The Pansy Division Guide to Hidden Gay Paradise
In addition to knowing a lot about playing power-pop/punk (they’ve been doing it since 1991) and being gay (the entire band, aside from guitarist Joel Reader, have been experts since birth), Pansy Division are equally adept at touring — they’ve been road-dogging it since the early '90s. Consider a gaggle of gay dudes singing overtly graphic songs about boinking boys under San Francisco’s liberal bubble, then embarking upon cross-country tours into inhospitable environs with songs like “The Cocksucker Club,” “He Whipped My Ass in Tennis (Then I Fucked His Ass in Bed)” and “Jack U Off." There's a segment in the 2008 documentary Life in a Gay Rock Band in which guitarist/vocalist Jon Ginoli and bassist/vocalist Chris Freeman (the band is rounded out by drummer Luis Illades and is now based in Los Angeles) recall the fear involved in touring as a band with openly gay members singing gay-themed material.
Luckily, incidents of homophobia were negligible, and no one in the band ever got the shit beat out of them. Even in Alabama. As time ticked forward and Pansy Division spent more and more time on the road, they would visit the same cities over and again, feeling just as comfortable in some places as they did at home, witnessing cultural evolution via gentrification, urban planning, and gradual shifts in tolerance and acceptance.
Pansy Division have a new album out, Quite Contrary, their first since 2009’s That’s So Gay, and it marks a thematic turning point: They’re singing about topics touching the lives of gay men now in their 40s and 50s, not just goings-on between the sheets. So, instead of asking a bunch of the usual questions on the usual topics and getting the usual answers, we decided to get Freeman’s thoughts about which cities are (or have become) friendly and welcoming towards the LGBT community.
“I have to preface this by saying that these are going to be just from my own experience, and that I won’t say a lot about Europe because I’ve only been over there a couple of times," Freeman says. "Though, I think mostly all of Europe is gay-friendly, anyway. We’ve never had any homophobic moments ... actually, we did in France. There was one time this one guy — and it really was just one time and one guy — who was all religious ... just felt that we were going against the Bible, and I kept saying, ‘Well, I don’t believe the Bible, so why should I care?’ So, this is going to be all North American cities and you’ll notice I keep to the coasts because there’s not a lot in between. I mean, Austin is friendly, but it’s just Austin and you’re not going to find a lot elsewhere.”
Definitely Vancouver. Definitely. I have felt completely comfortable there since I was a teenager because I’m from Seattle originally, and I used to go up there when I was 19 because of the lower drinking age. That was way back in the late '70s/early '80s, but every time I’ve been there I’ve felt very comfortable as a gay person, and I don’t feel that there’s anything that would make a gay person feel unsafe up there. I love Vancouver. It’s one of my favorite places.
The town that I’m from. It never used to be gay-friendly, but it’s not the town that I left back in 1987. When I left Seattle, it was not a friendly place back then. There would be people in their orange Camaros parked a couple blocks away from the gay bars ready and waiting for the gay guys to come out so they could beat them up. Now I think that has definitely been shifted, because we’ve had all these people come to Seattle for grunge and technology. Back then, there was nothing; your career options were Boeing or working in a warehouse. That was it. There was nothing else — not a lot of opportunity and not having viable employment opportunities affects pretty much your entire life. It was a horrible place to live at that point — for me, anyway. Now Seattle is a completely different town than the one I left.
I don’t really see a lot on the East Coast besides New York and maybe Boston that’s friendly, but Washington, D.C. has got some gay areas, and they keep moving around. There was a lot of ghetto at one point, but it’s gentrifying like crazy, and part of that is because of people who are gay that are moving around. In fact, there was this couple we used to stay with all the time on tour. Washington would be like a pit stop for us. Like, we’d tour and get up to New York and stuff, but we couldn’t really stay in New York City with our van and it being full of all our stuff. We had to get out of town, so we would end up going down to Washington where this gay couple we knew named Don and Doug had refurbished their home from top to bottom. They had a three-story house in this ghetto neighborhood, but they tricked it out and it was so fabulous. Over the years, the neighborhood changed and they eventually sold it for top dollar and moved away, and it’s been interesting to watch that progress and process.
The gay area used to be Dupont Circle, but that’s now changed. Two of our friends from here in Los Angeles just moved to Washington, and I was just there recently. In the work I do, I secure government loans and grants for students to go to school, so I have to go to Washington on occasion for conferences. I was just there in July, and they showed us around; we walked around all these different areas and it was crazy how things have moved around since the last time we were there. But it seems very gay-friendly, I think. And aside from there and the obvious places, that's about it for the East Coast, because once you go below Washington, you’re in the south and there's nothing gay-friendly until you get to Miami. [Laughs]
Portland is a place where a lot of gay people who have been pushed out of San Francisco because they can’t afford it any longer have moved to and ended up in. It’s three hours away from Seattle, so you can go up there and [get] your Seattle fix, and it’s very friendly and very affordable. They’ve always been very welcoming there and are very off-the-grid in a way. But it is a tidal pool because Oregon is a very conservative state, so you can go 30 miles east of Portland and run into extreme right-wing Christian craziness. So, it’s like an oasis — sort of the equivalent of Austin in Texas or Madison in Wisconsin.
PALM SPRINGS, CA
Going back down the coast and skipping over the obvious places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Diego has a huge gay population. The whole Hillcrest area is hugely gay and very friendly, but Palm Springs is basically the biggest gay retirement community ever! [Laughs] It’s all the people from San Francisco and L.A. who are done being part of youth culture or trying to keep up with youth culture, and for them it’s time to slow down. Palm Springs is where they go. The heat may keep some people away — I know it’s keeps me away; I won’t go there between May and October — but it’s affordable. I think the cost of living there is getting a little higher now, but they do have a lot of retirement homes, places where people who don’t have a lot of money basically sign over their social security and can stay in places for next to nothing. So, I think when you turn up the air conditioning enough, it’s OK and people can tolerate it.
Quite Contrary comes out on September 9 on Alternative Tentacles.