Special Report: Homophobia Haunts Indie Rock
Recent incidents suggest that the music scene is no safe haven for out artists in America.
On August 10, Brontez Purnell, frontman for garage-punk band the Younger Lovers, and his bandmate Adal Castellon were beaten outside Oakland’s Club Paradiso. In Purnell’s account, which he shared on Facebook and in the Bay Citizen immediately following the incident (a pending court case now limits his comments), two men followed him out of the mixed, formerly gay club, which he’s frequented for years. They shouted “batty boys” (a homophobic Jamaican slur) at the two musicians and said that they would be dead if they were in Jamaica. The unknown assailants apparently perceived both men to be gay – Purnell is, Castellon is not.
Purnell yelled back at the men; he was promptly punched and knocked off his bike. Castellon, who attempted to calm down Purnell and avoid a conflict, was also hit, causing fractures in five different places on his face, which required titanium plates to hold the bones in place. When the alleged assailants fled to their vehicle, Purnell threw his bike lock after them. Since Castellon does not have insurance, Purnell is trying to organize benefit shows on his bandmate’s behalf. Castellon told the Bay Citizen after its initial report that he is “trying to stay positive.”
As far as Purnell knows, his alleged attackers had no idea that he played music. But he also told SPIN: “I flame the fuck out. I wear tight jeans, I have a musical voice, I’m a fuckin’ queen. I talk and a purse flies out of my mouth. I stick out.”
Indeed, whether he’s hanging out casually, performing or recording songs about boys he loves, Purnell is openly gay. And that’s still dangerous, regardless of which states pass gay marriage laws, or which polls suggest shifting attitudes, or how the social taboo seems to be moving from homosexuality to homophobia. There was a 13 percent national increase in reports of anti-LGBT violence between 2009 and 2010. Within the Bay Area, the Community United Against Violence reported a 65 percent rise in anti-gay attacks during that time (although it’s possible that this was also a matter of CUAV’s increased capacity to take reports and the increased visibility of the organization).
The Younger Lovers, “Danny”
There is no specific data available on anti-gay violence and discrimination against gay musicians, but it’s become particularly apparent recently. Following the Purnell incident, in late September, girlfriends Leisha Hailey and Camila Grey of Los Angeles electro-pop band Uh Huh Her claimed that they had been booted from a Southwest Airlines flight after engaging in “one, modest kiss.” The couple allege in a statement that they were reprimanded by a flight attended for inappropriate behavior on a “family airline.” A heated exchange led to them being thrown off the plane, they claim.
“No matter how quietly homophobia is whispered, it doesn’t make it any less loud,” Hailey (who has also appeared on the Showtime series The L Word) and Grey said in a statement released the day after the Southwest altercation. “You can’t whisper hate. We ask this airline to teach their employees to not discriminate against any couple, ever, regardless of their own beliefs. We want to live in a society where if your loved one leans over to give you an innocent kiss on an airplane it’s not labeled as “excessive or not family-oriented” by a corporation and its employees.” Southwest has maintained that Hailey and Grey’s PDA was “excessive” and caused complaints from fellow passengers, but “ultimately their aggressive reaction led to their removal from the aircraft.”
Purnell, Hailey, and Grey are far from the first gay artists to encounter serious resistance as a result of their sexuality, of course. In fact, if you ask most out musicians about their experiences with homophobia, you’ll hear a story that will break your heart. I did, at least, when collecting anecdotes for this piece. Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt was pelted with bottles, rocks, and slurs outside a club in Philadelphia in the 1990s. Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart was called a “fag” and had lit cigarettes thrown at him onstage in 2003 in Austin, Texas. After Holly Miranda recently played her song “Pelican Rapids,” about Proposition 8, the 2008 California amendment restricting marriage as only between a man and a woman, she was confronted by a “big, burly door guy” who said that “if I got with him, he would make me do a 360,” says the singer-songwriter. “I was like, ‘I think you mean a 180. You’re more right than you know.'”
Musicians are particularly vulnerable to anti-gay sentiment because, says Ejeris Dixon of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, they “become representations of their communities. When people are attacking public figures, it’s a way of sending a broader message of homophobia, transphobia, racism, and all these forms of discrimination that can be a way of really fostering a homophobic and transphobic culture. They’re attractive as targets as a message to our community.”
As a result, bashing is not uncommon in the non-mainstream music world (we’ll call it “indie” here, with the knowledge that Merritt, who has released records on theWarner Bros.-affiliated Nonesuch, wouldn’t approve of such a tag). This sphere has more out figures than virtually any other major art form, except possibly theater: Merritt, Beth Ditto, Antony Hegarty, Mark Eitzel, Tegan & Sara, Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste, Le Tigre’s JD Samson, Sigur Ros’ Jonsi Birgisson, Wild Flag’s Carrie Brownstein, Patrick Wolf, Ani DiFranco, Owen Pallett, the Hidden Cameras’ Joel Gibb, and Bob Mould (who is comfortable enough to detail his 45th birthday present to himself – a male escort – in his recently published memoir See a Little Light).
Many of the artists I talked to saw their music as a refuge. “Being a punk rocker, I’ve always been a bit more…protected,” says Purnell. “Artists, people on the fringe of society, see things way different.” But it’s not a shield. “There are plenty of racists who love Jimi Hendrix. I don’t think that people let bigotry interfere with their record collection,” Merritt observes. For this reason, he recommends that artists don’t start their careers by leaping out of the closet.
“Keep them guessing until you’re in a position where coming out will mean something,” advises Merritt.
Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij says he routinely advises closeted queer people he meets to “come out now,” but that doesn’t mean he disagrees with Merritt’s point. He acknowledges that there is a subversive way of getting the world on your side and even engaging them with ambiguously gay subject matter, before essentially pulling out the rug and confirming that, yep, you’re gay. (A move like this is reminiscent of Adam Lambert’s post-American Idol career, Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, etc.)
“I think that is a means of combating homophobia and I think it’s an effective one,” says Batmanglij. He revealed his own sexual orientation in a 2010 feature story published in Rolling Stone (and discussed it further in Out), around the time of the release of Vampire Weekend’s second album, Contra, which featured a song with gay subject matter, “Diplomat’s Son,” co-written by Batmanglij.
“It was important to come out when there was something expressing my sexuality in a real way, which I think happened in [‘Diplomat’s Son’],” he explains. “As Ezra [Koenig] and I were working on the song, I realized that when the song came out, I needed to be totally comfortable with being gay, and for everyone to know I was gay.”
That gay people have to consider how to negotiate their humanity with the public is essentially homophobia before homophobia. The burden of the gay public figure weighs on all of them, even someone like Luis Illades, who joined the all-gay punk rock group Pansy Division as its drummer in 1996.
“Even I, who have gone onstage in front of thousands of people, proclaiming to be a fag in front of all these people, still have been in [public] situations where I’ve had to monitor myself out of fear,” says Illades. “It’s something that comes along with the territory… You should never have to be that person. You should always be able to be yourself 100 percent of the time. But that’s not the world we live in. Sometimes, that shit’s going to backfire on you.”
Homophobia manifests itself in covert ways, too. Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter Erin McKeown was outed against her will by the lesbian-oriented site After Ellen in 2006. Her music isn’t typical confessional, diary-entry fare, so maintaining a distance between her personal life and her music didn’t require dishonesty, and she was prepared to keep that distance for as long as possible.
“It’s been my experience that the vast majority of mainstream people, when they perceive or know that someone is queer, they think that their art is only for queer people, or they think that only queer people are going to go to that art,” says McKeown. “It excludes or isolates based on a person’s identity.” While she’s quick to point out how much she appreciates her fans, she also feels marginalized as an out artist. Regardless, being out is “less exhausting” than staying closeted.
Seth Bogart, meanwhile, sounds exhausted. His band Hunx and His Punx are unambiguously out – Bogart appeared in leather-bar drag for their “Cruising” video, singing, “I like my boys like steak / All juicy and rare.” But his stance has some inevitable drawbacks: “Every interview that I ever do, people bring it up to me,” he says. “Eventually I find it annoying, because I don’t want to talk about being gay or my sexuality, I’m just making music.” (And no, the irony of saying that to a journalist writing an article about gay musicians did not escape him.)
Meanwhile, Zan Amparan of the out New York-based punk band Little Victory, is not worried about being pigeon-holed. “I’m aware that there are people out there who will never take what I do seriously,” he says. “And that’s perfectly fine. I don’t think it’s any different from being a woman musician. Your capacity to make art is the same as everyone else’s, but there are people who aren’t going to be receptive to it. What I’m interested in is reaching young gay people.”
Though most of the instances of homophobia discussed by the musicians interviewed for this article took place outside of major metropolitan areas, Holly Miranda cautions, “It could happen anywhere.” Says Bogart: “When I go to [high-profile music convention] South By Southwest, I’m terrified, because it’s huge groups of needy white dudes.” Adds Purnell: “There’s no utopia.”
Pansy Division bassist Chris Freeman recounts Los Angeles as the site of one of the roughest stops on the band’s stint opening for Green Day, who asked the group to join them on their first stadium tour in 1994. At another show in Fairfax, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., Green Day threatened to cancel the concert because a bigoted promoter wanted to remove Pansy Division from the bill (in the end, the promoter relented and the show went on). Freeman recalls being repeatedly flipped off by audience members, once they realized that the opening band was vocally gay. At that point in his life, though, Freeman said he was used to such abuse.
Pansy Division, “I Really Wanted You”
“Where I come from [Aberdeen High School, formerly Weatherwax in Washington State], every day was like that,” says Freeman. “Every day was getting up in front of Green Day’s audience. Going to high school was just as daunting. I was getting beat up routinely. I’d have my books thrown around the halls. This was 1975 and 1976. As an adult in my thirties, getting up before Green Day, I was ready for it. No one could hurt me more than I’d gotten hurt in my teens, especially because I knew I was gay and I was projecting that. When I was a teenager, I was trying to hide it. Then I was like, ‘No, I am a fag. Call me a fag, that’s what I call myself. What else you got?'”
Being an out public figure means opening up to joy and annoyance and bigotry and pandering and possibly lowered career expectations, but it also means opening up – period. Expressing yourself and being yourself are inextricably bound, and in a homophobic society, “being yourself” is an act of bravery. But, of course, exactly what being yourself means gets complicated by notoriety.
“As a musician, or someone who’s recognizable to the general public, or even to a small group of queers, there’s something really interesting that happens to your self,” explains JD Samson, who leads the band MEN, in addition to playing in Le Tigre. “All of a sudden, there’s this duality of what is actually you and what people want from you. Creating that persona, keeping that persona, and making sure it doesn’t infect your real life is really difficult. That’s been complicated as a queer person. I feel like I have let people fetishize me. I’ve been okay with it in this way that’s been like, ‘This is great for my career!’ But it really has put me in this uncomfortable place, and it’s really hard to get out of that world. I think that’s homophobia. The fact that I’m afraid that I don’t mean anything else to this world, but being fetishized as a butch lesbian, yeah, that’s pretty depressing.”
But no matter how frustrated, angry, or disenfranchised the musicians that I interviewed felt, they were still bold and proud. Perhaps Purnell put it most succinctly: “I wouldn’t trade my existence for anything.”