More than fifteen years since its groundbreaking first release on Lookout! Records, Pansy Division still stands out, proud, and largely alone, as the first openly gay punk band. While plenty of riot grrrls have collectively broken and reinvented cultural stereotypes, the all-male, all-gay group is a bit of an anomaly in the often-masculine, ultrahetero punk scene.
"When we started the band, nobody was out in pop music — no one," says Pansy Division bassist and singer Chris Freeman in the trailer to Pansy Divison: Life in a Gay Rock Band, a documentary he coproduced with director Michael Carmona. This year, right as gay-marriage supporters fight what looks like a losing battle, it's all the more impressive to remember the band's impact when Freeman, frontman Jon Ginoli, and drummer Jay Paget united in 1991 — the same year Freddie Mercury, a possible exception to Freeman's statement, lost his life to AIDS.
Carmona was inspired to document the band's history while studying at Columbia College in Tarzana, where Freeman happened to be his financial-aid advisor. He knew of Pansy Division, but grew more interested when he learned that Freeman had been a member. Together they began coproducing what was originally going to be a student film, and Carmona's directorial debut. Carmona graduated and the project grew, evolved, and was completed for a premiere screening at the London Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival last April. In the last year, it has been shown in festivals all around the United States and a few overseas. Though queer film fests have embraced it, it's old-school Pansy Division fans who have shown the most love.
"I'd say the Pansy Division fans came out the most and have appreciated it more than anyone," Carmona says. "It's definitely who we made the picture for." And in spite of the doc's warm reception among gay audiences, Carmona emphasizes that the main theme of the movie and band is breaking down barriers and challenging stereotypes related to sexual orientation.
"Pansy Division, ironically, doesn't have a huge gay fan base," Carmona said. "It's mostly teenagers, and heterosexual ones at that. One of the band members once said there's a lot more to being gay than disco and show tunes. That's pretty much what Pansy Division has always been about. It's about shattering stereotypes from heterosexuals, but also from within the gay community."
It couldn't be more true. The self-proclaimed "buttfuckers of rock 'n' roll" are like the cool kids at a pride parade, dismantling lame barriers and stereotypes (Judy Garland and club music) while cheekily reveling in the fun ones (kink and promiscuity). Unabashed, hypersexualized lyrics are the band's trademark, while their sound still blatantly defies what most consider queer pop culture. Of course, songs like "Dick of Death" simply aren't for everyone. "The film, like the music it depicts, is definitely just too much for some people," says Carmona.
As Life in a Gay Rock Band gains momentum, Pansy Division is keeping its new audience's attention. March 1 marked the publication of Ginoli's memoir, Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division, and he is currently on a book tour. And Pansy Division's seventh studio album, That's So Gay, will be released March 31 on Alternative Tentacles. With the four current bandmembers — Ginoli, Freeman, drummer Luis Illades, and lead guitarist Joel Reader — living in different places, it was recorded from everyone's respective locations. It will be their first new album in six years, and possible tour plans are in the works for this summer.
Carmona is beginning plans to finance his next film, another collaborative effort with Freeman. Meanwhile, Life in a Gay Rock Band will continue to work the festival circuit, with a screening planned throughout the United States in addition to Buenos Aires and Milan. Carmona is quite happy about the added exposure the band has gotten through the film. "They're a really important band," he says. "I hope their time has come, because when they first started in the Nineties, homosexuality was a big taboo." While courts and voters decide how big a taboo it still is today, Pansy Division keeps us dancing — but not in a "gay" way.
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