Homophobia, Hate, And New Heroes: The Difficult History of Queer Metal
“I see all those old dudes out there just banging their heads to our records,” Sean Reinert once said. “And I have to think - ‘That stuff you’re banging your head to? That is some gay, gay metal, man.’”
Early in the writing of this article, I stumbled across a question on a RateMyMusic message board. “Any LGBTQI metal bands?” it read.
Merely two responses down, someone had provided a neat encapsulation of an attitude that has haunted the genre on and off over the years. “If you don’t want aggressive machismo demons and shit, maybe metal isn’t for you?” it read.
That was one of the dominant myths about the genre, once upon a time. Spawning from English rock and blues, spearheaded by bands like Black Sabbath, and, later, Judas Priest, metal was portrayed in the media as exclusively, and aggressively, male and straight. In turn, those attitudes would later sour and warp into some homophobic sub-genres, as lesser purveyors of metal dabbled in outright hate speech.
Of course, there’s an irony in the way those cultural lies were established — by the ’90s, lead singer of Judas Priest, Rob Halford, came out as queer himself. But those attitudes haven’t gone extinct exactly, either. As recently as 2013, pop-metal wastes of space For Today took time out of their schedule of releasing derivative metalcore to spew hate speech. “Don’t be deceived, homosexuality is a sin,” lead singer Mike Reynolds wrote on Twitter. “No such thing as a gay Christian.”
Of course, anybody who misrepresents metal in such a way reveals their own ignorance. Metal isn’t “aggressive machismo demons and shit.” Metal isn’t one thing, the way that no genre is one thing. Metal is an umbrella term, and anyone who totalises the scene doesn’t understand it.
That’s true of the self-appointed moral gatekeepers of the ’90s who pretended that metal was the downfall of Western society, and that’s just as true of the misguided, bad faith internet trolls who assume that queer values are somehow a subversion of the genre’s entire project. To pretend that it’s exclusively the domain of leather jacket-wearing Slayer-fans is to lie to yourself. Metal will never die because metal is always changing.
And that includes getting queerer.
The Origin Story
Metal really began with Black Sabbath’s titular debut, decried at the time by lauded American critic Lester Bangs as “like Cream but worse.” Judas Priest were already a band by the release of that record, but they struggled to reach any semblance of commercial success until the early ’80s, when they released their masterpiece British Steel.
That album, one of the most important of the genre’s first decade, took the formula that Black Sabbath had already established — fast, heavy blues guitar; abrasive lyricism; sung-screamed lyrics — and doubled-down on the camp in a way that Sabbath had not.
Despite the band that they would eventually become, in those early days, Ozzy Osbourne and his mates styled themselves after gnostic groups like Hawkwind. They were nerdy, sure, but self-seriously so.
For Pride Month, I'd like you all to know that the entire reason heavy metal adopted the leather and chains look was because then-closeted gay man and Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford introduced the style based on what was in vogue at British gay clubs in the 70s.
— Misha Panarin, Coconut Factory Worker (@panarin_misha) May 29, 2019
Judas Priest were a different beast. The front cover of British Steel — a hand gripping a gigantic razor — doubled down on the aesthetic ludicrousness of it all, while ‘Breaking The Law’ melded abrasive guitars with the staccato avant-garde popularised by Queen.
Of course, it would be another 18 years before Halford came out. That act was monumental: as Halford said later, it “made some people confront issues they were not ready to deal with.” But Halford’s announcement didn’t change metal by itself. It was a sign of the way the scene was already changing, and had been throughout the ’80s and the hair metal revival.
Hair Metal And Nu-Metal
Throughout the ’80s, the genre’s theatrics were slowly brought front and centre, and the Grand Guignol theatre of the ’70s was traded for tall hairstyles and tight pants. Along with that shift in aesthetics also came an increase in conservative, patriarchal values.
Nikki Six, he of Motley Crüe fame, slowly came to represent the slick new misogynistic face of the genre. He was a self-styled heterosexual sex-obsessed Playboy, and his stories of backstage antics leaked into the greasy lyrics of his greasier hits. More than occasionally, that new swagger came to express itself as homophobia. In interviews of the time, Six swore up and down he “didn’t care” about queer people one way or the other, while also dismissively referring to journalist Deborah Frost as a “lesbian bodybuilder.”
The problems weren’t just down to the Crüe, however. Sebastian Bach of Skid Row paraded about the place wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words AIDS KILLS FAG DEAD, all the while playing stiff, sycophantically bland rip-offs of the pop rock peddled by his peers.
Guns ‘N’ Roses, a rock band that plucked what they liked from the hair metal explosion — mostly guitar solos and misogyny — summed it up in one lyric, taken from their deeply unpleasant 1988 hit ‘One in a Million’. “Immigrants and faggots,” Rose screamed, “they make no sense to me/they come to our country and think they’ll do as they please.”
But amid that withered heterosexuality, there was still room for the true pioneers to subvert the status quo. Key to that project was Helot Revolt, a hair metal avant-garde group led by the openly gay Jack Dubowsky. Taking the tropes of the time and filling them with queer imagery, the band released one record, In Your Face / Up Your Butt, filled with paeans to ogling dudes at the gym.
Then there was Faith No More. The band that most aggressively expanded the remit of pop-metal at the time, they dragged the tropes of the genre through ten miles of glitter-covered barbed wire, adding in the baroque flair of Queen and the avant-garde noise of John Zorn. ‘Be Aggressive’, one of the biggest hits from their record Angel Dust, was a paean to fellatio written by guitarist Roddy Bottum, who delighted over the fact that his straight bandmate Mike Patton would be the one singing it.
The next year, Bottum officially came out, and spent the next few years delightedly describing gerbil stuffing to the overwhelmingly straight journalists he found himself paraded in front of.
He was deliberately trying to shock the stiff-upper lipped mainstream press, of course. But amongst those wilder soundbites, Bottum dispersed emotional home truths. “I would never have thought as a gay teen I’d be in a band that would be considered heavy metal or hard rock,” Bottum told The Advocate, simply.
The times were changing.
The Two Thousands To Now
By the late nineties and the early thousands, some more of metal’s key queer players had come out of the closet. It was no longer possible for the genre’s most dyed-in-the-wool heterosexuals to pretend that Slayer-philes with big beards who exclusively dated women made their favourite music — the fanbase had firmly come up against diversity, also known as the reality of living in the world.
Not all of them took that realisation well. As Terrorizer noted in the early two thousands and tens, every story the site published about doom-layered metal act Death — a band with two gay members, drummer Sean Reinert and guitarist Paul Masvidal — was met with homophobic comments from key members of the fanbase. For some, it was impossible to square their outdated understanding of the queer community with what they saw as their lumbering, tattoo-covered heroes.
Over the next few years, Masvidal would rise in popularity. Best known for his work with the band Cynic, a prog-metal act that included his one-time Death bandmate Reinert, he became one of the faces of the queer metal movement, along with Skunk Anansie’s bisexual Skin and Doug Pinnick of King’s X.
“I see all those old dudes out there just banging their heads to our records,” Reinert told the LA Times shortly after he came out. “And I have to think — ‘That stuff you’re banging your head to? That is some gay, gay metal, man.’”
Since then, the subculture still struggles with pockets of homophobia, those right-wing trolls who refuse to accept what has always been the case. But they are just that — pockets of trolls, and there are more queer metal artists than ever before.
Canada’s Vile Creature push the boundaries with whole-hearted, slithering queer doom metal. Soft Pink Truth, the side project of Matmos’ Drew Daniel, mashes up house with weirdo, experimental black metal. ASSACRE combine melodic thrash with queer subersion.
Better still, being queer in metal no longer relegates you to a specific subculture, pigeonholed off from the rest of the genre. Queer musicians can and do make any kind of metal, free of outdated restrictions.
Just take Gaahl, the lead singer of black metal band Gorgoroth, and writer of some of the most blackened, uncompromising music the genre has. Gaahl’s gone to jail for ritual acts, including the harvesting of his own blood, and has come out in favour of church burnings. “Church burnings are, of course, a thing that I support one hundred percent,” he said in a recent interview.
He’s also gay. Whereas once upon a time, it would be his sexuality discussed with an othering, reductive fascination by the press and some metal fans, now it’s his pro-church burning stance. Which, when it comes to metal, is precisely as it should be.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee and a queer metal fan. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.