The idea of writing about something as anarchistic as punk, either the music or the attitude, has always seemed to be self-defeating. How can an author encapsulate on the page something which had/has the tendency to explode like a beer bottle tossed off a fire escape? Yet this is exactly what Curran Nault has not only attempted, but succeeded in doing with his book Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture, published by Routledge Press.
Initially some might find the fact the book is an academic study of the subject somewhat off putting. However, after becoming accustomed its formality you come to appreciate how the distance it creates from the subject matter not only lends the book a great deal of credibility it also allows to read the material in a dispassionate manner. This in turn ensures someone like me (who lived through the periods described in the book) doesn’t allow sentimentality or memories to interfere with an appreciation of the author’s work or the fresh perspective he brings to the subject matter.
As the title implies the book traces the history of the intersection of Queer expression and punk. For those who wonder, Queer has as much to do with straight (and yes I’ve used that word deliberately) LGBTQ+ as punk has to do with anything mainstream. As Nault shows Queercore has its roots in the infamous Stonewall riots of the late 1960s. Here, drag queens, gays of colour, and others marginalized among the marginalized, said enough is enough and took to the streets after cops raided their club at the Stonewall hotel in New York City.
Queercore is a reaction and a goad. It is no surprise the term was coined in the mid 1980s when the conservative Christians were calling AIDS a judgement on homosexuality and the American government was attacking artists like Robert Mapplethorpe for daring to be true to himself. What might be surprising to some is the term was originated by a trio of Canadians from Toronto. However, after New York and London, Toronto’s punk scene was one of the most vibrant in the 1970s and would have been fertile ground for artists frustrated with the mainstream.
However, as Nault makes perfectly clear Queercore isn’t just a reaction against the those normally considered the enemies of “different”, its also a means of protesting those who society would normally assume were their allies. For not only does it attack homophobia in punk, and lets be real, with few exceptions, punk has always primarily been the domain of straight white men, it continues to this day to challenge mainstream gay and lesbian politics. The ones who want to blend in, not make any waves and hope by keeping their heads down they won’t get bashed the next time they walk down the street.
Queercore is laid out in a nice logical progression from the introduction which not only supplies us with working definitions of both “Queer” and “Punk” (as an aside, and as someone who will always consider himself punk, he’s provided one of the best definitions of punk I’ve ever read: “In the best of circumstances punk aims to be a wakeup call to a public otherwise anesthetized by the suffocating conformity of daily existence.”) to the chapters on its forebearers, sex, confrontation, and its depiction of bodies. The latter being not only in reference to whether someone has a penis or not, but the inclusion of people of size and the disabled in media representations.
With each chapter carefully footnoted, whether the source is anecdotal or textual, Queercore has a credibility often lacking in books dealing with contemporary culture. Having lived through the times described in the book it’s easy to find omissions and disagree on minutiae. However, as someone who spent the 1980s reading obituaries seeing colleagues death’s described as complications from pneumonia, Nault does a fine job capturing the times and feelings that gave rise to Queercore.
He also does a superlative job of describing the intricacies of the subculture and why each are so important. We might not ‘approve’, ‘like’ or even understand some of what’s described, but that is irrelevant. The in your face attitude of Queercore is meant to shock, and Nault makes sure readers know why that’s important.
Even better, as far as I’m concerned, in his concluding chapter, “A Queer Elegy For The Future”, he steps out from behind the shelter of academic language and tells us personally why Queercore is just as important today as it was in the mid 1980s. Marginalization still exists within the LGBTQ+ community – he cites examples of Pride committees telling participants this is a family event so dress appropriately – and for that matter everywhere. There is still a need for those brave souls willing to celebrate their differences in public to shake up the status quo.
In Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture Nault offers readers the chance to enter into a world few will understand or tolerate. However, he makes it abundantly clear to any thinking, caring, person, why exactly this subculture is so important. Change happens because of those pushing from the bottom and the outside. Without the people mentioned in this book, change would never happen.
As we enter a new era of repression, books which welcome and embrace what the mainstream ignores and reviles are more and more important. Queercore might be written about a specific subculture, but the philosophy it espouses is one which applies to all of us.