QUEERIES

Take a closer look: This queer photo project wants you to reconsider what defines a family

On the walls of Toronto's Stephen Bulger Gallery, you can currently find dozens of stories of queer families — you just need to look closely.

'Through photography we come together as family — not just through biology but also through choice'

Various images from Queering Family Photography. (The Family Camera Network, the University of Winnipeg and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

On the walls of Toronto's Stephen Bulger Gallery, you can currently find dozens of stories of queer families — you just need to look closely.

The gallery is hosting the photo exhibit "Queering Family Photography" as part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. Curated by Elspeth Brown and Thy Phu, the exhibit offers a window into decades of different iterations of "the queer family." For example, there's an image of a mother kissing her young son; read the description and you'll learn that mother is Teo Owang, a Kenyan-Canadian woman who, like many LGBTQ people, has had to navigate her lack of acceptance from her family of origin due to her sexual identity.

"This photograph of her and her son Matthew is her most favourite image, for it speaks of the purity and intensity of her love for Matthew," the exhibit notes.

Teo kissing her son, Matthew. Unknown photographer, circa 2008. Toronto, Ontario. Dye coupler print from digital image of a dye coupler print behind glass. Gift of Teo Owang. Further Information about the photo: Teo is a Kenyan-Canadian woman who, like many LGBTQ2+, has had to navigate her lack of acceptance from her family of origin due to her sexual identity. This photograph of her and her son Matthew is her most favorite image, for it speaks of the purity and intensity of her love for Matthew. (Courtesy of The Family Camera Network and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives)

Brown and Phu began the project to shed light on "the critical work that queer, trans and two-spirit family photos do in creating queer modes of belonging." 

"Photographs not only show us to ourselves, but also bring queer kinships together visually," they say. "They are meaningful especially when they retain their stories, which was why it was important for us to collect photographs along with oral histories. We interviewed participants in order to document their engagement with their own photos, and in a way that would preserve images with stories. Our overall aim in building our public archive was to explore how our emotional attachments to queer family photographs have sustained LGBTQ2+ lives."

They began putting together the exhibit last September, drawing primarily on three resources: the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, the public archive of The Family Camera Network and the University of Winnipeg's Two-Spirited Collection, which had been donated by noted two-spirit activist Albert McLeod.

Two-Spirit powwow grand entry at the 22nd Annual International Two-Spirit Gathering held at a retreat centre outside of Winnipeg. hotographed by Trevor Stratton, September 2010. Beausejour, Manitoba. Dye coupler print of a digital image. (L-R) Elder Wilfred Abigosis, Joe Dore, Gayle Pruden, and Paul Brand. Further information about the photograph: This image was donated to the University of Winnipeg by two-spirited activist and photographer Albert McLeod. These powwows are alcohol-free events held away from urban centers and are occasions for two-spirited peoples to connect with each other and with indigenous culture, as a means to decolonize gender. For the two-spirit movement, decolonizing gender requires decolonizing family, particularly as family structures have been imposed by the state, which has removed of children from indigenous homes. (Courtesy of the University of Winnipeg Archives, Two-Spirited Collection (17.026))

When visitors come to the exhibit, Brown and Phu want us to spend some time with their chosen families.

"Even though most visitors won't know anyone in the photographs, the images are nonetheless powerful," they say. "Together, they show how queer, trans and two-spirit people have turned to each other to make the queer kinship networks that have given us life and meaning. They are ordinary photographs in many ways — yet they are extraordinary as well, because they show the everyday intimacies, joys and aspirations of people who have often been pathologized and criminalized."

On a practical level, they also hope visitors might actually share some of the history in the individual photographs, including who is in them and who took them. That's happened three times since the exhibit started, enabling Brown and Phu to "deepen the historical record, and amplify the contributions that these folks have made to LGBTQ2+ history and community."

Junior Harrison and Douglas Stewart marching with Gay Men of African Descent Unknown photographer, Circa 1995. New York, New York. Dye coupler print from a digital image of a gelatin silver print. Gift of Courtnay McFarlane. Further information about the photograph: Activism in public spaces has been central to queer kinship, as it is through this political work that family members of choice have sustained each other in the face of racism, homophobia, and government indifference to health crises facing the LGBTQ2+ community, including AIDS. Here, Junior Harrison (wearing a T-shirt from Toronto’s Black Coalition for AIDs Prevention) and queer sibling Douglas Stewart march with Gay Men of African Descent in NYC Pride. (Courtesy of The Family Camera Network and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives)

The exhibit at Stephen Bulger Gallery is only the beginning of the "Queering Family Photography" project. Though this specific show only runs until May 26, much of the exhibit will live on with a permanent home at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, and hopefully continue to grow.

"This public archive offers a resource for researchers and the general public to deepen their understanding of the many different ways that through photography we come together as family — not just through biology but also through choice."

Check out some more of the photos in the project below.

Queer family portrait taken while out on the town. Photographed by Rose-Ann Marie Bailey. Circa 2012. Toronto, Ontario. Dye coupler print of a digital image. Further information about the photograph: This group of five has been queer family to each other for decades, a kinship that has been cultivated and nourished through decades of activism around black, queer politics and culture in Toronto, and which has been sustained by travel together, holidays shared, stories heard and held. (Courtesy of The Family Camera Network and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.)
The Body Politic collective household at 48 Simpson Avenue in the Riverdale neighbourhood. Unknown photographer. Circa 1976, Toronto, Ontario. Dye coupler print from a digital image of gelatin silver print. (Front row, L-R) Gerald Hannon, Robert Trow, and Ed Jackson. (Back row, L-R) Herb Spiers and Merv Walker. Further Information about the photo: Gerald Hannon, Robert Trow, Ed Jackson, Herb Spiers and Merv Walker lived and worked together on The Body Politic (TBP), Canada’s gay liberation newspaper (1971-1987). Here, Gerald and Robert were boyfriends, as were Merv and Ed. Gerald stayed with TBP to its end in 1987, while Robert later was an important advocate for anonymous HIV testing. After 1985, Ed worked at the AIDS Committee of Toronto. Herb Spiers was a significant contributor for the 1971 “We Demand” manifesto; Merv arrived at TBP in 1973 and stayed several years. Both Robert and Herb died of HIV-related causes, in 2002 and 2011 respectively. (Courtesy of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives)
Rupert Raj, Michael Camp, and Micheline Johnson having a tea party. Unknown photographer, Circa 1974. Ottawa, Ontario. Dye coupler print. Further Information about the photo: Rupert Raj, seated on the far right, is a pansexual, trans activist who transitioned in Ottawa in 1971, a few years before this photo was taken. He founded several trans organizations and periodicals, including the Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Transsexuals (FACT), Gender Review: The FACTual Journal (1978-1981, Calgary/Toronto), and Metamorphosis Newsletter/Metamorphosis Magazine (1982-1988, Toronto). (Courtesy of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives)
Sajdeep playing house on Christmas morning with their uncle, Amardeap . Unknown photographer, December 25, 1999. Cambridge, Ontario. Dye coupler print. Further Information about the photo: Shown as a child, Saj enjoys a new Christmas gift: a kitchen set on which Saj would make pretend chai and pakoras for their family. Here, Saj is preparing a meal for his thaya ji (paternal uncle), who has always been a second father to Saj. (Courtesy of The Family Camera Network and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives)

Queering Family Photography. Curated by Elspeth Brown and Thy Phu. Until May 26. Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto. www.bulgergallery.com

About the Author

Peter Knegt

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since way back in 2016, with highlights including co-hosting weekly live talk show State of the Arts, writing the regular LGBTQ-culture column Queeries and playing integral roles in the launch of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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