Over the course of 83 brisk, entertaining minutes, Yony Leyser’s alternately raucous and thoughtful documentary traces the origins and rise of the queer punk rock scene. Like a punk song, much of the film’s force is in its economy, and like a punk song, it challenges the status quo, flouts taboos, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Leyser does a fine job recovering buried history in a way that’s fresh and illuminating, reminding us that settled narratives exist to be unsettled and that the voices of outsiders can often tell the truth the loudest.
Leyser assembles a collage of filmic elements, patched together in interesting ways, to tell the story of the queer punk movement. Still shots of punk zines and posters jostle against animations of sexually explicit notebook doodles, clips from films by queer punk directors, historical footage of activist events, and concert footage from underground clubs. Perhaps surprisingly, the film’s most engaging moments are its simplest ones: interviews with the people who were there at the rise of the movement. We hear from pioneers like Bruce LaBruce, G. B. Jones, Justin Vivian-Bond, Lynn Breedlove, Silas Howard, and more, all of whom have revealing and important things to say about the punk scene, queerness, and the life-saving importance of outsider art.
The film’s interview subjects sketch out a history that may be unfamiliar to many people today, including punks and queers, relating a time when punk in its earliest days was sexually radical and diverse and welcoming to “weirdos of all kinds,” in the words of record producer Larry Livermore, before the early 1980s saw the rise of an increasingly macho, homophobic brand of punk. But it was reaction against this macho version of punk that produced the greatest flowering of queer punk culture, led by “a couple of frustrated twenty-year-olds” from Toronto, Bruce LaBruce and G. B. Jones. Together, the two pulled off a brilliant con. Feeling alone and wishing for comrades, they started a zine, J.D.s, which fabricated in its pages a queer punk scene that did not yet exist. Jones and LaBruce advertised their zine in punk periodicals Fact Sheet Five and Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll. As LaBruce tells it, “Our strategy was to pretend that Toronto had a full-fledged, crazy, gay punk scene already happening.” They took their films, zines, and music on tour and pretended that queercore was a huge international movement—and people believed them. Soon, as like-minded punks joined in, the imagined movement became a real one. The story is a testament to the power of imagination—specifically, the power of imagining the world you want with so much energy and creativity that you make it real.
It’s easy now, in the era of Modern Family and Love, Simon, to forget that the notion of gay rights once faced robust opposition not just from outside the gay community but from within it as well. Leyser’s documentary gives voice to punk’s earliest agitators not for gay rights per se but for queer liberation—a more radical position that argues against assimilation into the straight mainstream. One interview subject, Deke Elash, remembers a polarizing banner at the 1989 pride parade in San Francisco: “No Apologies, No Assimilation, Ever.” He notes that the banner caused some “friendly debate” among the queer punks assembled there because some felt assimilation was “maybe not for them, but [was] culturally the right way to go to take the animus out of homophobia.” He goes on, “Others of us felt like assimilation into a death culture was itself a death trap. You know, you demand the right to serve in the military and you’re gonna end up dropping phosphorus bombs on Afghani kids, and really, is that liberation? Is that freedom? We didn’t feel it was the spirit of the early gay rights movement, and in a wider cultural sense was always something punk rock actively critiqued.”
The argument against seeking rights parallel to those that straight people enjoy made many in the queer community nervous, and it’s an argument that hasn’t vanished entirely, as Leyser’s film reveals. At the film’s mid-point, LaBruce, seminal to the movement’s beginnings and still a vital voice, says this: “Gays now are really selling themselves short, I think, because they traditionally have had such a great opportunity to be different and to be the avant garde and to be glamorous and to be outsiders who look at the dominant culture or the dominant ideology from a distance, and they could be like spies or double-agents. That’s much more glamorous than trying to convince everyone that you’re just [waggling head] the same as everyone else and you have the same feelings and you just want to raise a family and, you know, be a ‘well-balanced individual.’” LaBruce and others rail against a perceived orthodoxy and an insistence on respectability within the queer world today, which they believe to be repressive and stultifying.
Whatever one’s own position on the subject might be, it’s inspiring to witness so many committed people celebrating a movement that gave them and others such liberating experiences. The wildness, the mischievous glee, and the sheer volume of the music and film and art are exhilarating to experience (or relive). True, the film occasionally lapses into hagiography and nostalgia, and the filmmaker sometimes loses track of who his audience might be. (Nothing has ever made me feel as old as listening to a young punk filmmaker explain to me what “zines” were, as though they were fascinating artifacts discovered at a Saxon ship burial—and as though a substantial segment of his audience didn’t spend our teens or twenties making them.) Even so, the film’s heart is in the right place, and its rebellious joys are plentiful, lending credence to the argument that there’s much to be gained from breaking rules and demolishing decorum. As LaBruce says, “We wanted to be a circus, not a church.”