Arts·Queeries

Canada has had way more than 69 Super Queeroes. Here are a few we missed

Tommy Sexton, Evalyn Parry, Louis Negin, Keith Cole and a slew of younger folks deserve their capes too.

Tommy Sexton, Evalyn Parry, Louis Negin, Keith Cole and a slew of younger folks deserve their capes too

Tommy Sexton (right), Cathy Jones (middle) and Greg Malone (left) at the Halifax Pride Parade in 1990. (White)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.

Last week, this column took a break to make room for something that essentially was one gigantic queery in its own right: who are the queer heroes of Canadian art? A few months in the making, the project — which we titled Super Queeroes — celebrated "69 of the many, many LGBTQ artists who changed this country for the better" in honour of the 50th anniversary of 1969, considered a revolutionary year in the history of LGBTQ rights.

We're very proud of what we put together in the end — but if there was one hesitation I had going into the project, it was with how many legitimate Super Queeroes we'd leave off by capping it at 69. (Hey, at least we didn't go with 50!) So I'd just like to use this week's column to discuss some folks I was sad to leave off, as well as some folks I've received rightfully passionate messages about.

While we did include a handful of artists under the age of 40 (11 in total by my count, of which Jeremy Dutcher was the youngest and the only Super Queero born in the 1990s), for the most part we focused on artists with long established careers, the vast majority of whom were born before 1969. But that doesn't mean so many more younger folks that are currently doing much to help LGBTQ folks don't deserve the same status; there just simply wasn't enough room. Had we made this list in just a few years time, it seems unlikely we could have left of rising (or full-on risen) talents like Trey Anthony, Brandon Ash-MohammadBilly-Ray BelcourtCœur de pirate, Amber Dawn, Stephen Dunn, Ali J. EisnerBrendan Fernandes, Adam Garnet JonesChase Joynt, Casey Plett, Jaik Puppyteeth, isKwéWalter K. ScottRowan Sky Tanja TizianaKai Cheng Thom, Joshua Whitehead, Zoe Whittall and d'bi Young.

Heath V. Salazar, Chanty Marostica and Allysin Chaynes. (CBC Arts)

There are also a slew of artists that came on board the project to pay tribute to their own Super Queeroes, all of them certainly well on their way to the same status. Chanty Marostica, for example, has revolutionized LGBTQ comedy in Toronto. Allysin Chaynes is pretty much already a legend of Toronto drag. Heath V. Salazar is empowering so many folks through their work as Gay Jesus and beyond. Shaun Brodie and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff are both part of Queer Songbook Orchestra, an ensemble with a mission to warm queer hearts and minds

Readers of the project also had quite a few names to share. Wayne Baerwaldt, Paul Bellini, Bif Naked, Heather Bishop, Deanna Bowen, Martha Chaves, Meryl Cadell, Brent Carver, Douglas Coupland, Susan G. Cole, Toller Cranston, Thirza Jean Cuthand, Emma Donoghue, Michelle DuBarry, Ferron, Brad Fraser, Christopher Gillis, Rex Harrington, John Herbert, Rene Highway, Ahasiw Musekgon Iskew, Ladyfag, Zachari Logan, Ashley MacIsaac, Norman McLaren, Rick Mercer, Charles Pachter, Jean-Pierre Perreault, Ed Pien, David Rakoff, Tedd Robinson, Scott Symons, Scott Treleaven, Gary Varro and Patricia Wilson all definitely came up as contested omissions. If you aren't familiar with any of those names, I very much suggest looking them up.

In sharing the project, Owen Pallett — one of the Super Queeroes himself — eloquently used the opportunity to shed light on the great Evalyn Parry, current artistic of Buddies in Bad Times. 

"Lists like these can leave one with mixed feelings, as they not only serve to celebrate individuals who are included (a plus), but they can also be frustrating when you see deserving individuals who are not included," he said. "One of the most constantly inspiring and hard-working queer individuals in Toronto is Evalyn Parry...I celebrate her work and her vision and hope you all do too."

Keith Cole. (@keithadcole)

Two other artists that were resoundingly vouched for were Louis Negin and Keith Cole — both absolute legends in their respective Montreal and Toronto communities, and both of whom are as worthy of being on this project as anyone else.

"[Louis Negin] is the muse of Guy Madden, the iconic star of our stages for decades, the first person to do full frontal in the west end of London," one commenter said.

"I do think Keith Cole is a queero in his own way," added another. "He is someone who is a radical risk taker, who is involved in the community and the arts scene. He ran for mayor!"

But the one person that probably received the most support for retroactive inclusion was Tommy Sexton, the Newfoundland-born comedian who passed away from AIDS in 1993. Among others, Andrew Sampson — a journalist working a documentary about Sexton for CBC Radio — wrote me about the exclusion, and I'd like to just let his words express how much Sexton was certainly a Super Queero:

I was disappointed that Tommy Sexton was left off CBC's list of people who've made an impact on LGBTQ history in Canada, but I wasn't surprised. History belongs to the survivors, and when Tommy died in 1993, he was one of many in his generation to lose their battle with AIDS. And while he's never been forgotten in Newfoundland and Labrador, in the rest of Canada, his name doesn't always bring about a flash of recognition.

But we must remember him, and it's the duty of those who know about his work to spread the word. Tommy Sexton was a trailblazing comedian who appeared on national television from 1986 to 1992 as part of the CODCO sketch comedy troupe. At a time when performers were often urged to hide their sexuality, and gay men were usually the subject of punchlines instead of the ones delivering them, Sexton made sure that would never be the case on CODCO. And over seven seasons, he did his best to use his rarefied role as a series regular on national television to further the gay agenda at every opportunity.

With recurring characters like Jerome (who was played by CODCO's Greg Malone) and Duncan (played by Sexton) — whose theme song announced them as "two happy homos from out around the bay" — CODCO made sure to put queer characters front and centre. In one memorable sketch, Duncan comes down with a bad case of the "Macho Swine Flu," and to Jerome's horror becomes a football-loving, beer-guzzling straight guy. What could be more horrific? Later, Jerome cries out to a doctor, pleading to him and asking: "How do these things get into your home?" All these years later it does feel like a minor miracle that Tommy and his pioneering brand of comedy made it into ours — that somehow, at a time when out comedians hardly existed, let alone on national television, he burst through the celluloid closet to become one of the most well-known actors in the entire country.

During an era where the rights of LGBTQ people were constantly under siege, Sexton never stopped speaking truth to power. On CODCO, nobody escaped his gaze, and over seven seasons he targeted hypocritical politicians and a regressive Catholic church, and did his best to expose the foolishness of right-wing pundits who thought gay people deserved everything that was coming for them.

Aside from his fellow CODCO troupe members (Greg Malone, Andy Jones, Mary Walsh, Cathy Jones) Sexton's only real contemporary at the time was the Kids in The Hall's Scott Thompson. But while Thompson has had a long career and rightly earned his place on CBC's list of influential gay comedians, Sexton's legacy is more complicated. Because he died so young, and so long ago, he often gets overlooked.

When the final episode of CODCO aired in November of 1992, Tommy was already sick. For two years after he was diagnosed with HIV, he had continued making CODCO. In one of his final sketches, he sings a song at a cabaret. Wearing an oversized suit jacket, he belts out to the crowd: "I am a homo. H-O-M-O M-A-N, say it again."

He was brave until the end, and throughout this episode, he's often seen wearing a t-shirt featuring a Keith Haring illustration. It reads Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death, Fight AIDS, Act Up. And until he left this world, that's just what he did.

- Andrew Sampson

You can read more Super Queeroes here, a list that you should absolutely consider Sexton, Parry, Cole, Negin and everyone else listed here to be an honorary part of. I also acknowledge there are likely still a lot of worthy folks excluded even from this follow-up — which is why we are opening up the comments of this column so that you can (nicely!) suggest some Super Queeroes we're missing.

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and playing integral roles in the launch and production of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also a stand-up comedian, 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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