Boys' Band

Pansy Division's all-gay punk was a shocking first. Will fans let the group escape its pioneering role and just make music?

"We had high hopes for Absurd Pop, and it didn't turn out the way we wanted. We were reaching for something before we were ready, and we didn't even have a full grasp on what we were trying to accomplish," Goodwin says. "I guess we were reaching just for the sake of reaching. We needed to figure things out. We needed a break."

"We had no idea what to do," Illades says. "We felt lost."

The better part of a year went by without any Pansy Division sessions, and each member went off to join or start other bands. Pansy Division's label, the independent Berkeley-based Lookout! Records (which had also launched Green Day), encouraged the band to cool off but not give up. If Lookout! hadn't asked -- as a favor -- that Pansy Division play a college music festival in New York City in the fall of 1999, the band might have never shared a stage again. "I was wary of going," Goodwin says. "I was still bitter."

Yet when they reunited, any remaining animosity simply fell away. The crowd's enthusiastic response was invigorating and rekindled the passion each member had for the group. "The band is so special and means so much to us, we couldn't bring ourselves to end it," Illades says. "We've all done so much growing with this band. It's a family we don't want to break up."

"I realized I was in this position of elder statesman," Ginoli says. "The people who had heard us when they were very young are grown up now. Those 15-year-olds are now college grads, and that makes me feel very satisfied. I suppose we could stop, but doing the band still seems important. There is still a lot to explore. I don't feel like we've reached our full potential. The story is just not over yet."

The group decided to continue pursuing solo interests but to bring those influences back to Pansy Division, with the goal of making another album. They regularly maintain the band's Web site, www.pansydivision. com, which not only archives all the history but also updates fans on the occasional new gig. Progress on the new record, however, has been slow. "We're still trying to figure out what we want to say," Goodwin says. "We're four different people with four different ideas of what Pansy Division should be."

Freeman is inspired by the challenge. "The best music comes from conflict," he says. "When we started, everyone said a band couldn't be out, and we proved them wrong. Now that we live in a post-Ellen, Will & Grace, big-fag-wins-on-Survivor world, the new conflict is finding a way to stay relevant."

Yet in the wake of Pansy Division's disappointing attempt with its last album, Goodwin broaches the real question: "We've already done the funny thing, and we tried the serious thing. What can we do next, now that we're just like a million other bands?"

Indeed, Ginoli expresses the biggest fear of all. "I don't want to go through all this again, only to be ignored."

Pansy Division debuted as AIDS deaths were at an all-time high, and part of Ginoli's goal was to make "gay" a happy topic once again. Yet even as he celebrated gay sexuality, the message was to do so safely. "While our HIV-positive fans loved the fact [that] we were so life-affirming," he says, "we wanted to make sure our [HIV-]negative listeners stayed negative."

Ginoli has practiced what he preached, staying alive when so many of the gay men of his generation are dead. He grew up in the Midwest and remained there throughout his 20s, finally getting up the nerve to move to San Francisco in 1989. "I was very shy and lonely in Champaign, Illinois. But who would've thought isolating myself [would save me]?" he asks. "If I came and joined the party in 1980, I might not be here now."

The members of Pansy Division were veritable poster boys for safe sex. Every CD came with graphic illustrations and descriptions of how to use a condom properly. And the group followed its own advice. "Everyone in the band is HIV-negative, which affords us a certain luxury," Ginoli says. "We aren't going to have to hurry and make a record before anyone dies."

Having that time has allowed the older members of the band to contemplate life in middle age and beyond.

"I went to college and came out not knowing what career I wanted. Twenty years later, I still wonder -- and I still live like a college student. That worries me," says Ginoli, who scrapes by working at a used record store and sharing a rent-controlled apartment with four roommates. "In some ways, I'm amazed that at 41 I'm still doing all this stuff. I really refused to grow up for a long time. But I'm not trying to run away from being an adult anymore, like I did in my 20s and 30s. I think about what it is like to be older. I have an IRA. I am content to say that I may be in a rock band, but I don't have to lead a rock lifestyle. Now I read more."

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