Pansy Division's Jon Ginoli
The leader of America's foremost queer-punk band looks to the future—and the past
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It’s finally a good year to be a Pansy Division fan. After being off the pop-culture radar for years, the queer-punk band is back in a big way with a new album, That’s So Gay; a documentary DVD, Pansy Division: Life In A Gay Rock Band; and a memoir written by the band's frontman Jon Ginoli, titled Deflowered: My Life In Pansy Division. That’s So Gay, which puts a few indie-rock twists on the band’s occasionally over-the-top, gay-themed pop-punk (yes, the group actually has a song called “20 Years Of Cock”). But besides looking forward, there's some reflection on the past: The book and DVD tackle Pansy Division’s heyday as standard-bearers for the queer-punk underground, from touring with Green Day in the '90s to the group's current lower-profile. In preparation for his Washington, D.C., appearance Sunday—a book signing at Lambda Rising—Ginoli spoke with The A.V. Club about the band’s metaphorical coming out.
The A.V. Club: Deflowered and Life In A Gay Rock Band go beyond the typical rock 'n' roll anecdotes to explain the motivations and philosophy behind the band. Was that your main goal with these projects?
Jon Ginoli: I tried to give an overview of what it meant to be doing Pansy Division at that time, not just a list of “we did this today, then we did that.” I tried to put it in context with what was going on in the world at the time. So it has some meaning to people who might be just encountering the band. Our first album came out 16 years ago. The idea that people who know our band understand the context of where we came from won’t be true, especially for people under 30.
AVC: Pansy Division formed in San Francisco, a center of both punk and queer culture. Do you think you could have developed the band in another city?
JG: I think it’s possible. I came up with the idea of Pansy Division when I still lived in a college town in the Midwest, but it seemed like an impossibility. What audience could I possibly have imagined for such a band there? It took me getting to the gay mecca to realize that I could play this music, and that it would actually reach people who could relate to it. It got started in San Francisco, but once it had taken root here, I was anxious to see how it would play out elsewhere. But basically, I’m a Midwestern guy.
AVC: The first part of the book focuses on how you felt alienated from the punk and queer scenes when you first moved to San Francisco. Was that a bitter pill to swallow at the time?
JG: I don’t want to overdo that. I came to San Francisco, and it was very liberating, but the limitations were apparent. The milieu was far more accepting for a diversity of things. I felt like there seemed to be more possibilities there, but that didn’t mean that those ideas were going to be popular or mainstream even in the context of San Francisco or California.
AVC: There have been openly gay musicians in the club world since the ’80s. Barring a few exceptions, why do you think there wasn’t much of an openly gay presence in rock music for so long?
JG: The last 40 years has seen an evolution in the way the country feels in general about homosexuality and gay issues. There was a gay culture that, for whatever reason, had evolved to preclude rock 'n' roll. I think the evolution of gay musicians being out is something that you can’t leap ahead of in the game. It’s like, nobody’s going to release a prog-rock album in 1964, the year The Beatles hit, because it isn’t in the right place on the evolutionary scale. Other things have to happen before the world can have a reaction to that. I think the whole upwelling of gay acceptance as a mainstream idea took a while to filter down.
AVC: When Green Day took you on the Dookie tour in 1994, did that speed up that evolutionary process?
JG: Green Day selecting us to tour with them when they were getting massive, maximum exposure said something about their values, and it really did raise the stakes for what a band like us could do. The fact that Green Day selected us made a statement, and I thought we used the pulpit for something progressive and exciting and potentially important. It definitely went way beyond the subject area of pop music.
AVC: Pansy Division’s music evolved a lot through the years. Do you feel like your musical growth has been overshadowed by the “gay band” angle?
JG: I’d say that’s true. People tend to remember you when you’re at your most visible, which was during the Green Day period when our songs were horny a higher percentage of the time. The image that we cultivated at the time, that people remember now, is not inaccurate. We haven’t had the exposure that we had back in the day when we cemented that reputation. I don’t think people have had a chance to really hear us. We got put out there with Green Day, but no one else has put us out there with that kind of exposure since. I think if we did have that kind of exposure now, some people would go, "Oh, wow. That’s really good music."