With no clear manifestos or rigid definitions, the subgenre known as homocore—later queercore—birthed a cultural revolution embodied by frustrated visions, vivid imagination, and wild, anarchic desire. Part longing need and part boredom spurred the early experiments of Toronto, Canada-based outcast artists Bruce LaBruce and GB Jones, who were simultaneously influenced by situationist philosophies and rejected by the increasingly conformist, bourgeois gay scene of the 1980s. Punk, by then, had seen its descent into hardcore machismo brawls and a homogenous sound with attitudes steering further and further away from its early, more freeform days. Though, in true punk fashion, Bruce and Jones chose to invent the scene they wanted and, in turn, the world in which they wanted to live.
The radical, dissenting voice of such early experiments in art and cinema resonated far beyond the reaches of Toronto and spawned new zines, films and performers across urban centers of the United States. Likened more to a traveling circus than any genre or style, the fake-turned-real movement was united by a questioning of the status quo. For a young Yony Leyser, director of the new film Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution, queer radicalism was the perfect path to envisioning a life beyond stale suburbia.
"I saw white flight and homophobia, conservatism, and staged false realities on TV and felt totally unrepresented by that," Leyser tells SFR. "My parents were immigrants from the Middle East, I was raised by a single mom, and I wasn't a heterosexual—punk gave me the avenue to express myself."
Now an expatriate living in Berlin, Germany, Leyser started his own zine called the Yoniliyser as a teen.
"I didn't learn about the connection of queer and punk culture till later on," he says. Zines, of course, proved crucial to the formation of subculture in a pre-internet America. "The way queercore, punk, riot grrrrl all spread as a farce because the leaders of the movements felt a need for them to exist was very inspiring and surprised me," Leyser adds.
The queer and punk connection doesn't seem like a stretch today with acts like Peaches having breached the mainstream, but after the 1980s, a hardcore movement had taken hold. Homophobia had become rife in the punk scene, which was losing core elements of freedom and anti-authoritarianism.
"Homocore/queercore was a small but very important movement that started as a post-modernist artistic expression against assimilation and going with the status quo," Leyser explains. "It was also saying that homophobia should be crushed. It was about rejecting norms of society and embracing one's outsiderness, which is an ethos I still very much live by."
Queercore remains a key element of my own experience as a marginalized gay youth, despite having been born in the late '80s. For me, the genre arrived in its later manifestations within pop culture during the early 1990s, with Pansy Division and riot grrrl crossover acts like Team Dresch—both featured in Leyser's documentary. By then, the movement had become its own self-sufficient animal so far removed from Bruce LaBruce that LaBruce would pronounce it dead—though, to none of the new artists' notice. These artists, indie superstars to a millennial generation, could possibly be the link between queercore's early days to the electro-clash subgenre phenomenon of the early 2000s, and, more recently, the impact of alt-pop artists like Le1f, Mykki Blanco and Big Freedia.
When asked if his film is a call-to-arms of sorts for a new generation, Leyser says it is, but adds that it "is also for everyone to see how revolution is possible from even the most disenfranchised of people, so not only queer artists but everyone who has maybe felt different but was at a conflict as to what to do with those differences. America should be a place that celebrates differences."
Conversely, some of America's most famous queers like Ellen DeGeneres, Laverne Cox, Troye Sivan and Frank Ocean are a far cry from queercore's non-commercial ethos. Does that matter, though, as queerness moves toward broader, more positive visibility? What space is left to be made by and for the non-conformist? Queercore: How to Punk A Revolution closes with hopes, possibilities and questions for an ever-uncertain future from artists who have so courageously shaped today.
"I hope it inspires young people. I like manifestations of the movement in politics like Pussy Riot," Leyser muses. "I don't believe that all art is political, but I will say that most good art is, and most good artists have faced discrimination or hardships that lead their worldview to be very 'political.' Art is one of the most political acts that one can do."
Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution
4:20 pm Friday Oct. 12. $9-$11.
Through Oct. 17. Jean Cocteau Cinema,
418 Montezuma Ave., 466-5528