Pansy Division is the first all-out gay rock band that had success in the pop world. Formed in 1991 by Jon Ginoli, they’re known for their melodic rock & roll sound, similar to what you would hear in recent bands such as Shannon and the Clams, Tijuana Panthers, and Mrs. Magician.
The band came to the national stage while opening up for Green Day when touring in support of the Dookie album. The tour started with playing clubs and, by the end of the tour, the bands were playing to audiences of 20,000. Jon talked with us about moving to San Francisco, the significance of being an out rock band in the ‘90s, what its now like living in San Francisco as a musician, and reflecting on 25 years in the Mission.
You can catch Jon Ginoli performing with Bob Mould tonight at Great American Hall as part of Noise Pop.
UA: What brought you to San Francisco?
Jon Ginoli: I had lived in Central Illinois in a college town and I was looking to live in a gayer place. I wasn’t sure if I was going to go to California, but the last year in Illinois, we had a really cold winter and I said to hell with it, not everybody has to go through this.
When I got here in ‘89, I felt I had got to the right place. My rent was $325 a month; I had 3 roommates. And that wasn’t even the lowest. This is in the Mission. For a Mission flat in 1989, the entire 4 bedroom place rented for 1300 dollars. And that’s how musicians have survived in San Francisco.
UA: How did it feel when you first got here… what was the city’s energy like?
JG: It was exciting on one hand, and had a lot of activity. But I remember thinking a lot at that time about how empty San Francisco seemed. The north east Mission near where I lived just seemed to be abandoned. I remember riding my bike around the area and seeing all these empty buildings, thinking, “I know a lot of people who would love to live in these buildings. Why are these buildings sitting empty?” None of my friends got to live in them because they all became condos.
UA: What caused you to form Pansy Division?
JG: As someone that grew up loving rock & roll and being gay, there seemed to chasm. It seemed like the only musicians allowed to be out was people doing disco, which was played in gay clubs.
One of my long-standing gripes is that there is this thing being called dance music. And that’s what you are allowed to dance to in dance club. Whereas what people actually dance to over the years is a varied thing, but you put it into this dance club setting it becomes a product that is very uniform.
This was also a time when nobody was out in rock & roll yet. No one. Everyone you think was out… was not. I remember in ‘89 that there was the rap group N.W.A., and I thought, “wow, in hip hop you can be all these things, and in rock ‘n roll you can be all these things, but the one thing you can’t be is gay.” And I remember thinking, “alright if no one is going to do it, if no one is going to speak up, I want to sing about gay topics and do rock ‘n roll.” It was an opportunity to sing about the things I wanted to sing about.
You have to remember this is the time of the AIDS crisis, so there was a lot of homophobia, but also a sympathy and realization that, yah, gay people aren’t going away and we have to deal with this. Also the alternative rock thing was really taking off, so if I had a band that was poppy and melodic with gay subject matter, some people would like it.
I had this idea back in Illinois, but couldn’t imagine an audience until I got here. I also didn’t think I would be the one to do it. I thought somebody that is gay is going to come out, and this whole thing is going to start. But then I realized no one was going to do it, so I did. Other people had the same idea that I did, and at the same time. One of the forgotten chapters is the band Tribe 8, which was a dyke band that started at the same time as us, and are an interesting parallel to us.
UA: I just listened to the ‘90s Howard Stern segment where he went to the Green Day Dookie show and spent a lot of time talking about Pansy Division. It reminded me that this was the time where the country was finally starting to talk about sexuality in the media and not hiding it so much.
JG: One of the things that is important is mainstream visibility, and [for the gay rock movement] Nirvana was a really important band. At that time, Guns ‘n Roses and Nirvana were the two big bands. And what a stark contrast you have: Kurt Cobain, somebody who was pro-gay, and Axel Rose, who just spews homophobia in his lyrics and comments. That was a really interesting divide. In ‘92 there was a ballot measure in Oregon to restrict gay rights. There was a benefit concert against it and Nirvana headlined. And this was the early height of their career. That makes a tremendous difference on how these things are filtered down to kids. So when we got to do the tour with Green Day, it was really interesting to get out there and face kids.
With Green Day, they had been on the same label as us before they moved to Warner Brothers, and they had wanted to make a statement by having us opening up, saying they aren’t your typical rock band product. I think that worked very well for both of us. People could see that Green Day was thoughtful, and that we had something to offer. It was a mind-blowing experience for both us, and for the audiences, which had a very mixed reaction to us.
Back in ‘94 and ‘95, we would get letters from teenagers from all over the country who had seen us open for Green Day. They would write us and tell us about what was going on in their high school, like a really homophobic teacher, or a really cool teacher, or a person standing up for the gay kid in class. It was quite the experience.
UA: Of course there plenty of bands with all GLBTQ members, but there does seem to be a lot less in rock ‘n roll… and way less queer rock coming out than during the queercore scene of the ‘90s… is that a fair comment?
JG: I just don’t think its as big of a deal now. Like I said earlier, if someone had come out earlier and said, “I’m an out [rock] musician,” then I wouldn’t haven’t done what I did, and I don’t know what my life would be like. Even though we weren’t a huge band, we kicked in the door, and a lot of people came in after us. They didn’t want to be first, and I understand that.
UA: Lately San Francisco has been going through a lot of growing pains. I know you’ve seen it go through booms and busts before. How do you feel about the current situation, and how does it compare to other boom/busts?
JG: During the last boom there weren’t tens of thousands people living in San Francisco and working 30, 40, 50 miles away in the South Bay. It’s the way that San Francisco has become a bedroom community, which has really distorted the housing market here. But I also think the changes this time are more permanent.
The appeal when I moved here was that it was expensive compared to the Midwest, but still pretty cheap. San Francisco in the early 90’s seemed to have a lot of possibilities that did not seemed foreclosed by the sake of needing a lot of money. It was easy to move here, and a lot of people would come and go. I mean someone would go move to Berlin for a year, and easily move back the next year. That isn’t news to anyone who’s been living here, but there was a freedom of mobility, and the idea that you could come and go and live somewhere cheap in the neighborhood you want to live in. That’s all gone now.
So when people say San Francisco is over, they are partly right. But a lot of us still persist, so until we’re gone, the whole thing hasn’t changed completely. What is going to change things is that the people who want to move here, and continue in the legacy that city has, won’t be able to.
There are pockets of resistance, but I don’t see how anyone that isn’t rich can move here. I know people who I would encourage to move here, but now I say no. It’s hand-to-hand combat to get an apartment.
A lot of people are tempted to come here, but they won’t be able to stay. I think people in the rest of country are starting to understand how hard it can be. I live in the Mission with a couple of stable roommates. But downstairs? The turnover rate is amazing. People in their 20s who keep coming here but failing and having to leave. It’s interesting to watch, and kind of sad.
UA: I have some friends wanting to move here. And 3 years ago, I would have told them to come. But now? “You don’t want to move here.” Even in a year it might be easier if the bubble pops. But you never know.
JG: You never know.
One of the reasons why I moved to the city is because it’s a gay city, and it’s still a very gay city. The difference now is, say you find someone and you fall in love with them, and you want to live together… it’s pretty much impossible unless one of you is rich. So if you want to live with your partner: let’s say you manage to find a place, and move in. If you break up you’re exiled from the city; I’ve seen it happen before. And that isn’t good for the city. People moving here can’t decide to move in together because they can’t get an apartment, or getting one means an incredible rent rise. It just changes the whole tenor of what its like to be here, and find someone to be in love. Will you get to live together maybe… but not in the city you love.