After serving nearly 20 years at the helm of pop-punk’s queerest band, Jon Ginoli is finally ready to count himself among the history-makers.
“The moment that I realized that it was starting to become history and that even people who are fans of our band, who are pretty dedicated fans, were either not in the scene then or they were too young to have experienced us as we were starting to get popular — I wanted to let those people know the whole story,” says Ginoli.
In his new book, Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division, Ginoli takes a look back at the roots of what is now known as queercore and the band’s exploits as arguably the first openly gay musicians to receive positive recognition from the mainstream.
Born into a Republican family in Peoria, Illinois, Ginoli says he grew up in a “safe, stable environment.” Still, as a young teenager, years before coming out as gay, Ginoli says he was teased for being a “femme.”
“The idea that feminine is inferior, and feminine is considered less desirable or less valuable,” he says, “made me think about what I had in common with women.”
This experience not only helped shape his political sensibilities, but would later provide fodder for Pansy Division’s first single, “Fem in a Black Leather Jacket.”
Formed in 1991, the band would go on to play a central role in the explosion of queer punk that coincided with the burgeoning riot grrl movement. Ginoli says his decision to start Pansy Division was in part influenced by female musicians.
“A lot of the riot grrl bands were concerned about autonomy and personal space,” he says, “trying to not be objectified as women playing rock music.”
“I thought that was so right on,” Ginoli continues. “At the same time, Pansy Division were casting ourselves, or the songs would talk about being an object of desire — but to other men.”
“We were trying to project this kind of sexuality that was mutual sexuality,” Ginoli explains. “It wasn’t about conquest.”
For Ginoli, Pansy Division and contemporaries like Tribe 8 and Fifth Column held in common “a certain amount of autonomy to pursue in our lives what we really felt was important, instead of letting the societal norm dictate who you should date and how you should feel about your sexuality.”
By the mid-1990s the boys were fed up with the way so many of their musical contemporaries were keeping their queerness secret and so, during a 1994 concert opening for Green Day at New York’s Nassau Coliseum, they outed numerous public figures.
Back then, “there was this sort of wall of shame around being gay, and it wasn’t the kind of thing that we would put into a song,” Ginoli recalls. “But it was something that we could remark upon on stage and just get people thinking.”
One pensive concertgoer was celebrity shock jock Howard Stern, who said of these revelations “it was like Homo News — on stage.”
Stern’s on-air review of the show also included this assessment of the band: “They’re so proud to be gay, they’re more proud to be gay than I am to be heterosexual.”
But like many queers, the flaming front man wasn’t always so confident.
As a college freshman in 1978, Ginoli recalls grappling with the idea of coming out. “After Harvey Milk got shot, I said to myself, ‘Wow, I guess I can’t be gay then.’”
Two years passed before he felt comfortable enough to be open about his sexuality.
The climate for queer musicians has changed drastically in the last 15 years, Ginoli observes.
“Other people, like say Rufus Wainwright, are able to start their career being gay,” Ginoli explains. “I mean even if people wouldn’t have guessed that he was heterosexual anyway, he didn’t have to start off his career with vagueness and denials.”
In their upcoming album That’s So Gay, the band directly confronts examples of internalized homophobia. “Obsessed With Me” features Ginoli’s wry take on famed hypocrites (the now-defrocked) Reverend Ted Haggard and ex-senator Larry Craig — each of whom lost powerful status after being caught in headline-making sex scandals.
The new record comes six years after Pansy Division’s last studio album, Total Entertainment, and follows the 2006 release of The Essential Pansy Division.
Although Deflowered was almost ready to go to print three years ago, its publication was delayed because Ginoli says it seemed at the time as though Pansy Division might not emerge from its lingering hiatus.
Yet when he expressed a desire to record two new songs in 2007, the group enthusiastically reformed as a quartet (with straight ally Joel Reader taking over duties on lead guitar) and went back to the studio to lay down tracks on “Twinkie Twinkie Little Star” and “You’ll See Them Again.”
The ball now rolling, the guys soon found themselves working on a full-length album.
Another long-term project, a documentary entitled Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band, will come out on DVD later this month.
The brainchild of bass player and band co-founder Chris Freeman and director Michael Carmona, the film will continue to tour the queer festival circuit and will be screened on several stops of Ginoli’s book tour, including this one.
After “20 Years of Cock” (another tongue-in-cheek track from the forthcoming album), the band’s resume also boasts contributions to numerous benefit compilation records, appearances on film and television soundtracks, and many live performances at gay Pride celebrations.
Though critical of the increasing corporate influence on such events, Ginoli feels it’s part of a generally positive trend. “It shows how the gay world is really part of the other world,” he says. “Things get commercialized and things get turned into commodities.”
Rather than dismissing the benefits of mainstreaming, Ginoli says, “You can be really idealistic about this stuff. If you’re too idealistic about it, you end up on an island by yourself.”
Ginoli has always used his music to explore what real sexual liberation might look like. “I like the idea that you can have the normal life if you want to but still be creative to come up with new arrangements,” he remarks. “It’s easy to say let’s have marriage [but] it might be harder to say, ‘Can we have open relationships that work? Can things be more fluid, do definitions have to be so rigid?’”