In the main we are a much more tolerant society today when it comes to other people’s sexual orientation.
While there will always be an undercurrent of intolerance displayed by the less reconstructed members of our society, most of us are perfectly happy to accept relationships and sexual behaviours that are different to our own without the taint of prejudice.
What we can now see as part of the very fabric of our society has been won in relatively recent times however, with the 1970s now viewed as the point in time where the real push against sexual prejudice gained genuine momentum.
The glam and disco movements are generally regarded as playing massive roles in changing the general public’s reactions to the kinds of sexual orientation that went against the grain of heterosexual orthodoxy and it can’t be denied that they played their part.
Punk, on the other hand, tends to be viewed as something of a footnote in the story of the fight for gay and other rights, but the seeds for a greater understanding of and tolerance for other people’s sexual leanings were being sown behind the more readily remembered cries of “no future”.
Glam, despite its liberal use of make up and an androgynous dress code, was pantomime designed to titillate and outrage the Sunday tabloid mindset in order to sell product, nothing more and nothing less.
Bowie and Bolan may have camped it up and alluded towards bisexuality in interview, but Bowie was married to Angie – albeit in an open relationship – while Bolan’s time in the spotlight spanned two apparently settled relationships, first with June Child and latterly with Gloria Jones.
The likes of The Sweet were essentially a bunch of bricklayers who’d raided their sister’s Max Factor vanity case, whilst the less said about Gary Glitter the better.
Disco, on the other hand, was very much a product of gay culture, but that was a fact that remained largely unspoken of, particularly here in the UK, at least until the likes of the late, great Sylvester and the rather less brilliant Village People brought the genre’s non-hetero base out into the open late in 1978.
Prior to that, the most overt sexual thrust of disco had been Donna Summer‘s 25 simulated(?) orgasms on the pioneering 12″ mix of “Love To Love You Baby” which was embraced and celebrated by a hetero audience that was largely unaware of disco’s debt to the gay, lesbian and cross-dressing communities of urban USA.
Maybe it was the transgressive nature of punk, but its acceptance and embracing of gay culture was visible from the very get-go, descending to the very core of a soul steeped in such influences as the New York Dolls and Lou Reed.
It’s now generally accepted that the twin punk scenes that started to emerge in New York and London evolved pretty much separate from each other, at least in the early stages, and yet both scenes boasted key protagonists who were either themselves gay, bi or socially connected to the larger alternative social scene.
New York centred to a greater or lesser extent on CBGBs, a rundown venue in the Bowery district where the aforementioned Lou Reed and Dolls regularly held court and influenced to a large extent the general outlook of the scene that built around the club.
None were truly gay – Reed was bisexual and it was rumoured that a couple of the Dolls were similarly inclined, though this was never actually confirmed – but their dress code and trash aesthetic held a seductive sexual allure that inevitably drew in a clientele whose tastes were rather more exotic than mere heterosexual orthodoxy.
As new bands started to emerge, gay influences and connections became even more apparent, running in tandem with the arthouse side of the CBGBs scene that is most memorably personified by Television and Talking Heads.
The most visible, and definitely the most outrageous, gay presence was Wayne County who, thanks to his relatively brief connection to Mainman Management, offered direct lineage back to Bowie and Reed and he was actually a contemporary of the Velvet Underground as a member of Andy Warhol’s Factory clique.
Although Wayne’s eventual commercial success was limited even by punk’s standards, his influence cannot be discounted simply because he out-dolled Thunders and co in a stage get up of wig, make up and fishnets and a collection of songs such as “If You Don’t Wanna Fuck Me Baby, Baby Fuck Off” that left the audience in no doubt as to his sexual orientation.
It was a confrontational stance that invited trouble in such unenlightened times and that trouble duly arrived at a gig where continued homophobic abuse from Dictators singer “Handsome” Dick Manitoba – in the audience and drunk on the night – ultimately led to Wayne clocking his tormentor with a microphone stand.
Unfortunately for both men, the stand was one of the old fashioned type with a cast iron base that caused injury serious enough to warrant hospitalisation which meant hefty health bills for Manitoba and the real risk of jailtime for County.
The incident was a defining moment for US punk’s relationship with its gay aficionados as the scene had no choice but to confront the homophobia that was simmering below the surface, and the result was a ban on The Dictators playing anywhere in New York that lasted for a couple of years.
Leee Black Childers was another gay presence within the fledgling punk scene who could trace his roots back to his involvement with the Warhol crowd, coming to prominence initially as a photographer primarily of the drag queens who were a major contingent at the Factory.
He duly became involved with the New York Dolls, being especially close to Johnny Thunders, and in a sense it is in this latter role that he became something of a bridge between the gay punk scenes in New York and the UK.
After the messy implosion of the Dolls, he helped Thunders and Jerry Nolan to form the Heartbreakers, becoming their manager as they started to make their presence felt in New York City and so he was an established and solid presence when he received a phone call in late November 1976 from London, England ….
Punk as an actual gigging presence in the UK was exactly a year old when Childers received that phone call from Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols and former manager of the New York Dolls in the latter band’s final death throes.
By this point punk had already gained momentum as a movement in the UK and as it had gained pace and new devotees throughout the summer, it had already started to evolve into a multi-headed hydra that was a rather different beast from the one that had first coalesced around the Pistols.
The original Pistols crowd was essentially a bunch of dressers left over from the Bowie/Roxy Music scene, a mixture of hetero, gay and bi kids who had been drawn to the band via Sex, the Kings Road clothes shop owned by McLaren and his designer girlfriend Vivienne Westwood.
The sexually transgressive nature of the clothes on offer – controversially printed T-shirts alongside lingerie and fetish clothing that had been co-opted as outrageous daywear – made the shop a magnet for this displaced post-glam crowd and they duly began to follow the band around, creating a stir that was very much the equal of that created by the Pistols themselves.
Band and followers were regulars at Club Louise in Soho, a lesbian bar that tolerated these strange new creatures in a way that so-called straight establishments wouldn’t and this shared pariah status among punks and non-heteros was to become a feature of punk that was replicated across the country.
As the outrage around the Pistols and their entourage started to permeate the pages of the music press, they drew the attention of like minded individuals in the provinces, including a young bisexual art student in Bolton named Peter McNeish who reinvented himself as Pete Shelley, formed a band he named Buzzcocks and promoted two fabled gigs featuring the Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall.
This instantly cemented Manchester’s status as punk’s second city in the UK and Shelley and his fellow Buzzcocks began to frequent The Ranch, a bar situated next door to Foo Foo’s Palace, a club owned by drag artiste Foo Foo Lammar who also owned The Ranch.
There was a connecting door between the two venues that no doubt made for some interesting interchanges between the respective clienteles, but the proximity of the two venues meant that the punk and gay scenes – outsiders both – quickly melded under the constant harassment of mainstream bloke culture.
Back in London, the Pistols notoriety quickly. led to them – and by extension punk in general – being banned from most of the capital’s established venues and, after Sid Vicious threw a glass at The Damned during the 100 Club Festival, it was seen as absolutely essential that punk found its own, purpose built home in the capital.
Enter Gene October, lead singer of Chelsea and, in his own words, “a bit of a bender”, who persuaded his manager Andy Czezowski to take on the lease of a failing club in Covent Garden called Chaguaramas in order to turn it into a hub for London’s punk scene.
Rechristened The Roxy, it lasted a mere 100 days but in that time gave the movement a base from which to consolidate its position as an exciting new scene that welcomed people of every sexual persuasion with open arms.
The Heartbreakers virtually became the Roxy’s de facto house band, an arrangement that had as much to do with financing the band’s various heroin habits as much as anything, and Childers remembered it fondly as a place where impressionable young boys could experiment in the car park opposite the club.
Embracing punk at virtually the same time as the Ranch and the Roxy, but lasting a couple of years longer, was Erics in Liverpool and it was here, perhaps more than anywhere else, that punk’s acceptance of the gay crowd was to have its most long-lasting effects.
The house band at Erics was Big in Japan, an art-punk quintet that spawned future members of the KLF, Siouxsie & the Banshees and the Lightning Seeds among others, and who had taken their cue from Deaf School, a flamboyant mid 70s ensemble who deserved a damn sight more commercial success and are worthy of far more historical credit than has been furnished upon them.
Most importantly as far as gay culture was concerned however was the presence on bass guitar in Big in Japan of a guy who sported half mast, bright red “Rupert Bear” trousers and cropped, bleached blonde hair with the word “psycho” dyed through it in an electric shade of blue.
His name was Holly Johnson and as punk became more “blokeish” with the advent of the Oi movement, he put down the bass, grabbed the mic and formed a new ensemble with co-vocalist Paul Rutherford, another out-there gay member of the city’s inner punk circle who had previously fronted the Spitfire Boys.
Their new band Frankie Goes To Hollywood were, for a brief period, the most commercially successful and gloriously transgressive band on the planet, thanks to the twin titan singles “Relax” and “Two Tribes”, the former’s lyrics and video leaving the audience in no doubt as to where its sexual proclivities lay.
Another Erics mainstay, although he was more notorious for his acidic presence behind the counter at the city’s main independent record store Probe, was Pete Burns.
Burns was flamboyantly bisexual, despite being married to Lynne, and he was a natural frontman who formed Dead Or Alive, a Doors-sounding band who had achieved minor success on the independent Inevitable label before Stock, Aitken & Waterman came calling.
The result of this change in direction was “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)”, a deliriously gay anthem and a global hit that launched Burns onto a career as a singer, TV personality and a master of the cutting put-down.
By this time even though the Frankies and Burns had both moved away sonically from their punk roots, they had become mainstream totems for gay culture, something that they may have not been able to achieve had punk not provided them with the platform to find their feet musically and establish their underground presence first.
By the time the 80s dawned, disco’s gay roots had been duly celebrated and there can be no doubting that punk and disco – two very contrasting bedfellows – had led a dual assault on the homophobia that previously had been part of everyday live and forced all of us to address the kind of casual abuse that most of us had indulged in at some point.
Every youth culture and musical tribe that has followed on from New Romantic to house and from indie to techno hasn’t generally had to confront attitudes towards sexual orientation because punk and disco had rendered the old attitudes and prejudices obsolete.
Punk may not have changed the political landscape in the way the likes of The Clash would have liked or even killed off the rock n roll dinosaurs that the Pistols saw as their particular bete noir.
It did have a dramatic effect on our tolerance of other people’s sexuality though, and that is something I believe it should be given a lot more credit for.