“What kind of music do you like?”
When this question is dropped on any date/Tinder conversation I’ve ever had, my heart hits my stomach. There’s the safe route containing my pop interests: “I adore Carly Rae Jepsen and Lorde. The new Charli XCX mixtape is full of jams. I’ve been a long time 1D fan,” etc. And then there’s the answer that’s a bit more true to form: “I’d literally cut my heart out for The Wonder Years. I feel a religious connection to everything Green Day has ever done. I shed a few tears during Jawbreaker’s reunion set at Riot Fest last year.” As a gay man in 2018, I often find it hard to reconcile my punk and queer identities, something that has bothered me due to the closely entwined history of these two cultures.
Both punk and queer identities share the idea of “otherness” — not making the cut for normalcy, feeling disenfranchised from the state of the world and generally sticking out. The punk scene was often where queer-identifying people would be able to gather to have some sense of belonging. Punk is literally rooted in otherness, in the ability “to stick it to the man” and to live however you want, not how the world wants you to. The first time I heard the lyric “So fuck the world / And what it wants me to be,” off of “Hoodie Weather” by The Wonder Years, was the first time I began to have hope for any type of agency in my life. It was the first time I decided to fight back against the homophobia deeply ingrained in me from 13 years spent in Catholic school.
About a year ago, I read an article by Tom Vellner on Noisey that lauded the merits of punk and “the scene” in helping him come out as a gay man after also spending years in Catholic school. The article mirrored my experiences in middle school and high school with almost startling accuracy. I have vivid memories of being enthralled by the melodrama of My Chemical Romance’s “I’m Not OK (I Promise),” and the sensual theatricality of Panic! At The Disco’s Brendon Urie helped me understand that it was just fine to be male and expressive at the same time. Senses Fail’s Pull The Thorns from Your Heart taught me that a period of self-hatred and denial was perfectly normal for queer people to go through, and hearing Billie Joe Armstrong belt out “Seventeen and strung out on confusion” from “Coming Clean” comforted me more than anything else when I was 17 myself. My first real crush ever was probably on Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy. This music was my first indication that I wasn’t an anomaly.
As positive and heartwarming as the article was for me, I also find it to be a fairly uncommon experience in the modern world and among people my age. While I certainly know other queer punks, I’m more often greeted with surprise or a jabbing, “I used to love ‘Sugar We’re Goin Down’ when I was 15” when I tell other gays (usually men) about my musical passions. Despite the shared ethos of punk/emo music and queerness, there seems to be a disconnect in the general perception of their relationship by many gay individuals in the 21st century.
This could be largely due to the mostly indie/hip hop obsessed bubble of Ann Arbor (the city where I first opened up to seeing men romantically), but I’d like to propose that it could be partly in response to the more open social climate of today’s world in comparison to the ’80s and ’90s. With the continuous deconstruction of social norms like gender and heteronormativity — which punk culture was one of the first to widely express and popularize (i.e. Pansy Division) in the last few decades of the 20th century — LGBTQ+ individuals may find it less necessary to seek comfort in marginalized, niche cultures that used to represent safe havens for the queer community. More queer people might be able to find comfort in shinier, more visible mainstream genres like pop and hop hop, or simply not feel the need for catharsis in music. While these are freedoms I wish I had growing up, brainwashed by conservatism and religion — I often had to sneak my sisters’ Britney Spears HitClips because boys weren’t supposed to enjoy “(You Drive Me) Crazy” — it’s a beautiful thing to witness an improving social climate where more and more LGBTQ+ people feel much less pressure from society.
Yet, I’m also worried that the sparks ignited by the punk movement that have burned a path for this improvement are slowly being forgotten and degraded. The importance of this artform in queer identity is being further marginalized even by queer people themselves, chalking it up to meritless melodrama masked in aggressive guitar riffs and the quick pulse of a snare drum. Punk culture continues to degrade itself in the modern world through the perpetuation and almost overwhelming saturation of assault cases, most often by cis, straight white men. Despite today’s decaying relationship between queer and punk cultures, it should be remembered as a forerunner and advocator for queer rights and expression, as a place for those growing up without acceptance to go and finally turn themselves inside out.
Punk music let me know it was OK to ride my sisters’ Barbie bike and to play Pretty, Pretty Princess with them and to love “The Powerpuff Girls” and, eventually, to look at a cute boy without a second of shame.