The great importance of Yony Leyser’s film “Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution,” which was screened at this week’s Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival, goes beyond a historical documentation of Queercore (punk music created and played by queers) and underground queer activity.
It also transcends the narrative achievement of a chronological connection between several milestones in this history, which until now were usually discussed or documented separately – in, for example, the fanzines of the 1980s and the films by Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, which combined gay pornography, punk aesthetics and political militancy, and the feminist and partially lesbian Riot Grrrl movement of the mid-’90s.
In order to hold together a great deal of fantastic archival material, most of which even people in the know haven’t seen, Leyser mobilized an impressive battery of spokesmen and spokeswomen: John Waters, Peaches, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Patty Schemel (formerly drummer with Hole, fronted by Courtney Love), Genesis P. Orridge, Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill’s vocalist and a pioneer of Riot Grrrl), and of course LaBruce.
“It was quite easy to reach all of them,” says Leyser, 33, who was born in Chicago to parents who were originally from Tel Aviv and who himself moved to Berlin about 10 years ago. “There’s a kind of international queer community of artists,” he told Haaretz in an interview, “so over the years I’ve met all of them and they already know me. They were all happy to be in a film on this subject. When I made my first film, about William Burroughs, it was much more difficult. I didn’t have a name yet, so I had to do all kinds of crazy things like sleeping backstage at concerts in order to catch artists and ask them for an interview.”
The oppressed became the oppressors
The film takes an unequivocally revolutionary stand. Leyser has harsh words about the achievements of the queer struggle, such as gaining the right to same-sex marriage, which he describes as “complicity with a sick society” that “turns the oppressed into oppressors.”
This is illustrated in the film’s chronological starting point: LaBruce and his partner, G.B. Jones, began to publish a fanzine in Toronto in the mid-80s, because they felt that the gay scene was conservative and boring.
LaBruce says that people were afraid of his look when he went to clubs. He and others talk of alienation and disgust with the hegemonic culture and the aesthetic in the scene (disco and its accompanying dress code), and a desire to combine being gay with punk and activism. What is appealing and moving about their small fanzine is the approach: If what we want doesn’t exist, let’s pretend it does. So, for example, they published charts for gay punk bands, only a tiny percentage of which even existed, and even presented some of the real bands, for example pre-fame Red Hot Chili Peppers, as gay.
A few years later, according to the film, the tactic of using underground fake news to create reality was repeated: Kathleen Hanna describes how in her first interview with a mainstream newspaper she spontaneously said: “Yes, of course, Riot Grrrl already has meetings in lots of places.” And then women and girls started looking for those meetings, and when they didn’t find any, they started organizing some themselves.
Hanna also has harsh criticism for her own generation, against the conservative machoism and sexism of the punk scene itself: “A culture of violent dancing, hostile to gays and women, was created, a kind of party to which only straight men were invited Straight men who wanted to touch each other and the only way they knew how was through violence.”
But the strongest emphasis of the desire to rebel against the queer establishment came from the New York performance artist Penny Arcade: “The original meaning of the term ‘straight’ wasn’t a heterosexual person,” she notes, “but a narrow-minded one.”
“When I got into punk I had no idea that it contained a queer element,” Leyser tells Haaretz. “I remember that the scene was generally accepting, and I remember the first time I directly encountered the attitude toward homophobia. I was living in a punk commune while I was studying and one day someone made a homophobic comment. A friend of mine who was a 2-meter-tall macho punk grabbed him and threw him into the street through the window. Luckily it was the ground floor.
“I was in shock at the strong reaction to a demonstration of homophobia. But I didn’t really connect to the Queercore scene until I started doing research for the film and reading the fanzines. I didn’t come with any prepared agenda. I also discovered that the original wave of punk in the 1970s had a lot in common with queer culture, the gay and lesbian scene. Even in Berlin the first punk bar was a gay bar.”
Another strong message in the film is that once you have experienced all the tribulations and traumas of growing up queer, you’re an eternal outsider. Lynn Breedlove, of the lesbian punk band Tribe 8, describes being an outsider as a sign of self-respect, pride and empowerment, and rightly so, in light of the achievements of this band.
But there’s still a disturbing question: To what extent does being an eternal outsider mean that you’ll never really feel comfortable inside your own skin? To what extent is there an element here of perpetuating trauma instead of overcoming it? It’s like basing your activity on continuing to preserve open wounds. Isn’t there something destructive, or simply painful, about that?
“I don’t think it leaves the wound open,” says Leyser. “The essence of artistic activity is to work through trauma. The point of an eternal outsider is that the art we create and the bonds we feel toward one another are constructed on a background in which you understand that they lied to you when they told you that there’s something wrong with being queer. The moment you understand that, you ask the obvious question: What else did they lie to you about? If society rejected you and marked you, the conclusion is not to become part of it. The conclusion is to connect to the other marked people and to create together with them, as a community.”
But even gays and lesbians who dream of a wedding and a bourgeois family life were marked and underwent the same traumatic route. They came from the same place of outsiders and the choice to blend in didn’t change that. So on what basis are you criticizing them?
“Anyone who wants to adapt to a sick society or to be a part of a dangerous social structure is contributing to the existence of a screwed-up system. When a corrupt system accepts you, you forget that it’s still corrupt. You become complacent. We’re living under the triumvirate of Putin-Trump-Netanyahu. When you’re not the one who’s oppressed at a certain moment and therefore stop fighting, you become an oppressor, a part of the problem.”
It’s all true and engraved in stone, and outsiders of the world unite. But if I’m already referring to Marxism, our perspective is that of a society that has always been based on oppression. It’s screwed up and horrifying, but there’s no other sustainable model in our experience. In that sense, to preach for total liberation, out of an approach of all or nothing, means being a collaborator and equally a part of the problem. Because if you fight for something that may never take place you’re also playing a role within something static. There’s the sick society, the system and the mainstream, and to the same extent there are always those who will say that everything is fundamentally screwed up, and evidently, everything remains the same.
Leyser differs with me, of course. “I don’t agree that the whole world is equally screwed up and sick. There are places where you see progress. I’m still in Berlin because although there are lots of screwed-up things in Germany, the situation is far better than living under a dictatorship. Queers have been rejected throughout history, and still they created some of our most exalted art, activism, literature, philosophy, and if we’re already talking – Jews too!
“There’s power and meaning to the fact that you’re living in a place that is sufficiently enlightened to allow you both access to educate yourself, and to use the education you’ve acquired in order to see what’s wrong in your surroundings or in other places, and to fight it. To be rejected, to see the hypocrisy in this rejection and to have the tools to build something based on this perception. The moment that both Jews and queers are integrated into a society that rejected them, the question is whether they’ll continue to create the same amazing things. The answer is apparently less so.”
When Netta Barzilai won the Eurovision Song Contest, many people experienced a strong dissonance when she celebrated her belief in “diversity” and that “thought changes reality” in front of tens of thousands in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on the same day that 60 Palestinian demonstrators were shot in Gaza. I assume that for you this is a clear example of the integration that makes you so angry.
“That’s exactly the disconnect that I’m talking about. I think that Netta should say what she thinks and not be a puppet on a stage. If you have an opinion, express it.”
But you only live once, and she has so much to lose. In the atmosphere of polarization in Israel, had she canceled the appearance, in a second she would have been transformed from the most popular person in Israel to a traitor.
“Yes, but you have to be courageous, otherwise your life and that of others won’t improve. What’s the point of being a public figure if you don’t improve people’s lives?
You speak harshly against nationalism, whether it’s Russian, American or Israeli. I wanted to ask if you define yourself as anti-Zionist.
“I can say that if in a given country there is one religion, one sexual orientation, one skin color, one gender, one race, then I’m against. A proper society must be one that nurtures all types and genders, that has a mix. But I’m not anti-Zionist, because I think that the original Zionist idea of a haven for refugees was an enlightened idea.”
What you’re saying is interesting, because in the present discourse there’s another place that champions uniformity and separateness of origin, sexuality, race and so on – identity politics.
“That’s terrifying. It exists in the queer scene and it drives me crazy. It’s mainly very narcissistic. The whole business of, ‘We don’t allow white people with dreadlocks or the clothes of a culture that isn’t theirs to enter this party.’ Like, those people are fascists. It’s unbelievable. It’s another example of how the oppressed becomes the oppressor. It’s repulsive and depressing.”