How Homocore Chicago propped open the gate for queer punks | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

How Homocore Chicago propped open the gate for queer punks 

Today’s activist bookers face dramatically different hurdles, but Joanna Brown and Mark Freitas gave them all a running start with this 1990s concert series.

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Drag queen and future presidential candidate Joan Jett Blakk at the queer zine festival SPEW, hosted by Randolph Street Gallery in May 1991. The fest helped bring together the founders of Homocore Chicago. - MARK FREITAS
  • Drag queen and future presidential candidate Joan Jett Blakk at the queer zine festival SPEW, hosted by Randolph Street Gallery in May 1991. The fest helped bring together the founders of Homocore Chicago.
  • Mark Freitas

"HOMO." That's what the flyers would say, in four-inch-tall letters—dozens of them, stapled to lampposts, telephone poles, and bulletin boards in and around the Wicker Park neighborhood. Beneath that, they would add "CORE," accompanied by a list of bands, a venue, and a date. It was the early 90s, and young queer punks Joanna Brown and Mark Freitas used those flyers to announce the kinds of shows they'd always dreamed of attending: rowdy all-ages rock nights where it was OK to be gay.

Homocore Chicago debuted on November 13, 1992, with a Czar Bar show by Toronto queercore band Fifth Column. The group's drummer and guitarist, G.B. Jones, is also a filmmaker, and in 1985 she and director Bruce LaBruce founded influential Toronto queer punk zine J.D.s, which coined the word "homocore." Brown and Freitas kept the series going till May 20, 2000, when it went out in a blaze of glory with Le Tigre's Chicago debut at the Preston Bradley Center in Uptown—a show that not at all by coincidence also featured a screening of Jones's short films.

  • Le Tigre take the stage at roughly the six-minute mark in this fan-shot video of the final Homocore Chicago show.

Homocore Chicago hosted queer punk nights once or twice a month at its peak in the mid-90s—a time when most U.S. states still outlawed consensual sodomy, the AIDS epidemic was piling up bodies faster and faster, and gays were barred from the military. Same-sex marriage seemed an impossible fantasy, and there was little discussion of trans experiences—and even less about trans rights. Mainstream gay culture meant being open to assimilation: pushing popular culture's boundaries just slightly to accommodate same-sex relationships. But being queer also meant having needs and ideas that mainstream institutions could never contain. Queerness was the mark of an outlaw.

Homocore was a way to say, "We're here, we're queer—and if you don't like it, fuck you." Over its nearly decade-long run in Chicago, it booked the likes of Vaginal Davis, Bikini Kill, Pansy Division, Tribe 8, the Lunachicks, God Is My Co-Pilot, and Heterocide at a variety of venues—not just Czar Bar but also the Fireside Bowl, the Empty Bottle, and DIY spots such as the Autonomous Zone. By the mid-90s, Homocore organizations had started up in Detroit and Minneapolis, and in 1994 Homocore Chicago booked several shows in Manhattan clubs. Brown and Freitas's labors over the years helped carve out space for a multifaceted, intersectional punk scene that continues thriving today.

Martin Sorrondeguy played more than his share of Homocore Chicago shows with his hardcore band Los Crudos. (He also fronts Limp Wrist, an explicitly queer group formed in 1998, but they gig infrequently due to living in different cities and thus didn't participate in the series.) He says Homocore wasn't the first local effort to connect punk and queerness. "Historically, in America, the early punk clubs were actually gay bars," he explains. In Chicago specifically, he recalls a gallery from the 80s called Hook Torture, run by Chris Kellner—later a Homocore volunteer and now vice president of performance-art space Defibrillator, which hosted a 25th-anniversary Homocore retrospective in late 2017. Hook Torture played harder, more eclectic music than most gay bars, and since it wasn't actually a bar, it wasn't regulated as closely when it came to things like age restrictions and nudity.

"There was a guy named Naked Boy, and he'd walk around in combat boots naked with a tray, all 'Can I get you a drink?'" Sorrondeguy says, laughing. "It was just edgier, so it got a lot of punk rockers involved."

Martin Sorrondeguy fronts Los Crudos in the early 90s. - ALBERT LICANO
  • Martin Sorrondeguy fronts Los Crudos in the early 90s.
  • Albert Licano

Brown and Freitas remember Czar Bar as existing in a similar regulatory gray area, not because it wasn't a bar but because it was an archetypal dive, playing things fast and loose. Carding at the door was so inconsistent that underage fans could easily get into the shows—the kids just had to keep their drinking to a minimum, so they wouldn't attract negative attention from the authorities. Nobody cared if there were gay people kissing in the bar, as long as they were racking up huge tabs.

Like Sorrondeguy, Brown connected queerness and punk early in life. In the mid-80s, as a teen in small-town Louisiana, she was one of three punks in her school. Everything in her town seemed organized around church dogma, which didn't sit right with Brown—and because she felt out of step with that world, punk was a natural fit for her. One afternoon, while poring over an issue of New York Rocker, she saw Adele Bertei of the Contortions and Lesley Woods of the Au Pairs being celebrated as a punk-rock couple. She was stunned. Two women—together?

"I couldn't believe anyone would be brave enough," Brown says. "Much less have your photo taken." She was galvanized by the idea of being so open—even brazen—about a same-sex partner. "I realized that there was an accessibility in punk music that wasn't in anything else at the time."

It'd be years before Brown, 53, would come to terms with her sexuality—in the late 80s, she began identifying as queer, and in the early 90s she decided she was a lesbian. As she figured out the boundaries of her identity, punk gave her reference points for many of her political, social, and sexual desires. She spent her free time at a record store, and she developed a rich network of pen pals through punk zines. In the mid-80s, when she visited friends in a Chicago anarchist collective, she knew it was time to relocate. The social scene she found here was influenced by exciting music and progressive politics, so after a year at a local college, she dropped out—she guesses it was 1986 and that she was 18 or 19—and moved to Chicago.

Homocore Chicago founders Joanna Brown and Mark Freitas in the early 90s (with G.B. Jones’s dog, Big Ethel) and today - JENA VON BRUCKER; JEREMY HAYES
  • Homocore Chicago founders Joanna Brown and Mark Freitas in the early 90s (with G.B. Jones’s dog, Big Ethel) and today
  • Jena von Brucker; Jeremy Hayes

Freitas, two years Brown's junior, grew up just outside Detroit and was introduced to punk by scrambled broadcasts of a local cable show called Back Porch Video, which had launched in early 1984. Area radio stations would sandwich new wave, punk, and funk into the same programming blocks as disco, which was hanging on despite its decline in New York and Los Angeles. Disco also continued to waft through gay clubs like cheap cologne—a phenomenon Freitas describes as a "generational hangover." It was so pervasive there, and for so much longer than in other cultural spaces, that in the early 90s he printed a limited run of Homocore Chicago shirts that read, "A lifetime of listening to disco is too high a price to pay for one's sexual preference."

By age 20, Freitas had come out as gay. Like Brown, he'd developed a network of pen pals through punk. Corresponding with G.B. Jones and other members of Toronto's burgeoning queercore scene convinced him to travel to SPEW, a queer zine fest held in Chicago in 1991. It was the first time he could picture himself leaving home for good. He made more trips to Chicago, drawn especially by its house-music scene and by the opportunity to plug into larger AIDS organizing efforts, and decided to move in early 1992.

Later that year, when Fifth Column reached out to Brown looking for a place to play, she thought, "How cool would it be to have a queer punk night?" Steve LaFreniere, a friend from SPEW, said he knew someone with the same idea, and Brown and Freitas soon met up at a Bikini Kill show at Czar Bar. They compared visions and strategies for bringing Fifth Column to Chicago—and in November, the show they booked kicked off Homocore Chicago.

Not every band that played Homocore was queer or even punk. Homocore was less about enforcing boundaries on genre or identity and more about bringing together loosely affiliated progressive ideas. While Homocore introduced the city to loudly queer bands such as Tribe 8, Team Dresch, and Pansy Division, the series also booked riot-grrrl acts whose relationship to queerness was less clear, including Huggy Bear, Sleater-Kinney, and the Lunachicks. When Brown and Freitas brought Bikini Kill to play in 1994, the band insisted that Los Crudos open for them. Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail had been corresponding with Sorrondeguy for years, and Brown and Freitas were fans of Los Crudos' fierce political lyrics centering Latinx struggles—but as far as anyone at Homocore knew, nobody in the band was queer.

Tribe 8 plays a Homocore show at Czar Bar in the early 90s. - MARK FREITAS
  • Tribe 8 plays a Homocore show at Czar Bar in the early 90s.
  • Mark Freitas

Sorrondeguy recalls, "Mark called us and goes, 'Now I know now none of you are gay, but . . . ' And I go, 'Well, how do you know none of us are gay? Mark, I'm gay.'"

When Crudos formed in 1991, Sorrondeguy wasn't yet out of the closet. "If I saw somebody that I could clock as being queer in a hardcore punk space in the 80s, I was afraid for them," he says. The presence of Homocore Chicago, as well as visible queer punk activity in Toronto, San Francisco, and other cities, helped him feel safe exploring his sexuality, and he eventually came out in the mid-90s. By then, queer punk projects looked to be on the decline.

"It seemed like all of them almost simultaneously lost steam," Sorrondeguy says. "Or something new had to happen. For me, it was Limp Wrist." Los Crudos went on hiatus in 1998, and Sorrondeguy funneled his urgency to take up queer space into his new project. Limp Wrist has since become one of queercore's most important bands, and this year it's celebrating the 20th anniversary of its first show.

  • Limp Wrist perform at the Co-Prosperity Sphere for the first Fed Up Fest in 2014.

By the time Homocore Chicago called it quits with that Le Tigre show in 2000, what had started as a few dozen punks at a sketchy Wicker Park bar had grown into a few hundred people in the grand auditorium of a historic 1920s building. Over the years, Homocore shows had also spread out across the city, becoming less tied to bars and thus more accessible to younger audiences. At first Brown and Freitas had promoted their events with their bold flyers and a newsletter mailing list shared with them by LaFreniere—they'd send out a mailing to everyone on the list for every show. By the turn of the century, though, they'd gone digital with a labor-saving listserv and website.

The end of Homocore Chicago wasn't the end of the city's queer punk scene, of course. The queer-focused Fed Up Fest (FUF), which wrapped a four-year run in 2017, has been perhaps the most visible expression of Homocore's legacy, but over the past two decades Chicago has seen a litany of shows and festivals in similar spirits.

Homocore Chicago participated in an anticapitalist protest at the 1994 Pride parade, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. - QUEER ZINE ARCHIVE PROJECT
  • Homocore Chicago participated in an anticapitalist protest at the 1994 Pride parade, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.
  • Queer Zine Archive Project

In 2008, for instance, the city hosted an iteration of the Combating Latent Inequality Together Fest—better known as CLIT Fest. A women-centered DIY event that also spoke to intersecting concerns such as homophobia and racism, CLIT Fest started in Minneapolis in 2004. It invited other cities to take up its banner, and there have been CLIT Fests in almost a dozen cities coast-to-coast, from Brunswick, New Jersey, to Portland, Oregon.

In 2010, the Black and Brown Punk Show Collective (now the Black, Brown, and Indigenous Crew) formed to center the concerns of people of color in punk, and in 2012, it put on its first festival. In 2013, at Chicago's second CLIT Fest, organizer Isabella Mancini had an idea: "We should do CLIT Fest but, like, all queer people," she said to a friend as they packed up gear. The other woman immediately got excited: "We should do a queercore fest!"

Mancini found like-minded friends echoing similar desires, and soon they launched the Fed Up Fest Collective. By the time of the first FUF in 2014, "Don't ask, don't tell" had been repealed. Several states had legalized same-sex marriage, and the Supreme Court had struck down any law barring federal recognition of those marriages. Trans visibility and rights were gaining ground thanks to online discourse, gradually moving off the Internet and into mainstream politics.

In Chicago, homosexuality bordered on the ordinary, which changed the stakes for organizers of shows that centered queerness. While not every queer person felt equally safe or welcome in the local punk scene, FUF could take for granted that it was OK to be gay—thanks in part to the work of groups such as Homocore Chicago. So instead FUF looked at what resisting assimilation means today. How could it cultivate a gay scene that centered people marginalized by other parts of their identities—race, class, size, disability? The problems that faced organizers had evolved dramatically since the early days of Homocore, when finding a venue was a huge victory and the first priority was often simply a temporary escape from the oppression of the straight world.

Steve LaFreniere’s poster for Homocore’s 1992 debut show (left) features a drawing by G.B. Jones of Fifth Column. The 1994 Team Dresch flyer (right) uses Homocore’s distinctive lettering. - COURTESY MARK FREITAS
  • Steve LaFreniere’s poster for Homocore’s 1992 debut show (left) features a drawing by G.B. Jones of Fifth Column. The 1994 Team Dresch flyer (right) uses Homocore’s distinctive lettering.
  • Courtesy Mark Freitas

At its inception, Fed Up Fest described itself as a "safe space," then later as a "community of care" with an anticapitalist DIY ethos. This meant continually addressing concerns about the inclusivity of the event—providing child care, booking wheelchair-accessible spaces, et cetera. Former collective members reflect on FUF's three-day weekends of music, panels, and workshops with words such as "magical," "affirming," and "life-changing." But they also say "exhausting" and "emotionally draining" to describe the year of planning—and absorbing criticism—that went into every fest. According to Mancini, FUF dissolved because it was no longer carving out a space that needed to be carved out.

"I personally felt like we were doing the white version of what Black and Brown is doing," she says, "and that approach felt unnecessary. The reality is, it's not that hard to be a white gay person in Chicago. Let's reflect on that."

E. Ornelas, a member of the FUF collective in 2016 and 2017, found themselves bumping up against the limitations of defining their politics through their queerness. "I'm veering further away from identity-based projects," they explain. "I don't think that those things inherently hold the critiques that I want them to. I'll find myself in places with other queer folks or other people of color and realize those identities don't inherently bring a certain politics that I once expected them to."

The problem, put simply, is how to tackle one issue in a way that doesn't aggravate another. "I still meet lots of queer folks that don't quite know how to grapple with white supremacy," Ornelas says. "I interact with lots of folks of color who aren't indigenous who don't know how to talk about decolonial politics. I talk to lots of folks who are anarchists or radicals who can't think beyond critiques of capitalism and the state to other modes of oppression."

At the same time, Ornelas is helping organize a similar queer-specific punk festival in Boston called Sheer Queer—though they realize that it's less out of necessity and more about building community and having fun. The past few years have seen an explosion of queer-focused festivals, including the London-based Mighty Hoopla, Berlin's Whole Festival, and Go West Fest in LA. While the events' scales vary, they're all a far cry from small DIY punk fests. The only thing they share is "queer" as a qualifier—an alternative to the more sharply defined "LGBTQ+" that can both create and challenge possibilities. The rise in "queer" events, as opposed to "LGBTQ+" events, may be a response to a perceived lack of diversity and gender parity in existing Pride celebrations and gay-oriented festivals. It may be a reaction to the dwindling of gay bars and other established queer venues. Either way, it points to a real demand for space without clearly identifying who needs it.

"In the last couple years, I've literally heard straight people describe themselves as 'politically queer,'" Mancini says. "That's very offensive to me. It's also like, OK, what does a queer-specific space look like then?"

The FUF collective wouldn't call planning the fest easy, though the readiness with which it could find a home for an openly and explicitly queer punk event is a testament to how much Chicago has changed. Much of what made FUF unique were its extensive self-imposed regulations—it had very specific ideas about who should perform at the fest and where it should happen. Bands had to be explicitly queer, for instance, with a punk spirit if not a punk sound, and venues had to be accessible and all ages. The collective would enforce other rules, too, such as "no white dreads in the space." It made these gestures to underline who the fest wanted to center: queer people marginalized in multiple ways, with little reason to trust any institution. These gestures would have been impractical if not impossible in the Homocore days, but they recognize and respect queerness as something that marks people as unprotected by society.

Bruce LaBruce’s forehead, Mark Freitas, and G.B. Jones at Jones’s Toronto apartment - COURTESY MARK FREITAS
  • Bruce LaBruce’s forehead, Mark Freitas, and G.B. Jones at Jones’s Toronto apartment
  • Courtesy Mark Freitas

FUF had some advantages over Homocore Chicago: the expediency of social media, a large pool of organizers to share responsibility, only three days to book rather than an open-ended series. But it also had to deal with the constant hum of outside feedback, a large group of personalities to bring to consensus, and a long list of lofty goals. Brown and Freitas owe the longevity of their project in part to their choice to keep it small and flexible.

"Being just two people who trust each other helped us make decisions and avoid the infighting that often tears groups apart," Freitas says. (He and Brown, who both live in Avondale now, remain close.) "But we had amazing help and guidance from others. That support kept us going, as did a sense of duty to the community we brought together and the bands we loved."

Homocore Chicago emerged when being gay in punk was dangerous. But existing on the fringe let Brown and Freitas create space for more than gay folks: women, people of color, and anyone else who felt unwelcome enough at mainstream rock shows to seize on a flyer that said "HOMO" in big letters. The strides made in the 90s have allowed younger organizers to be more specific and intentional when envisioning queer space—and that's opened up more possibilities for what such a space can be. But for as long as punk remains the music of outsiders, queer punks will continue to ask: "Who doesn't have a seat at the table? And what do we do if they don't even want to sit there?"  v

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