Review: ‘Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band’

San Francisco's pioneering "queercore" punk band is paid aptly antic tribute in "Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band."

San Francisco’s pioneering “queercore” punk band is paid aptly antic tribute in “Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band.” The members’often jokily racy songs are perhaps ideally experienced in excerpt — complete with subtitled lyrics — making this a docu whose prankish DIY charms reflect the spirit of its subject. Arthouse gigs are possible, wider play assured in gay/music-oriented fests and niche DVD.

“Trying to be what we didn’t see when we were growing up,” Pansy Division was founded in 1991 San Francisco by Jon Ginoli and Chris Freeman, who felt little kinship with a gay community whose soundtrack was still overwhelmingly retro-disco, showtunes — and whose extant rock heroes (Melissa Etheridge, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, Morrissey, Bob Mould et al.) were as yet in the closet.

Inspired by the brash, proud, often humorous second-generation AIDS activism of ACT UP and Queer Nation, Ginoli (who’d already written and been performing some PD songs solo) conceived an act whose “whole approach was to be happy and celebratory.” And raunchy, as suggested by such early song titles as “James Bondage,” “Rachbottomoff,” “Touch My Joe Camel,” “Curvature,” “Crabby Day,” “Fem in a Black Leather Jacket” and “Bill & Ted’s Homosexual Adventure.”

They were an immediate, surprise hit on the indie-rock club circuit — even if their primary audience was more liberal straight punks than gays. Then they got a huge profile boost from being asked by rising pop-punk stars Green Day, then on the same Lookout label, to open for them on a 1994 tour that saw the headliners’ accelerating popularity taking them from modest venues to Madison Square Garden.

This was as much trial-by-fire as a big break: While Green Day’s politically correct Berkeley boys stuck by their bill companions, the headliners’ growing legion of fratboy-type fans heckled and threw bottles at Pansy Division nightly.

As excerpted MTV and Music Plus footage demonstrates, PD became the poster boys for a “movement” variously dubbed “queercore” and “queer punk.” Despite its newsworthiness and hale vinyl sales, however, Pansy Division was dubbed “too gay,” and couldn’t attract major-label interest.

Amusingly, principal singer-songwriter Ginoli and bassist Freeman have gone through 12 drummers, a couple of them relatively long-lasting. Lead guitarists have been more faithful, with straight Berkeley punk-pop icon Joel Reader (of the Mr. T Experience) now filling in for Patrick Goodwin, who left to front heavier-metal outfits.

Green Day’s Billie Joe and Judas Priest’s Halford (who eventually performed a Sabbath cover with PD) are glimpsed in archival clips. Assembly is lively, performance footage (much of it shot by fans) is of variable quality.

Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band



A Last Rites Films production. Produced by Michael Carmona, Chris Freeman. Directed by Michael Carmona.


Camera (color, mini-DV-to-BetaSP), Dilip Issac; editor, Chris Freeman; music, Pansy Division; sound, Jen Noffsinger, Paul Thurwachter; animation, additional editing, Thurwachter. Reviewed at San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, June 26, 2008. Running time: 83 MIN.


Jon Ginoli, Chris Freeman, Luis Illades, Joel Reader, Patrick Goodwin, Larry Livermore, Jesse Townley, Matt Wobensmith.
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