Art essay: We are Queercore
If Montreal is the gay party capital of Canada, then Toronto is alternaqueer central — their track-pants, glowsticks and water pistols to our studded belt, stove-pipe jeans and distressed hair. Between bands The Hidden Cameras and Kids On TV to the ongoing Vazaleen party (which has played host to, among others, Tracy And The Plastics, The Gossip and, in its crowning glory moment, Nina Hagen), Toronto has supported and spawned some of the major contributors to contemporary queer indie/ punk culture. This isn't merely coincidental, nor is it a question of sudden faddishness. In one way or another, Toronto has been a centre of queer punk culture for more than 20 years, ever since a grainy Xeroxed fanzine spawned its most infamous cultural export: Queercore.
By now, the origins of Queercore are a matter of legend. The zine JDs is widely considered the spark that started the fire in 1985. It was born after Fifth Column band member GB Jones met up with filmmaker-to-be Bruce LaBruce, then a York University postgrad student. This is a flip summary that glosses over the mucky details. Let's not forget the wider circumstances. We were smack-dab in the middle of Reagan's America and Thatcher's Britain. AIDS was terrifyingly new (only three years previous it was still called GRID — gay-related immunodeficiency disease) and starting to kill people in waves.
Locally, JDs' birth was gestated by poverty and moulded by a punitively conservative and dismissive Toronto. "When we were doing it, we were virtually squatting and we were really exiled, ourselves," says LaBruce. "We were much more in what felt like an underground scene."
LaBruce, Jones and their coterie of friends were unwelcome in the gay scene because of what Jones remembers as a strict and snobbish regimentation. "You were supposed to look a certain way, you were supposed to behave a certain way," she says. "Anything outside those very narrow parameters was scoffed, your politics were scoffed at. And the fact that you were really poor didn't help either."
Jones and LaBruce sought refuge in the punk scene —though that didn't prove to be a welcoming alternative. "Going to hardcore shows and making fanzines and showing our movies in punk clubs, we ran into a lot of resistance and a lot of hostility for being gay," says LaBruce. "So that made us even more marginalized and more angry, because we rejected the gay community and we were rejected by punks. So we were doubly alienated."
The rock and the hard place spawned JDs. Jones, who is working on a documentary film on Queercore, is blunt about Toronto's role. "It was the opposite of nurtured," she says. "All of the horribleness of Toronto compelled us to react against it in every possible way. It pushed us to this breaking point."
LaBruce and Jones modelled the zine after old Phyzique Pictorial magzines and twisted it into their own no-budget punk aesthetic — hence the inclusion of Jones's Tom Girl drawings, her inversion of Tom Of Finland's über-macho clone studs with leather-clad antisocial punk dykes.
The name Homocore (later, Queercore, for diversity's sake) came about because of a compilation tape — the results of Jones's listening habits. "I started making compilation tapes for my own amusement, and I called one of them 'Homocore.'" That tape was sent out with an issue of JDs. Wonder of wonders, the world responded. An underground network was established by mail (remember the days before the Internet, kids?), with channels running through Detroit, New York, Chicago, Olympia, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and even across the pond to the UK. Because Queercore is first and foremost a musical phenomenon, bands sprung up like acne across the face of the continent.
Between the two of them, Jones and LaBruce have been among the few to have, if not defined, then at least announced the parameters of a subculture that has not only spread beyond the remote confines of Toronto, but continues to thrive and flourish. It's impossible to define something like Queercore, whose guiding principles amount to antagonism, sneering at orthodoxy and provocation. According to artist and party promoter Will Munro, the crucial signifier is, basically, "A bunch of punk kids saying, 'No, we're queer punk kids.' It's putting the importance on the difference between us and them." As amorphous as it is, that's as clear a definition as any.
Two shows in the fall of 2006 explored Queercore, one at Art Metropole called Punk 'Til You Puke curated by Munro, the other Queercore Archives curated by Paul Petro and Jones at Paul Petro's Small Works And Multiples gallery. Both attempted to portray an understanding of Queercore through its promiscuous output of music, fanzines (not only JDs, but also Scott Treleaven's equally seminal late-'90s zine This Is the Salivation Army), posters and sundry visual ephemera.
Punk 'Til You Puke felt much more like a straightforward history lesson, beginning with gay art collective General Idea's File magazine from the '70s (the special issue on punk gave Munro's show its title) and, via General Idea archival material, winds its way to JDs in the '80s. Munro laid out his material systematically, displaying a clear (if retrospective) linear reading of the web of global influences out of which JDs emerged. "The show at Art Metropole, it's like first-wave punk rock from all over the world," says Munro. "There's a lot of queer content, and there's a lot of ambiguous, androgynous posturing included in that show."
Paul Petro's Queercore Archive took a much more organic approach to things, plastering a collection of old posters, record covers, compilation tapes and correspondence across his gallery wall. Black tape with silver arrows connected one bit of ephemera to another, effectively capturing the more-or-less spontaneous creation of self-made culture across a continent.
Both shows made the dissemination of Queercore seem a lot more concrete and organized than it actually was. The reality, according to LaBruce, was that "[JDs] created a fiction which was that there was a full-fledged Homocore movement already in full swing in Toronto. And then, people kind of believed it. And then it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, more or less."
Most importantly, both shows highlighted the surprising optimism of Queercore. Antagonistic politics aside, there was a real utopian element to it: Out of the awfulness of their surroundings, these kids invented their own widely accessible culture. As Jones says, "I wanted participating to be as easy as buying a stamp and writing a letter — that's all it should cost."
That Queercore spread into music, art, film and literature is something Jones admires. "It's really the first cultural movement involving queer people that participated in all sorts of media. That's never happened in the gay community. It's existed, but never on the scale of the Queercore community." Moreover, it carved out a viable niche for itself that continues unabated today. Its originators are still going strong: Jones continues to exhibit her drawings in galleries and publications the world over and LaBruce, still fresh from his film Raspberry Reich is, I'm sure, trawling the zeitgeist for more sacred cows to tip over.
For evidence of the future of Queercore — and Toronto's still-vital contribution — you have to follow the divergent paths of people inspired by JDs. Foremost is Scott Treleaven and This Is The Salivation Army, his "paganfaggotpunk" zine published between 1996 and '99 — with Treleaven's film account in 2002 and a follow-up issue in 2004. Art Metropole just released a single-volume collection.
In Toronto's current music scene, there's the aforementioned The Hidden Cameras, Kids On TV and Vazaleen. On the art front, Queercore's DIY-spirit certainly possessed Andrew Harwood's now-defunct Zsa Zsa Gallery (a space many claim kicked off the Queen West gallery spread); certainly it's a cultural moment near and dear to gallerist Paul Petro's heart. Artist Allyson Mitchell, meanwhile, proclaimed her fan-girl love in an essay for one of Jones's shows of drawings; while artist Luis Jacob, Toronto's recent "Face The Arts," has curated a JDs show and obviously draws inspiration from those years.
Queercore's political influence is a little harder to trace, thanks to the visibility and affluence afforded by the mainstreaming of the larger gay and lesbian community, arguably even more codified and regimented now than it was in the mid-'80s and more politically conservative. Queercore hasn't revolutionized sexual politics but it still offers a space for the radicals — local anarcho-queers Limpfist, for instance.
But it's easy to get carried away with charting Queercore's influence — any leftist who's been to Kinko's can claim some connection.
Queercore, despite its uneasiness with fixed categories, is a specific movement with specific ideals. It calls out to specific people — the lonely, the nonconformist, the horny and the cranky — ensuring its continued proliferation.
"It was genius — their porntastic fantasy that they were creating to fulfill their own vision but also to alleviate other kids' alienation and isolation," says Munro. "Like any intelligent kid, if they don't see a scene, they just create it themselves. And it worked."