Pansy Division’s Luis Illades on Making a Record for a Generation Without Gay Punk Icons

Luis Illades (left) with Pansy Division. Photo by Martin Meyers

Iconic queer punk band Pansy Division‘s new album couldn’t be any more appropriate for the occasion: It’s their 25th anniversary, and Quite Contrary is thematically silver-haired, but on purpose. Drummer Luis Illades, who joined in 1996, calls it their “grandpa record.”

This seventh platter is far from bland, though. After all, Illades and company were openly gay in an age where most entertainers — underground or mainstream — weren’t. Not only were they the only non-hetero act on the Lookout! Records roster, they were outspoken about their challenges to heteronormativity. Quintessential LPs like Undressed or Deflowered, both released before 1995, were full of pop-punk tunes heavy on humor and megaphone-loud about gay sex and queer culture.

But this album isn’t a nostalgic effort to relive their youth, either. Instead, Illades says the goal was to represent who they are now, as older gay men — a group whose representation they felt was lacking.

“What became clear to us is that it would seem insincere if we were writing a bunch of songs about doing drugs and hooking up with dudes and stuff like that,” Illades says. “I mean, obviously, some of that can be part of your real experience, but…the generation directly before us was largely wiped out by AIDS in the 80s. So there’s not a lot of role models of what it’s like to be an out gay man later in your life.”

Illades notes that the band is incredibly spread out: He lives in New York, singer Jon Ginoli resides in San Francisco, bassist Chris Freeman is in L.A. and guitarist Joel Reader, who joined around 2003’s Total Entertainment!, calls Boston home. The distance made focus a necessity; limited sessions together meant collaboration had to be deliberate. Narrowing the theme of Quite Contrary was essential to making the most of their efforts.

“There’s not a lot of role models of what it’s like to be an out gay man later in your life.”

“So basically, what is it like to share your experience with the generation younger than you when you didn’t have a generation older than you to tell you what’s it like to grow old in a healthy and respectable way? And what things did you learn along the way, and where can you still be alive and crazy? How can you look back on that and share that experience with others? I think that when we were having different conversations about what we wanted the record to be like, that was the one that resonated the most with us,” he says. “None of us are near retirement age or anything like that, but we’re all in our 40s and 50s now, and there’s not a lot of that being talked about. Most of the queer culture stuff is about youth and excitement, and we weren’t hearing those reflective stories after that arch.”

A representation of their lives today also inherently imparts on younger generations the kind of mountain-top viewpoint one can only earn with time. The grittier, alt-rock leaning “Halfway to Nowhere,” for one, somewhat mirrors a piece of Illades’ own history.

“[It’s] about a guy that sat down at the bar when he was 20 and never got back up, then woke up in his 50s and his whole life had fallen apart,” he says. “Part of [having] that experience [is that] no one’s going to tell you not to travel, not to do drugs, not to have sex, not to experiment with anything that’s inside of you. But at the same time, part of reporting back from the other side of that spectrum, is to come back and say these are some things you should pay attention to if you want to make it to other side.”

After years struggling to get sober, Illades says, he ultimately succeeded, and now helps others facing the same.

It’s not the only serious subject matter on Quite Contrary, either. “Blame the Bible,” while sonically patterned in pop-punk, tackles an unfortunately timeless issue still affecting the LGBTQ+ community.

Pansy Division. Photo by Martin Meyers
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“There’s been so much social progress but then major life decisions are made for you by people who believe in this kind of fairytale system,” Illades says. “When we are faced with this kind of ludicrous control in our daily lives by something that seems very laughable to us, you have to laugh, and then you also have to cry, and then you have to get mad. And that’s kind of what that song is — really, after all that time, you’re still throwing out Jesus references to people who don’t believe in Jesus?”

Illades has lived through the kind of social changes that were once unimaginable. When he left Mexico with his family at 16, he probably didn’t imagine gay marriage would one day be legal there. He thinks it’s funny, in fact, that legislation was passed there before the U.S.

For all the band’s strides in queer representation in punk — and in music in general — there is a magical kind of bravery in every Pansy Division member. And what Illades was up against was multifaceted.

“When I was in my late teens, early 20s, I always felt ‘other than.’ I always felt different than everybody else, both in a sense of being a punk rock gay man when all the gay guys were house music divas that I knew, and just not fitting into that, and at the same time being gay in the music world,” he says. “At the same, by the same token, it was being a young man trying to find his Mexican identity.”

Machismo stereotypes were at the crux of that issue. Illades mentions an uncle who died in the closet, “when it was very obvious” that he was gay. His mexicanidad was in question, as was his gayness — he didn’t fit any predetermined mold.

“Because I don’t have a big mustache and I don’t listen to Vicente Fernández doesn’t mean that I’m not a proud gay Mexican man. I can enjoy the bullfights as much as I can enjoy skateboarding, and to me it’s a sense of pride in your heritage and a sense of dignity that comes from your heritage, but it doesn’t mean that it needs to shackle you to being anything other than your authentic self. But it took a long time to get comfortable with that,” he laughs. “It took a long time.”

There is a magical kind of bravery in every Pansy Division member.

Illades is so incredibly gallant in his retelling of memories and lessons learned, it’s hard to imagine a time when he wasn’t so comfortable with himself. There was a time, definitely — but he was undaunted even then.

“If you’re going to do anything outside of what’s allowed or expected of you, it’s always going to be difficult. But if you’re kind of a freaky person, it’s more difficult to put handcuffs on yourself,” he says. “It would be more difficult for me to comb my hair a certain way and show up to some office drone job and pretend to have a fake wife or something than it would be to get spit on a couple times for being my authentic self.”

Pansy Division may believe they’ve made a grandpa record, but they’re busting the standards of what that means, too. Through all the unguarded, courageous moves that led up to Quite Contrary, never has anything born of “back in my day” stories been more inspiring.