Giselle's Books

Bruce LaBruce and Hugo Bausch Belbachir in conversation

The curator of the exhibition Don’t Be Gay: J.D.s (1985-1991) held at Giselle’s Books engage in an extended conversation with the co-founder of J.D.s.
They discuss the fascinating origins of the zine as well as the genesis of the Queercore movement among other themes.

Hugo and Bruce’s discussion sheds light on the crucial role of J.D.s and its impact on the queer community and Toronto’s alternative scene in the late 80s.


Hugo Bausch Belbachir : What I found interesting when I engaged in my research on Queercore is that I found myself studying something else than Queercore, or its musical phenomena. To be more precise; I ended up suggesting queer narratives where they were possibly hidden. Somehow, and for the past 400 years, Queercore was a mystery, and then a surprise, when understood within punk movements. This brings us back to a continuous position regarding queer histories, which is working with concealed pieces of evidence. So this was immediately very political, in the same way that the etymology of ‘punk’ takes its roots within the same as ‘faggot’. When I was thinking about this interview, I was mainly occupied with thoughts about the epistemological approach that J.D.s structured. Maybe I should simply ask you about the context of J.D.s’ debuts. 

Bruce LaBruce: Well, where should I begin? There were several people, either in the punk scene or peripheral to it, that were doing fanzines really early on, in the mid-1980s. One of them was called Fags and Faggotry which was done by a more gay-identified man, doing political and pornographic content. In a way you probably need to start with The Body Politic which was a gay Marxist publication distributed for free in Toronto’s gay bars in the 70’s and 80’s. It was very political and directed towards activism as a kind of direct intervention. These were the people that had been politicized by the sexual revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, and the more nascent gay liberation movement that had underpinnings of feminism and black activism, too. That gay thing was becoming more political while also being, already by the mid-1980s, more of a white, middle-class movement. So my friends and I, who already were in the punk scene or in some kind of underground, were very disillusioned by this gay orthodox scene controlled by white, middle-class narratives, as it was exhibiting elements of racism, misogyny, and classism. We were very much opposed to that, and that’s why we turned to punk and started our first homocore fanzine. My friend Candy had one too, called Dr. Smith, which was more overtly punk and had a lot of subtextual homosexual content, or subtext. Then we found that the punk movement had the same problems as the mainstream gay movement, and felt like we were alienated by both subcultures and caught in the middle. That’s what J.D.s was about, as well as homocore, originally. In the gay world, lesbians and gays were very much separated, and there weren’t a lot of social or political alliances between us. We were very much insistent on being more diverse and interested in some sort of coalition, between gays, lesbians, and trans, as well as racial inclusivity. We would have people of color on our covers and stuff like that. This is all the way back to the late 1980s. The other notable thing is that G.B. Jones and I created J.D.s as some kind of narrative, or meta- narrative – you could also say ‘fake news’ – that we were a full-fledged underground movement that was already established, with hundreds of members, creating a sort of havoc or upheaval in Toronto. It really started with me and a couple of my female friends making it seem like we were a big gang. Some people believed it and then a lot of others started, in other cities, doing the same thing, as we were sending our fanzines and movies to the, let’s say, five big punk fanzines. We also used to put ads and then they would write articles about us. There was Vaginal Davis in Los Angeles with Fertile La Toyah Jackson Magazine, who also used to work with Rick Castro, who did Shrimp. He was also doing a lot of underground gay leather photography and fashion. There was also Linda Simpson in New York doing My Comrade, which was more of a drag fanzine. Then later this guy from San Fransisco, Tom Jennings, started a fanzine named Homocore. I can’t really remember when it turned into Queercore, because I was always ambivalent towards the term ‘queer,’ mainly because it had already been coopted by the end of the 1980s. It had a political connotation that was a little more orthodox than what we were doing. We were more in the spirit of the Situationists and Anarcho-Syndicalists. The queer movement itself was a radical left moment but also more of a mainstream or political strategy organized with the fantasy of existing within the system, as opposed to us. We were radically underground and dealing with pornographic, almost terrorist imagery and being about promoting an idea of homosexuals as criminals, something that embraces its criminality and the censorship and the hostility directed towards it, something that we cultivated in a kind of aggressive, punk way. So that’s a long-winded explanation. 

H.B.B: I remember this text by Guy Hocquenghem that was published in Semiotext(e)’s Hatred of Capitalism, which was titled We all can’t die in bed, or something like that. Anyways, it’s about Pasolini’s death on this desert beach next to Rome, in Ostia, as a manifesto on homosexual meta-criminality and lethal destiny. I mean it’s kind of silly talking about Guy Hocquenghem today for so many reasons, but this text makes so much sense when it comes to the context of homosexualities in the 1970s. In a way J.D.s also stood against Cocteau or Wilde, fancy fags let’s say, and opened its questioning on queers as a group of misfits, punks, junkies, and hustlers. 

B.L: Well we were in a way forced to have our bars in rough parts of town, on the waterfront, or somewhere with that energy. Gay bars were repositories for all sorts of misfits and criminals; people who just got out of jail, people hiding from the law, sex workers, and all the people who didn’t fit anywhere else either: gays and transgenders, people of color. We would all congregate in these places and this formed a sort of loose community that was more aligned with what Punk was doing in the late 80’s, at least in Toronto – people being transgressive. I remember that the Southern California Punk scene was very queer. It had a lot of queer bands that were not aligned with the gay movement per se but had queer members, like The Germs and Darby Crash, The Bags, Catholic Discipline, all those kinds of bands that had queer members but were more aligned with punk aesthetics and politics. 

H.B.B: There’s also an ambivalence around these aesthetics as emptied from their, let’s say, original political meaning. At some point you started presenting yourselves as The New Lavenders Panthers, referring to Raymond Broshears’s self-harmed, queer militia. 

B.L: Yes, and which is referencing the Black Panthers themselves. 

H.B.B: It’s also a rigorous vocabulary; The New Homosexual Revolution, The Gay Rebels, Juvenile Delinquents, The Sex Rebels, The Teen Gangs. It’s perverting perverted references. 

B.L: Any kind of subversive or subcultural movement, we were interested in. That’s why we were so much into pornography, as it was essentially oppositional to the dominant sexual order. My partner G.B. Jones was obsessed with Bubblegum music and bands. Candy, especially Candy, was completely into comics, and so we were kind of trying to channel these target audiences; young kids, teens who may be queer and not know it or not knowing how to express it, in big cities or smaller ones, and trying to tap into that kind of natural, spontaneous youth rebellion. There was also this other fanzine called Hide that was about Situationist détournement and similar strategies. I remember that Candy drew a series of comics that were based on skater characters and skate culture, which we were very much into. You know, we were obsessed with movies like Crime in the Streets, Wild in the Streets, and stuff like that, gangs, prostitution, street hustlers. They played a big part in this. I started dating a hustler whom I guess was my first boyfriend, even though he was straight and had a girlfriend. Later he became a neo-Nazi skinhead and we broke up after he beat me up.

H.B.B: I’ve regularly come to the conclusion that Queercore was more of an imprecise rhythm depending on class and historical conjunctions, instead of being an organized movement. 

B.L: You’re right. It was almost like a collective in a way, but not so organized. We were heavily influenced by Warhol’s Factory. This was before any of Warhol’s films were widely seen or known, but somehow we were really aware of that scene, but influenced by producing a more politicized punk version than what he had done. The Factory was almost like a squat and people just hung out there all the time. It was very social and pornographic, challenging all the conventions not just of the dominant order, but also the conventions of cinema by making experimental work that was decidedly noncommercial, kind of anti-corporate. For me it was always the hustler bars that were a kind of a nexus of communities, and where I would meet people I’d put in my films. There was a particular bar in Toronto called Sneakers, which closed I think in 2008. Again, this was where I would meet a lot of people that just got out of jail, or who got out of the army and were kind of disillusioned, and a lot of them were sex workers, obviously. So this was the community, and this is always important to form those allegiances that could then be turned into some kind of activism. 

H.B.B: Where would you watch pornography back then? 

B.L: There were dedicated porn cinemas in Toronto. There was one called The Metro that was open until about eight years ago or something. It’s now like a rock climbing gym. 

H.B.B – laugh: This makes sense.

B.L – laugh: Well, I always thought they should mix porn and rock climbing. This would be a brilliant combination. Porn projected on the walls while people are climbing on them. 

H.B.B: That’s a good idea. 

B.L: I know! That’s where I used to premiere all my movies and everything. But to be honest I was never a huge porn guy. I never followed it super seriously. I was more into the 1960s avant-garde; Peter Berlin, Wakefield Poole, Peter de Rome, Fred Halsted – all those kinds of people who made truly avant-garde films while their main function was pornography. Then, of course, other avant-garde films pushed me to do pornographic work; Jack Smith, Kurt McDowell, Warhol and Morrissey, John Waters. That was the underground, which doesn’t exist in any kind of way today, att least in Western countries, and with the internet, which has kind of rendered the underground superfluous. It’s very difficult to talk about the difference between when we started Queercore, orJ.D.s, and today’s context because it’s a different world, really. For us it was also about found porn, and the way we consumed porn was dramatically different. It was more of a communal experience; going to movie theaters and watching porn collectively. It was about having sex in public while watching porn on the screen. Then you would also find porn in alternative bookstores, in basements, where you could find bins with old super 8 porn films that were really cheap, and I would splice them into my experimental movies. Certain people knew about these underground films and would pass copies of them to each other. It was much more exciting. Sex was more exciting, more about cruising in public parks and toilets. So when I made my first experimental feature film, in the early 1990s, I put myself in it, performing sex, It was called No Skin Of My Ass, with my boyfriend at the time playing the skinhead. This was not found pornography anymore but, you know, making my own pornography for the first time, putting myself in that position, in a very dramatic way. It was very taboo and more shocking than it would be today, I think. I felt like I was using porn for political purposes as well as for pleasure, being naughty and sexy. It was also traumatic; suddenly people would look down on you for being a pornographer. I mean, that’s also something we embraced, somehow. That’s one of the ways we used porn in a political context: we would project queer porn in straight punk clubs or venues in order to shock them. I mean, they were really pretty sexually conventional. 

H.B.B: I also want to talk about cinema. It took me a while to understand why I was so fascinated with 1940’s-1950’s Hollywood cinema, or to understand that directors were mainly closeted fags portraying queer narratives through heterosexual scripts. Which is why, I guess, queers often identify with figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, or Rita Hayworth, right? 

B.L – laugh: I mean, obviously.

H.B.B: J.D.s is also about that, I mean, the figure of James Dean or J.D Salinger; dramatically perverted cinematographic symbols. 

B.L: I was in film school at York University while working on J.D.s, and my main teacher, or mentor was Robin Wood. He was already quite famous, being the favorite film critic of Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol. He was a Marxist feminist leftist that had written books on Hitchcock and Hawks. When I met him he had just come out of the closet, within the last five or seven years, aftar having been married to a woman and had kids. He came out after writing Responsibilities of the Gay Film Critic, which was an important article that made him quite radical. So his colleagues and students, like me, were then obsessed with classical Hollywood cinema for that particular reason. Today is Howard Hawks’ birthday by the way, and Wood dedicated an entire book to Hawks and his “homosexual subtext.” I combined this idea of queer Hollywood with J.D.s, a kind of collage of hardcore punk and classical or romantic Hollywood cinema and gay porn, all in a very dialectical way. I mean, mashing things togehter that aren’t supposed to go together. I made a film called Slam, which is an underground super8 film where I went to a hardcore show and shot all these sweaty shirtless punks being very homoerotic with each other. Then I spliced that together with found gay porn, like mainstream gay porn, and then put a Carpenters’ soundtrack to it. And so it was like the combination of those three things, intuitively forming a weird dialectical way of presenting our own cosmology. 

H.B.B: It’s funny that you mention that it’s Hawks’ birthday today. You also have this frenetic habit of posting about birthdays, on your Instagram. When I was speaking about perverted figures it was also in that way of referring to others as a way of discovering, or referring to yourself, if that makes sense. There’s this thing throughout J.D.s of honoring figures, like Peter Berlin or The Prince of Homosexuals, conceived as ceremonies. 

B.L : I mean, he was the first person we declared as Prince of The Homosexuals. We were ironically referencing how the gays love pageants and beauty contests. Regarding the birthdays I sort of do it in a Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” kind of way, which has to do with sexploitation, being irreverent or blasphemous. For example on Twitter, on someone’s birthday, I’ll often post a nude picture of them. It’s a bit different from Anger because I uses it more as a visual kind of strategy of queering and outing. 

H.B.B: Isn’t it harder to post pornographic content now on Twitter? 

B.L: No, not yet. No. They keep talking about it but I haven’t seen it happen. The only thing that happened to me recently was after I posted a picture of that black actor that went nude in a  Broadway play. Somebody in the audience took a video of him with their phone and posted it, and it went viral. Anyways, it was immediately taken down after I posted it, as he’s trying to suppress it, because it was taken without is permission or something. To me it is frightening that they have the technology to do that, but besides this I haven’t had any trouble posting extremely pornographic references on Twitter. But I think it’s probably coming. I mean, even my most recent film, Saint-Narcisse, which isn’t sexually explicit, was taken off and removed from Amazon Prime for “offensive” content after being available on the platform for six months. 

H.B.B: I’ve discovered explicit gay content on Twitter only recently. I was more into Tumblr at some point when I was younger. 

B.L: Tumblr was super hardcore because that’s where you’d find the slammers who would all be slamming meth together on multiple video screens, and all sorts of other extreme kinky stuff. Twitter is almost mainstream porn industry by comparison. 

H.B.B: I loved Tumblr so much as it was mainly stolen images that were reinterpreting this idea that somehow was highly expressed within J.D.s, of perverted contents. I remember blogs chronologically posting images of Chavs, middle-class white teenagers, straight guys, or any other source of content with a sense of hacking and revenge. 

B.L: It was almost like the last gasp of the underground, in a way, because you really had to dig for what you were looking for. It wasn’t a message board, so it wasn’t as public as Twitter. What makes the porn aspect of Twitter interesting is that it’s a public forum. So I can publish extremely pornographic posts and everyone sees that. All my followers see it and anyone can see it. It’s the most kind of accessible and public porn forum. 

H.B.B: Yes, you really had to spend hours digging into reposts and finding specific accounts, and meta- contents. There’s still explicit content on it now but it’s definitely different than what it used to be in, like, 2014. 

B.L : Oh, Tumblr is over. It’s a dead space. 

H.B.B: OnlyFans really took the monopoly of these practices, while globalizing them. 

B.L: It’s a different world from the one I knew in the 1980s. When I was appearing sexually in my movies, I never thought about it as a way of putting myself in front of a globalized audience. It was for small cinemas, punk bars, and so for limited audiences. You know, me being kind of picked up by the film festival circuit and starting to be screened internationally was an upheaval in my life that caused havoc amongst all my friends and kind of divided the people around me. Now, with OnlyFans, now, it’s about the democratization of porn, where it’s not such a taboo anymore and everyone is willing to do it. I mean, it’s a schizophrenic time where you have moral forces that are trying to squelch, censure, and eliminate certain kinds of sexual representations while at the same time you have really free and extreme avenues of sexual expression. So it’s like a big schizophrenic divide. 

H.B.B: Going back to J.D.s, how were the parties? 

B.L: We used to have crazy parties. That was part of the fun. We would get people drunk and take pictures of them. There was kind of a wild aspect to what we did. It was also about juvenile delinquents and so hard-partying, and hard fucking. I would have parties where people would end up having public sex. There was this party I organized for one of my films that was part of the Toronto Film Festival, in a gallery, where people were having sex in public. That was J.D.s trademark. 

H.B.B: Can you tell me about the context of these gatherings, you navigating these decades? 

B.L: I have lived my gay life pre-liberation, liberation, and post-liberation, so it was about going through phases. At the same time, I lived my life pre-internet and pre-social media and pre-digital and then transitioned. It’s been a wild ride going through those transformations. The gay movements, or any kind of liberation movements, were more underground and interconnected, I would say. In the 1990s, in the East Village, every bar could have a dark room. It was really part of the culture. I would hang out with Terry Richardson and other people who became notorious for pushing the limits of sexual representation, or the line between orthodox art and porn. My work has always been about that: something that is too pornographic for the mainstream art world, and too arty for the mainstream porn world. It has always been about being in the middle, a twilight area. 

H.B.B: What about the end of J.D.s, in 1991? In our first emails you told me about this ‘zine war’, and today’s mystified conceptions around collectives. 

B.L: I think queercore had become incredibly idealized, or romanticized on a certain level. Today there’s a lot of nostalgia for it, which is really unfortunate. I mean, for one thing fanzines were meant to be disposable, and that was the point of making these cheap publications. They weren’t really meant to be archived. The current academic interest in elaborating theses and dissertations around it is pretty much what we stood against, in a sense of not being coopted by institutions or institutional figures. Anyways. I stopped because of that, in some ways, but not mainly. The movement became fractured and factionalized and there were more exciting things happening. I think it also fits with my personal idea of revolution, something that is doomed to failure that remains important not in what it ultimately achieved, but for the revolutionary moment itself. I felt very ambivalent about its cooptation and I started feeling that it was taking the wrong turn. 

H.B.B: Are you nostalgic yourself? 

B.L: I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for it, no. I’m fond of what I did at that time, at that moment, but I don’t feel so into the institutional interest it’s getting. Although I do appreciate archives and I do appreciate Queer archives, I understand the importance of that, it’s still funny because fanzines weren’t really meant to last forever. But to relegate it to nostalgia is a kind of trivializing of it, or a diminishing of it, because I still feel like I try to continue the spirit of it, when I was working on J.D.s, in my work today, in my films and photographs and writings. My work has the same punk, homocore ethos that we developed during those years. 

H.B.B: As a way of keeping it alive? 

B.L: Keeping it alive in that way, absolutely.