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This art exhibit explores the LGBTI roots of the Punk movement

This art exhibit explores the LGBTI roots of the Punk movement

Gender-bending punk band, New York Dolls, in 1973

Punk Lust: Raw Provocation 1971-1985 is an exhibit at NYC’s Museum of Sex. It explores the intersection between sexuality and the punk movement.

When people think of punk, images of skinny white boys (Joey Ramone, Sid Vicious) might come to mind. However, this exhibit will feature lesser-known punk icons, including LGBTI punks.

The Exhibit

Curated by cultural critic Carlo McCormick, writer/musician Vivien Goldman, and artist/Museum of Sex curator Lissa Rivera, the large exhibit includes over 300 objects. These items include rare photographs and personal objects, such as Johnny Thunders’ leather jacket, owned by Manic Panic founders Tish and Snooky. It will also feature visual pieces by LGBTI artists like David Wojnarowicz.

‘The exhibition explores everything from punk’s intersection with the sex industry, gay leather culture’s influence on punk fashion, the deep impact of queer culture on punk’s roots, and more,’ writes Emily Colucci for

‘More than sheer shock value, Punk/Lust asserts that punk’s transgressive aesthetics were a radical and rebellious political critique of heteronormativity, which continues to resonate today.’

The exhibit begins with punk’s queer influences, including John Waters, Divine, Andy Warhol, and more.

In the Curator’s words

‘I wanted to be able to connect everything back to Andy Warhol and David Bowie,’ Lissa Rivera told ‘If you read all the history, especially of British punk, they all worshipped Bowie and androgyny in general. Similarly, Warhol did exciting things with the Velvet Underground and their intersection with the queer and trans community in the 1960s, with songs like “Venus in Furs” or “Candy Says.” It would be completely revelatory to any young person that listened to them. Another person who often gets lost in this history is Jayne County, who was roommates with Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis, and was also a part of the Stonewall riots.’

‘It was also interesting to see who Malcolm McLaren was looking at. He was looking at Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and leather culture. There’s more of an intersection with gay leather culture than you would normally assume.’

Punk vs. Disco

Rivera goes on to discuss the differences between the punk movement and the disco movement, both of which were influenced heavily by queer culture.

‘With disco, it was about an ecstatic release coming out of Stonewall. Pre-Stonewall, LGBTQ+ people were used to horrible abuse, having to be in mob-run bars and pay off the cops in order to exist. Disco came out of this opportunity to be public,’ Rivera explains.

‘It was feminine, queer, and embraced people of color. If you’re repressed for a long time and all of a sudden being celebrated, you become much more expressive and realize there’s so much more to discover about life. It was about creating a world to explore that didn’t just relate to heteronormative expectations. It was also a way to transcend the music charts, because Billboard was controlled by a few white men in a really corporate world. There weren’t many ways to break through, but in clubs, when they were spinning records, they could compete. There was immense power.’

‘Punk was very anti-commercial; I relate it more to the sex industry,’ Rivera continues. ‘If you think about the landscape of New York City at the time, people were working in peep shows, and as professional dommes and sex workers. It wasn’t necessarily seen as taboo, but as an exciting way to explore your identity. This was a group of people who worshipped Rimbaud, Jean Genet and William S. Burroughs. There was freedom because rent was so low. You could do phone sex a couple nights a week and have enough money to go out every night. And because it all worked to combat moral norms, there was a sense of excitement.’

Punk’s subversiveness

‘Punk looked at the hypocritical society of the 1970s, which was simultaneously a return to the restrictive morals of the 50s while Deep Throat became the highest-grossing film of 1972. Punk engaged with these conflicting ideologies and the absurdity of it all. There’s also a certain level of nihilism in punk and a desire to see how far you could push yourself. This is actually true of disco as well. There’s a desire to see how much you could experience life, whether your pleasure was risk or ecstasy.’

New York Dolls

One band in particular, The New York Dolls, started to play with gender-bending. They’d often perform in makeup, heels, and women’s clothing.

‘The New York Dolls were directly influenced by Warhol and the Theatre of the Ridiculous, for sure,’ Rivera says of the group. ‘It’s really interesting because if you listen to Johnny Thunder’s solo work, he has a song called, “I’m A Boy, I’m A Girl.” I wonder what they were tapping into. In the early 1970s, there was a certain level of ambiguity that the movement evolved away from. It seemed to evolve into something that was more specifically geared toward queer offshoots of punk. Like homocore or Derek Jarman’s films. There were more directly queer works that weren’t necessarily ambiguous.’

From the 70s to Now

‘With our current cultural climate being less dependent on gendered binaries, many people I talked to were able to speak more freely about their attractions or their desire to be between binaries,’ Rivera says of putting together the exhibit.

‘The literature in rock magazines at the time was very misogynistic. Now it’s much less so. Looking at it now, there is a kind of freedom this 1970s generation is feeling. There’s not as much shame now about the spectrum of sexuality or desire.’

Visiting the Exhibit

Punk Lust: Raw Provocation 1971-1985 runs at New York City’s Museum of Sex through 30 November, 2019.

See Also:

Feminist punk band Bikini Kill announced a reunion tour — too bad people can’t afford it

Pete Shelley, bisexual singer of Buzzcocks, dies at 63

EXCLUSIVE: Pussy Riot head to Hong Kong to fight for LGBTI rights