Cheers to the queers: 20 LGBTQ folks who were a beacon of light in 2020
If anyone knows how to find joy in a hopeless existence, it's us!
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
You've read enough of these year-end pieces (and lived through this year, for that matter) to know the deal by now: 2020 was a relentless, abhorrent beast of a year filled with basically every horrible thing you can think of. But (and you've read enough of these year-end pieces to know where I'm going with this too), there were good things too if you were lucky enough to find the mental capacity to enjoy them! And given that this column has spent the last year mostly trying to find queer lights in the endless tunnel of a dark pandemic, I figured why not round up those lights and celebrate them all in one sparkling place?
Below is my highly subjective and not at all scientific countdown of 20 LGBTQ folks who helped salvage 2020 through sharing their work and/or lives with the many of us who have been stuck inside since March. And full disclosure: it's actually more like 43 of them — I doubled or tripled up a few of the rankings and I'm standing by it, because if 2020 has taught us anything, it's that there are no rules anymore!
20. Niecy Nash
In the middle of one of the most depressing news cycles we'll ever experience, some unexpected bliss came via an August 31st Instagram post from staggeringly talented actress Niecy Nash announcing she had married singer Jessica Betts. The post simply read "Mrs. Carol Denise Betts 💍 @jessicabettsmusic #LoveWins🌈" (Niecy's birth name is Carol Denise Nash), and it was the pair's first public acknowledgement of the relationship. Nash later told People that she didn't see her marriage as "my coming out of anywhere, but rather a going into myself and being honest about who I love." We couldn't be happier for Mrs. Betts managing to do just that amidst the 2020 of it all, and are grateful for the little joy she sparked in so many of us that day.
19. Blake Lee, Ben Lewis and Pat Mills
Speaking of joy, the past few weeks blessed us multiple gay Christmas movies — one of the few new trends in 2020 that was nice! The most high-profile was obviously Kristen Stewart-starrer Happiest Season, which has been a huge hit despite its misses. But I had a much happier time with Lifetime's first ever LGBTQ Xmas movie, The Christmas Setup, which airs in Canada this weekend. Set in a fantasy world where homophobia and COVID are both non-existent and Fran Drescher is our mother, Setup was directed by Toronto filmmaker Pat Mills and stars real-life married couple Blake Lee and Ben Lewis. Their collective charm helps Setup go down easy (as Lifetime movies should), making your yuletide very gay indeed.
18. Nick Green
Literally less than a week into lockdown, Toronto playwright Nick Green had already pivoted his energy into creating The Social Distancing Festival. A truly extraordinary (and fast!) response to the madness of the pandemic, it's a virtual space for celebrating work that has been affected by COVID-19. And it led to hundreds of submissions from all around the world. When the festival was profiled on CBC Arts back in March, Green said he hoped the site could become a "gathering place" of sorts. "I'm calling it a TV Guide of exquisite art," he said. "So many places are doing cool things, but you only hear about them if you follow them on social media." Nine months later, the project is just as relevant as ever — and still going strong.
17. Pedro Almodóvar
One of our greatest living filmmakers gave us two glorious gifts in 2020. First, he started publishing his quarantine diaries online, including a very juicy edition that recalled many scandalous details about someone who was also very publicly forthcoming about her time in quar (but to much different effect!): Madonna. Almodóvar took Madonna to task for treating him and Antonio Banderas "like simpletons" and criticized the footage she used at his party for her documentary Truth or Dare, fully admitting he doesn't "mind if this seems like a settling of scores." And then if that wasn't enough: a few months later, Almodóvar was back on set to film The Human Voice, a delicious and deeply felt collaboration with none other than Tilda Swinton that they completed in time to screen at fall festivals. It should be available for everyone to see (one way or another) in early 2021, while Almodóvar is already back to work with Madres paralelas, which re-teams him Penélope Cruz.
16. Mae Martin
One of the first new series to be released after lockdown, Canadian comedian Mae Martin's Feel Good feels like it's of an entirely different era at this point. But it remains one of 2020's best queer offerings, and was thankfully just renewed for a second season on Netflix. The first season found Martin playing a semi-fictionalized version of herself: a Canadian comedian and recovering drug addict in London, England who is negotiating an intense new relationship with George (Charlotte Ritchie). The show is very much about how we need to work on ourselves to really co-exist with other people, and it surely served as a therapeutic tool for many (myself included) in those early days of isolation. Also, it features Lisa Kudrow in a supporting role, which is itself enough reason to watch absolutely anything. (Which reminds me: if you're running out of things to watch right now, watch or re-watch both seasons of The Comeback — it truly is a perfect show.)
15. Billy-Ray Belcourt and Rachel Matlow
Two memoirs from exceptional Canadian queers, Billy-Ray Belcourt's A History of My Brief Body and Rachel Matlow's Dead Mom Walking, were among two of the best new books for isolation reading lists. (Both were notably edited by another exceptional Canadian queer, David Ross.) Though they have very different tones and narratives — Belcourt's reconciles the author's personal history and identity as a path to imagine a better world; Matlow's is an intimate and often hilarious love letter to her mother as she battles cancer — both are immensely quotable and incredibly vulnerable. They also felt oddly consoling despite the struggles each author faces in their text, as each book is ultimately hopeful in their own way. So if you're in need of some winter reads (or some last-minute holiday presents), look no further.
14. Jordan Firstman
With the aformentioned Madonna being a prime example, celebrities mostly failed incredibly hard at trying to use social media to get attention during the pandemic. But the undisputed prince of pandemic Instagram showed us all how it's done. Jordan Firstman — an emerging writer, actor and director who I personally am most in awe of because he wrote this truly perfect musical tribute to Laura Dern (somehow also this year) — embraced the unhinged mood of society with a series of hysterically ingenious "impressions" ... not of celebrities, but of "banana bread's publicist" or "a guy addicted to saying quarantine isn't that different from his normal life." It lead to Vogue calling him "the funniest man on the internet," along with some 840,000 followers and surely whatever he career he wants once we make it to the after times.
13. Christine and the Queens
A year after collaborating with Charli XCX on one of the best tracks of the 2010s, Christine and the Queens (a.k.a. French singer-songwriter Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier) offered what would end up being a much more aptly titled 2020 anthem than we expected when it was released on February 5th: "People, I've been sad." It was the lead single off their new EP La vita nuova, which was made in part as a reaction to the death of Letissier's mother. Her powerful and at times dazzling mourning ("I Disappear in Your Arms" is a highlight in that regard) became a soundtrack to our own lonely years, and further made clear Christine and the Queens is one of the most exciting musicians around.
12. Bob The Drag Queen, Eureka and Shangela
In early 2020, three of the most charismatic, unique and talented drag queens in RuPaul's Drag Race herstory showed some seriously admirable nerve making their way to small towns across America. The HBO reality series We're Here, one of the most joy-inducing watches to come out of this year, found Bob The Drag Queen, Eureka and Shangela teaming up to travel across the U.S. to recruit folks to participate in one-night-only drag shows. With stops as deep red as Branson, Missouri and Twin Falls, Idaho, not everyone was excited to see them — but that didn't stop the trio from inspiring so many people to come into their own through the power of drag. Production shut down after five episodes due to the pandemic, but HBO has confirmed the girls will be here again for a second season soon.
11. Sam Feder
As a white cis gay man, I ignorantly didn't expect to learn as much as I did from Sam Feder's engrossing Netflix documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen. The film illuminates the complicated history of transgender lives portrayed onscreen, from The Silence of the Lambs to Boys Don't Cry to countless extremely problematic episodes of cop and hospital TV series. In the process, it does an incredible job at educating cis people about exactly why representation matters so much, and how cis gay men in particular have played a role in perpetuating transphobia in the media. It is an absolute must-watch if you didn't find your way to it when it was released this summer.
And speaking of much-watches, keep an eye out in 2021 for Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt's No Ordinary Man, which screened at the Toronto Film Festival in September and is an exceptional companion piece to Disclosure. On the surface a documentary about the legacy of 20th-century American jazz musician and trans icon Billy Tipton, the film utilizes Tipton's story to discuss transmaculinity with a diverse group of contemporary trans artists.
10. Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley and Jeremy O. Harris
Nothing came out of 2020's pivot to virtual theatre quite as wildly unhinged as Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley's Circle Jerk. Streamed live every night for a week, the multi-camera performance innovated the idea of the pandemic stage and did so while also somehow managing to be a thrilling and deliciously messy comedy about ... white gay supremacy. Co-written by Breslin and Foley, Circle Jerk suggests that the position of white gay men is much more of the oppressor than the oppressed through an impressively chaotic 105-minute show they describe as a "homopessimist hybrid of ridiculous theatre and internet culture." It's set during a winter on "Gaymen Island," where two gay right-wing trolls (Breslin and Foley) are plotting to rid the world of everyone but gay white men with the help of an ambiguously-raced AI fembot they create (Cat Rodriquez). Injecting memes, TikToks and Britney Spears's Instagram stories, the show also features seven other characters all played by Breslin, Foley and Rodriquez. It was a serious feat, and sadly one that's no longer available to watch (but check back with their website, which currently suggests the team would be up for another round if they get some funding). Circle Jerk was notably made possible by the support of playwright Jeremy O. Harris, who himself also deserves some serious status on this list. His Slave Play got the most Tony Award nominations ever for a non-musical play, and he's been spending his quarantine advocating for the rebirth of The Federal Theatre Project, creating the Golden & Ruth Harris Commission to support new theatrical work.
This year's Polaris Music Prize — arguably Canada's most prestigious award for independent music — went to Montreal-based rapper Backxwash for her album God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It. Beating out the likes of Jessie Reyez, Caribou, U.S. Girls and Kaytranada, it was a welcome surprise for anyone following Backxwash's meteoric rise over the past couple of years. In 2018, she started to introduce the world to her gothic, dense and entirely singular take on hip hop through her debut EP F.R.E.A.K.S., following it up a year later with another EP Black Sailor Moon and her first LP Deviancy. It was only in May that God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It was released — to rave reviews saying she's "turning hip hop on its head," I might add — and now it's the winner of Polaris's $50,000 prize (and has been popping up on multiple year end best lists in some very high positions). Oh, and she's also very good at Twitter.
8. The team at Xtra
While many have been decrying the demise of LGBTQ-focused media for years, Toronto-based and increasingly globally-focused Xtra showed quite the opposite can be true this past year (of all years). With a team including director of editorial Rachel Giese, editor-at-large Tre'vell Anderson, editors Erica Lenti, Ziya Jones, Michelle da Silva and Zaina Arafat and executive editor Gordon Bowness, Xtra offered exceptional coverage from a distinctly queer perspective across all the boards: the pandemic, the U.S. election, pop culture, health, relationships.... And then it capped the year off by getting a wonderful redesign of its logo and website. Celebrating its 37th birthday next year, we are blessed to have Xtra still going so strong.
7. Dan Levy
For millions of people around the world, the final season of Schitt's Creek was an especially major source of comfort in the early days of COVID, offering exactly the kind of mix of humour and heart one craves when facing down the apocalypse. And much of that had to do with its co-creator and co-star Dan Levy, who in September won more Emmys in a single night than Meryl Streep has Oscars (for those keeping track of the score, it's Dan 4, Meryl 3). And Levy's commitment to having Schitt's Creek exist in a world entirely devoid of homophobia surely continued to have an impact as audiences around the world watched it as family quarantine viewing. His career is also clearly only starting to take off, with two other major projects released in 2020: the HBO series Coastal Elites (co-starring Bette Midler and Issa Rae, no less!) and the aforementioned Happiest Season.
6. Beverly Glenn-Copeland
In June, legendary singer, composer and activist Beverly Glenn-Copeland closed out CBC Arts and Buddies in Bad Times' collaborative virtual cabaret Queer Pride Inside with a stirring, gorgeous rendition of his song "Courage," asking us all to find just that. But this came as Glenn-Copeland himself was experiencing troubles as a result of COVID-19 cancelling his long-gestating 2020 world tour, leaving him "essentially homeless." A GoFundMe campaign raised over $90,000 for the singer, and by October he had released a critically acclaimed compilation of songs about joy and acceptance,Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland. As it has through his 50-year career, Glenn-Copeland's music and spirit was light for many of us in 2020, and we hope it continues to shine bright as he gets back all this year took from him in 2021 and beyond.
5. Club Quarantine
On the first day of quarantine, four Toronto friends — recording artist Ceréna Sierra, producer and musician Casey MQ, comedian Brad Allen and digital creative Mingus New — were chatting via Instagram video. They wanted some more people to join them, but Instagram caps its video chats at six users, so someone suggested they try Zoom instead. As more and more people joined, the chat grew from a few friends hanging out into a full-blown virtual party — and Club Quarantine, the hottest queer social event of our socially isolated new normal, was born. In the nine months since, it has become a worldwide sensation, with the likes of Lady Gaga and Charli XCX among the thousands of "clubgoers" who have joined in on the fun. It's also proved a necessary outlet for so many queer folks that miss IRL interaction, and will continue to do so this Friday night when they host a Club Q Holiday Party.
4. Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang
Podcasts have been a life-force for many, many people over the past year. And the undeniable MVP for me in that regard has been comedians Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang's Las Culturistas. Every Wednesday morning, I've woken up with slightly less dread than any other morning of the week because I knew a new episode awaited for me to walk off my anxiety to. But nothing prepared me for the delight — yes, I experienced delight once or twice this year — that came with the three days they released their three-part, six-hour 200th episode that counted down the 200 greatest moments in culture, according very much to them. I genuinely consider it the greatest achievement in comedic podcasting (I listened to the entire thing three times), and encourage anyone unaware of its existence to stop everything and spend the next six hours coming to understand why.
And if that leaves you wanting more, you're in luck! Currently, they are rolling out the "12 Days of Culture" every weekday between now and Christmas (which has already included a tribute to Céline), while other 2020 highlights include episodes featuring Will Ferrell, Adam Rippon, Aidy Bryant and another gay podcasting duo, George Civeris and Sam Taggart (if you're looking for another fabulous podcast, check out their Straightiolab). Also, Matt and Bowen, if you want to make my dreams come true, have me as a guest in 2021 and I will conjure everything within me to deliver an iconic "I Don't Think So Honey."
3. Perfume Genius
Half of my whole life is gone / Let it drift and wash away / It was just a dream I had / It was just a dream.
On May 15th, many of us heard those lyrics from Perfume Genius's "Whole Life" for the first time, and two months into self-isolating because of a global pandemic, they certainly resonated (especially if you were over 35). One of the many truly stunning tracks off Perfume's fifth studio album Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, I already spent last week's edition of this column digging into how the pop music of 2020 shaped my pandemic, and Perfume Genius was absolutely included. (While we're at it, let's quickly also shout out Troye Sivan, Lady Gaga, Woodkid, Phoebe Bridgers, Sam Smith, Orville Peck and all the other LGBTQ musicians who helped make our lockdown soundtracks.) But I wanted to reiterate how much this grand, cinematic album specifically spoke to queer longing in a world where our social lives were no more. Although the album was produced pre-COVID, it spoke so much to our existences within it.
2. All the Drag Race winners
To all those currently complaining about how we're about to get two seasons of Drag Race concurrently this January (season 13 of the U.S. version and season 2 of the U.K. version): shut it down. Do you know how much we should appreciate this big gay escapism right now? And how much we should have already when not one, two or three but four editions of Drag Race were there to get us through quarantine?
May we salute every single queen that participated in those seasons, but specifically its four winners: Jaida Essence Hall, who slayed a surprisingly well-executed Zoom finale of original Drag Race season 12; Shea Couleé, who finally got what she deserved all long by winning the 5th edition of All-Stars; Envy Peru, who rode her way to the end of the wild Drag Race Holland; and Canada's very own Priyanka, who made us all so very, very proud when she won Canada's Drag Race (one of the best seasons of Canadian reality television ever produced). They entertained and inspired us at a time where none of them could fully benefit from the spotlight that winning these seasons would normally have given them, since so many drag stages around the world had shuttered. But the second it's safe to do so, we will be there saying all of their names.
1. Elliot Page
On December 1, 2020, just as most of us had burrowed into our winter holes to do whatever we needed to do to make it to the vaccine, we got the brightest news of all: Elliot Page made an announcement that he had arrived at a place in his life to publicly share who he truly is, coming out as transgender. It was a massive step for the representation of trans masculine folks in Hollywood, with Page's news surely providing such a beacon of light for so many of those who needed it. And it also hopefully provided an education to those in the media how are still ignorant of how to properly address pronoun use and the fact that you should not ever mention someone's deadname (get it together, Variety). Vowing in his post to do everything he can to change this world for the better, Page offered words for all of us queers to take into 2021 and beyond: let's have each other's backs, because there's no guarantee next year is going to be that much better than this one.