocore zine.” And they did! JD’s was quickly followed by Larry Bob Roberts’ Holy Titclamps, Tom Jennings’ Homocore (in which the famous essay “what the fuck is Homocore?” appears), Vaginal Davis’ Fertile LaToya Jackson, and Donna Dresch’s Chainsaw.

Writing about this abundance of queercore zines in 1985, Dennis Cooper wrote:

“Mutually supportive for the most part but, individualistic in outlook and design, these zines share a hatred for political correctness, yuppification, and all things bourgeois, especially within gay culture.”

Out of this exciting and transgressive zine culture came out punk bands like Pansy Division and Tribe 8. Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division says:

“I formed Pansy Division, with Chris Freeman, because there were no other gay bands. As it turned out, a few others formed around the same time. At the second Pansy Division show, we were on a bill with Tribe 8 -- we hadn’t heard of them. I thought, Great, we have comrades!

Queercore’s ends and afterlives

The queer punk scene that Jones and Bruce had invented in the pages of JD’s was now a reality, with zines and bands spread across North America together building a transgressive, anarchistic, and radically non-mainstream queer culture in music and print. But all was not well in Toronto.

In 1991 Bruce – who by then had renamed himself after the character that he and GB Jones had created – released his debut film called No Skin off My Ass. Shot in low-budget black and white, it’s best described as a “tender love story of a punk ex-hairdresser obsessed with a young, silent, baby-faced skinhead”. It features LaBruce as the hairdresser and GB as his sister. When it came out, it got quite a bit of attention: Kurt Cobain for one called it his favourite film. New Queer Cinema had also started to take off in the States and LaBruce was grouped together with some of the directors in Eyes Wide Open’s SNAP series and became pretty famous as a result.

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However, many on the queercore scene felt that when it came down to it, LaBruce didn’t give GB Jones enough credit as his long-time collaborator: as well as acting in No Skin Off My Ass, for instance, she also co-wrote the script. There was a vicious backlash against him: led by Johnny Noxzema – widely regarded as the most toxic influence on the scene – he was roundly condemned. One diatribe ran:

“Mr LaBruce has made an art of appropriating the ideas of his female friends (now, understandably, ex-friends) and basking, alone, in the glory they bring him.”

Under the weight of this acrimonious split the queercore zine scene kind of fell apart: JD’s folded in 1991, and was quickly followed by Homocore, Holy Titclamps, and others that wound up operations in the early 90s.

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But if Queercore was rather short-lived, that’s not to say its effect was negligible: apart from its construction of real-life and in-print communities for young alienated non-mainstream queer people and its palpable effect on riot grrrl, some commentators also credit the movement with the reclamation of the term “queer” as a site of radical resistance – or at least catalysing certain tendencies within the LGBT community. It’s also been the focus of lots of new works including a new documentary called Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution (2017) and a critical study by Curran Nault called Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture (2018). Kevin Hegge’s also directed an incredible documentary She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column (2012), which puts Fifth Column back on the map and which Kevin very kindly shared with me as I was putting together these notes. Dyke Dolls, Bum Boys, and everyone else who wants to know more about queercore should check them out!

by Diarmuid Hester