From left to right: Luis Illades, Jon Ginoli, Joel Reader, and Chris Freeman. (x)
In the early 1990s, LGBT people had very little presence in mainstream media. There weren’t many singers or musicians who were out of the closet. The climate of rock music was dominated by heterosexual men. The gay music scene was dominated by dance music and show tunes. One band noticed this and set out to break the stigma surrounding them.
Jon Ginoli started the band Pansy Division in the early 90s after feeling uncomfortable with the separation between his musical interests and his sexuality. Ginoli was disappointed to learn that the music associated with the gay community was following a stereotype he didn’t fit into. If he went out to a gay club, he wouldn’t hear the punk rock he enjoyed. Instead, he would hear dance music.
In 1991, Ginoli placed an ad in the San Francisco Weekly looking for “gay musicians into the Ramones, Buzzcocks and early Beatles.” Chris Freeman responded to the ad and became the bass player. Prior to Freeman joining the band, Ginoli had performed several solo sets under the name Pansy Division. When the two joined forces, they performed shows as a duo and later recruited drummer Jay Puget. They succeeded in forming the first all gay rock band they knew of.
Pansy Division landed a deal with Lookout! Records and released their first album, “Undressed,” in 1993. The songs on the album were written by Ginoli and were about being a gay man. The lyrics were sexual, smart, and witty. The albums booklet featured instructions on how to properly use a condom. This is something the band would include in many of their future albums. They always maintained a strong stance on sexual responsibility to go along with their sex-positive attitude.
Ginoli and Freeman were stunned to discover the amount of gay youth who listened to their music. Prior to their debut album being released, they expected to develop an audience of people their age. After the album’s release, they got letters from gay kids in small towns. The letters were from kids who were closeted and kept their records hidden, but wanted the band to know they made them feel better.
In response, Ginoli wrote a song called “Deep Water” for the band’s second album, “Deflowered,” released in 1994. The song talks about the pain of being a gay teen living in a conservative small town. The album’s booklet also featured a list of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth groups across the country. After the release of their second album, Pansy Division was invited to open for a fellow Lookout! band, Green Day, on their Dookie tour.
The band accepted the invitation and began getting mainstream exposure. MTV News even interviewed the band and used them as a centerpiece for a report on the queercore movement. Pansy Division witnessed Green Day’s popularity rise and eventually played Madison Square Garden in New York City. While on tour, the band met many major record label executives. However, they weren’t accepted due to the explicit sexual nature of their work.
Instead on toning it down, the band pressed on, releasing “Pile Up,” a compilation of various songs only previously available on vinyl. The album became the band’s best-seller, with their sales gaining a significant boost due to their association with Green Day. MTV even aired the band’s music video for “I Really Wanted You,” off their next album “With I’d Taken Pictures,” on the music video program, 120 Minutes.
After releasing another compilation album, the band released “Absurd Pop Song Romance” in 1998. The album was recorded by Steve Albini and marked a significant change in the band’s music. The lyrics were more universal and not as “gay specific” as previous albums. The band also hired drummer Luis Illades and guitarist Patrick Goodwin. After touring, the band took a much-needed break and released their next album, “Total Entertainment” in 2003.
2009 saw the release of the band’s most recent studio album, “That’s So Gay.” During this time, the band hired guitarist and vocalist Joel Reader. Reader, who is straight, wrote and sang on “Some Of My Best Friends,” a song about a heterosexual ally defending his gay friends. To promote the release, a series of web shorts using songs from the album were uploaded to their official YouTube page. A documentary film, “Pansy Division: Life In A Gay Rocky Band,” was released and is now available on DVD. Jon Ginoli also released his autobiography, “Deflowered: My Life In Pansy Division.” The band still performs shows to this day.
Pansy Division is a band that defied stereotypes and broke down barriers. They made their message known to many who wouldn’t have previously heard what they had to say. In pop culture, we’ve reached a point where it’s okay to say you’re gay, but you just can’t show it. When Pansy Division started, it wasn’t even okay to say you were gay. Not only did Pansy Division say they were gay, but they showed it, and traveled around the country doing so. They deserve a lot of recognition as most bands just come and go. They’ve stuck around and there’s no end in sight.
What do you think of Pansy Division? Do you have any other favorite LGBTQ bands or artists? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.