Queer theory emerged during the 1990s, but its origins remain poorly understood. M.J. Bosia highlights the largely forgotten role the Punk movement played in the development of Queer consciousness in Europe and selects five key songs that underline this connection.
In the 1990s, Queer transformed from emerging transnational politics to theory, a move that troubled even some founding scholars. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner saw limits to theory and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote of disaggregating theory from people, practice, and experience, whilst Cathy Cohen reimagined Queer as intersectional and anti-racist, and Gert Hekma articulated “queering” as action. Others would come to characterise the shift as a step toward citizenship. Three decades later, “Queer” is a pseudonym, a discipline recognised in journals, at conferences, and in degrees, attaining global fixedness without regard to language or culture.
This contribution returns to Queer’s discarded origins, within a moment that bridged linguistic differences through shared socio-economic experiences and outlooks. Full of possibility for transcendence and awakening, this moment among sexual and gender minorities shares affinities with the also understudied Punk moment.
During economic dislocation, migration, and the exhaustion of post-war governance, both come to life through a variety of interwoven practices associated with the situationists. Looking to five key Punk and post-Punk songs, I will outline original Punk and Queer politics as the exposure and mocking of “the spectacle” – the central feature of power – in order to regenerate Queer as praxis for “the destabilisation and remaking of our identities”.
Material connections between Punk and Queer are numerous: the crisis of industrial economies and political consensus evident in the Winter of Discontent in the UK, the Summer of 1978 in New York, and the suppression of Berlin’s TUWAT! squatter movement in 1981; as well as the hollowing of central cities and the migration of working class, middle class, and Queer youth into a shared urban milieu, such as the Roxy in Camden Garden, a former gay club cum Punk venue where one of the most important live albums of the era was recorded. Punk youth outside London found a haven in gay clubs like the Ranch in Manchester and the Bear’s Paw in Liverpool, where their differences wouldn’t bring hostility and violence, whilst Queer youth were drawn especially to post-Punk’s gender non-conformity and subversive politics.
These material conditions brought together Queer and Punk in ideological and political conversation to confront the centre-left in power. The shared ambiguity of “Punk” and “Queer,” both defined as generalised corruption as well as a sexual one, points our attention to the situationist détournement, here seen in the hijacking of derogation, as central to the Punk-Queer symbiosis.
Shared DIY fashion in the early days emphasised gender non-conforming masculinity; once bullied and abused, Punks and Queers of all genders now deployed a mocking masochism noted for large safety pins as piercings coupled with combat boots. In their “Valentine’s Day” concert, the Sex Pistols borrowed fragments of sets from Derek Jarman’s queerotic film Sebastiane, and the post-Punk moment would move away from masculinity to androgyny and sensuality.
Whilst these connections are largely forgotten by “Queers” today, the situationist mode as revelation and consciousness is central to appreciating the political meaning of Queer. Just as artist David Wojnarowicz challenged the “pre-existing” world that constituted shame, isolation, and marginalisation, the songs that follow use situationist techniques like détournement and dérive to troll the spectacle that structures life and construct alternative moments for liberation, sex, and coalition making.
X-Ray Spex, Oh Bondage Up Yours (1977)
Written by Anglo-Somali lead Poly Styrene, as a feminist denunciation of capitalist consumerism, “Bondage” alternates between a delusional sexualisation of bondage and the rejection of enslavement. Styrene turns the materiality of patriarchy and wealth upside down, bringing together a variety of outcasts in calling for a “liberation” at the level of consciousness. “Bondage? Forget it!” She later explained. “I’m not going to be bound by the laws of consumerism or bound by my own senses.”
Nina Hagen, Auf‘m Banhoff Zoo (1978)
East German born Hagen offers a recasting of the street as dérive. She sings about a “sweet child” with “high-heeled shoes as sharp as you” in a bathroom at a Berlin youth encampment, where drug users, runaways, and sex workers gathered. As the narrator and subject embrace, the song dislocates the spectacle of victimhood occupying the public imagination, substituting instead a private moment in public space, between outcast and exile. Later, after the suppression of the squatters movement of 1981 and the “No Future” winter in Berlin, Hagen hijacked the power to appropriate the history of countercultural moments, singing “68, is over; 81, is over. Future is now” (Future is Now 1982).
Scritti Politti, Skank Bloc Bologna (1978)
Similarly, Scritti Politti’s first song echoed the 1977 movimento in Bologna as dérive, and was played on BBC Radio 1 just as the Labour government lurched toward conflict with the labour movement. In Bologna, women, queers, students, and squatters created varied impromptu rebellions and celebrations to confront a Communist Party that had entered into “historic compromise” with the establishment. As such, il movimento shaped a “period of dériving” that shifted the urban experience, and in turn, Scritti Politti, with Gramscian flourish, offered these new possibilities as repost to the song’s depiction of Britain’s desperate youth.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Relax (1983)
AIDS as spectacle linked to homosexuality, censorship of sexuality education, and proposals to abolish the Greater London Council to block local lesbian and gay programming were central to Thatcherism. In response, Relax trolls attempts to purify reproductive capitalism by mocking condemnations of gay sex, performing three intertwined subversions: first, celebrating sex that circumvents the reproductive focus on the genitals; second, revelling in the pleasures of delaying satisfaction; and, finally, the culminating “ohhh” that reclaims the entire circumstance as Queer. Banned from the BBC, Frankie’s most famous song helped birth the politics of sex central to Queer situationists.
Bronski Beat, Small Town Boy (1984)
The lyrics and accompanying video replay a familiar story of the object of desire turned bully, and a Tory father kicking out a gay youth who then finds refuge in London. More importantly, Small Town Boy should be understood in performance at the Pits and Perverts benefit concert, flipping and subverting expected temporalities and geographies of hardship and rescue as the concert brought urban Queer support for striking Welsh miners. In doing so, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners created new opportunities for coalitional politics much like the Bloc in Bologna.
These tactical and aesthetic affinities would continue through the 1980s and into the 1990s, and can be seen in organised queer responses to state homophobia exemplified by Outrage and Act Up Paris, as well as the ongoing squatters movement in Kreuzberg. The situationist techniques are evident in the die-in, the political funeral, the kiss-in, early morning “wake up calls” at the homes of government officials, and the use of fake blood and semen in a variety of actions.
Nevertheless, the appropriation of gay marriage and open military service dismantled Queer organising. Even if such rights-claims were first organised in response to their homophobic denial, the result is depoliticisation. Looking back to origins, however, provides a possibility for a future where a substantive alternative bloc still trolls, reveals, and dismantles systems of power.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: missbutterflies (CC BY-SA 2.0)