Arts

Dear Will Munro: Love letters to a beloved artist and community builder, 10 years after his passing

On May 21, 2010, we lost one of Canada's true queer heroes. Today, let's celebrate him.

On May 21, 2010, we lost one of Canada's true queer heroes. Today, let's celebrate him

Will Munro having his birthday on Toronto's subway system in 2003. (Jeremy Laing)

Will Munro was a visual artist, social activist and visionary known for, among other things, his works fashioned from men's underwear, his groundbreaking queer club night Vazaleen and the space that felt like you were entering his own home: Toronto bar The Beaver. After two short years living with cancer, Will passed away on May 21, 2010, at 35 years old.

I was an early adopter of Will's vision. We met when we were teenagers. He was the sweetest and perhaps the strangest kid I knew. We spent a lot of time together. Will would go out to sit in his parents' car for a couple of hours with a piece of string — something his older brother Dave and I would watch through the living room window gleefully — and he'd come back with an idea. That he'd execute. Will never stopped thinking about what to create next, from a house for a stray dog we briefly attempted adopting to his very strong but brief (thank god) impulse to recreate, shot for shot, a Front 242 music video in the bushes by my house.

When I moved away from Mississauga, Ont., where we'd grown up, I moved across the street from Will and Dave's apartment so I could still be near them. Bands played in their basement. Will snuck in my bedroom window and stole my partner's underwear. He made me dinners and we talked about art. It was the same friendship and he was the same kid, only more adult.

The Will I knew, from our teenage years to to adulthood, was frenetic and energized, compassionate and always socially engaged. We were friends throughout his life, but many others came to know the adult Will better. Some of them are below, and they'll speak to what he meant to them personally, and to the community, and to the art world. 

Throughout his 20s and 30s, Will used his impulses to make work that still resonates and inspires, and to create a community that still honours him. I couldn't be more proud of my friend. And I'm thinking of him today, in his childhood room, making art on his bed or phoning me to talk about a new idea. I miss him a ton. And as you're about to see, so do many others — starting with his big brother, Dave.

Will Munro. (Lise Hosein)

Dave Munro

Will had become bored with the conversation — at least that's what it seemed like. It could very well be that one of Toronto's favourite DJs couldn't actually hear what was going on because we were outside. The wind was blowing off Lake Ontario, and at best, he had 65 per cent hearing in his left ear and 80 per cent in his right; without directly facing a person and reading their lips, most sound was just clamour. Whatever the reason, Will had begun rifling through the garbage can a few feet away. 

...a couple of plastic bags...a few random sticks...loose twine...

A few minutes later, he was flying a kite. 

That was the magic of my brother. 

He could take the discarded, the forgotten, the hurt and the broken, and show them that these terms are imposed — that they are not shackles but a platform of liberation. That our social discordances are our common bond, not our denominators. This is what Will brought with him when we moved to Toronto, though at the time, we really didn't know it. 

Here, simple lessons from DIY punk/hardcore shows and our parents were applied to a much bigger spectrum. His words could be heard on larger scales. His art could be made to incorporate those around him. His music could celebrate, share and be understood in its true importance. His shows could celebrate a rich cultural history of resistance. His home could be open for all to feel comfortable. His environment could be dignified, respected and safe. 

And that was the life he lived: a life of celebration, of passion, of love — eternally uncompromising. 

The one thing he feared was that his work would be forgotten, but how could it be? His visage of Toronto beats shamelessly through the heart of the city. A new generation of people will weave the fabric he spun for them and build something of their own. Without his hand stitching to provide the space, where would they start? Without the shoulders of giants, we have no place to lay our steps, so each of those steps ring out with his name — something he would be honoured to know. 

Ten years have passed since we lost Will to glioblastoma. An artist, musician, drag queen, punk, promoter, DJ, LGBTQ2SIA+ and social activist, culture curator, raconteur, gossip hound, historian, space reclaimant, restaurateur, entrepreneur and brilliantly defiant soul. 

Not a day goes by that the sound of his stuttered laugh doesn't resonate through me and leave behind a chill of loss, but it is warmed by the constant love that still springs forth from those that build with his love. The spirit cannot fade while being so alive in others. 

Rest easy, Will. 

Love, your big brother,

Dave 

An army of lovers will never be defeated. 
February 11, 1975–May 21, 2010 

Dave Munro (left) and Will Munro. (Lise Hosein)

Owen Pallett

Dear Will,

I hope you're keeping well, where you are. You always had this way of getting people out and making them feel included, and I'm sure this hasn't changed at all.

I think of you every time I bike by Scadding Court; I remember the many times we snuck in to have midnight swims there. I still have all your old flyers, and a floppy disk you used to promote Peroxide is on my shelf. I think of you every time I'm in the Dupont/Ossington area or the building you used to live in (where Patrick and I subsequently moved). I think of you every time I hear Tuxedomoon, Q Lazzarus, ESG.

I think about being out on tour with you and the Hidden Cameras. I remember being photographed by you for your underwear series. You introduced me to a side of queer Toronto that I wouldn't have otherwise discovered.

After you passed, your lack was felt not just on a personal level but across the landscape of various social circles. A friend of ours once lamented that "Toronto died" with you. I don't think he's entirely wrong, but more than this, I think your passing also was somewhat of a landmark for us all aging out of being kids at the club and becoming adults.

I wish you could grow old with all of us who are still here. You had so much more to do. I miss you, Will.  

Love, 

Owen

Will Munro and Alex McClelland. (Alex McClelland)

Alex McClelland 

Wilson, what a weird fucking time this is. I'm partially glad you aren't here to see all this now. But as a true nihilistic faggot, seeing the end of the world as we know it might have been right for you. I remember you squealing with glee watching the Twin Towers tumble. We were sitting next to each other on the couch in our dingy warehouse at 888 Dupont St., underwear strewn everywhere. I said, "But the people inside." You said, "Yes, but is this the end of American imperialism?" 

I remember one of our first dates. I had first seen you from afar at OCAD; we were both students there. We met at night near the 9 Hannah lofts, long-ago bulldozed into what is now known as Liberty Village. You knew a few artists who lived in the building and took me to check out the cathedral-like lofts. They were so grand you could ride around inside the massive wooden hallways. I had a lowrider bicycle; you, a skateboard. We then went farther south and climbed up the Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket replica floating above the lakeshore, looking out over the exhibition grounds and lake. Our legs dangling down, we made out under the lights of Colonel Sanders, looking out over all the cars passing below. We'd later spend endless hours exploring the area, a perceived wasteland that was flourishing with artists, skids and so many queers. 

It's strange thinking back to those times. You are gone, as are so many of the places where we spent time together. Sometimes it feels like Toronto has just become a giant boutique graveyard, empty of any places that had meaning. Even 888 Dupont, our old home, is slated for demolition. More condos.

Zoë Dodd told me a while back (she's been such a fucking force of nature; you would be so proud) that with so much ongoing mass death surrounding us — due to the overdose crisis and poverty, now combined with COVID-19 — it's more important than ever that we keep remembering and celebrating each other. 

You and the Toronto you once loved so dearly are both gone now. But if we don't remember, then what will there be? On this 10-year anniversary of your death, I'm following Zoë's always-perfect advice and sending much love to you and all the other beautiful gay angels of Toronto. I'm imagining you all sitting close together: thigh to thigh, arms wrapped around each other, up on the Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket in the sky (also long torn-down), squealing with glee as civilization crumbles.

Will Munro spanking Jeremy Laing with a paddle board, after hours at the pool on Dundas Street. (Jeremy Laing)

Jeremy Laing

One of my self-assigned tasks during this period of pandemic-driven social austerity was to dust off my first laptop. It's a still rather sharp-looking iBook that I used from 2002 to 2005, a period during which Will Munro and I became friends and collaborators, and a time that seems increasingly important the further my life extends beyond it.

I was amazed the laptop turned on. I was also grateful as I knew it held files I hadn't backed up elsewhere, like photos from the still and dense summer night Will taught me to pool-hop at Scadding Court, and the time the Westside Stitches Couture Club — a renegade sewing circle we founded — visited Holt Renfrew in collectively made t-shirts only to be banned by security, as if free and self-made glamour were heresy. 

It took two hours to transfer the hard drive data to a USB stick and not even five minutes to upload the files to my cloud storage, where they're presumably now safe for eternity. Much has changed since 2005 beyond RAM speed and hard drives, particularly around us in Toronto — a place that remains forever shaped for me by Will but that he would have a hard time recognizing now, 10 years after his death (as, sometimes, do I). 

But Will always lived in another world, never accepting the validity of the current hegemony. Instead, he fashioned a queer counter-present around himself to which other outsiders and misfits gratefully flocked, myself included. This was a present built on the excavation of a suppressed and broadly unacknowledged queer past, a legacy ruptured by the pandemic of HIV/AIDS. Having never felt a sense of belonging, even in traditionally gay spaces, it was formative and grounding for me to discover, through Will's infamous parties, not only an active space full of fellow queers but a through-line to our ancestors as well.

Like most people who build things, Will didn't do anything alone. His outside-this-worldness extended to having no credit cards and needing friends to order records for him online with theirs. As my 2005 hard drive recently reminded me, he also often needed things scanned and burned to CD. We started hanging out because he wanted me to teach him how to thread and use a sewing machine, but favours led to collaboration, and we soon started sewing together regularly, jointly crafting an art project — Virginia Puff-Paint — that, like so much of Will's legacy, continues to resonate today in ways I wish he could know.

Will at the Elora Gorge, 2002. (Mike Barry)

Mike Barry

Dear Will,

I can still see you riding along Queen West any given night, winter or summer, record bag over your shoulder, pedaling against the wind on your way to a thousand art openings and parties and afterparties. You never took any drugs but you had more energy than anyone. After Vazaleen, you were always so excited for the afterparty. We would go to Ali Baba's for falafel or for Chinese food on Spadina. In summertime, we'd all head to Scadding Court pool and climb the fence, night-swimming in our underwear at 4 a.m. 

The sound of your laughter still rings in my ears; I hear you cackling at all kinds of things. I hear things you said to me, like the time I told you I had seriously considered getting a nose job, and you said flatly, without looking up from your sewing: "Don't do that." On nights I came to crash at your place, even when I was high on cocaine, you would stay up later than me, sewing furiously and playing records and chatting with me about Genet and Bowie and Warhol until I finally stopped talking and passed out. In the late morning or early afternoon, I would rouse myself from the couch and find you finally sleeping peacefully on your bed. Like a vampire, you liked to sleep in the daytime.

I remember you pulling beans out of a diaper you wore onstage at the El Mocambo for Shame 2000, and shocking and delighting me when you showed up a couple of days later to Pride Day in the Village as a vampire, fake blood dripping from your mouth. You cracked open worlds for us, Will. You lived punk rock and art faggotry with an unshakable dedication and commitment that was, and still is, infectious and inspiring. 

I remember when I first met you, visiting your old loft space — yet to be condos — in Liberty Village. I remember that you had no stove and cooked your meals on a hot plate. It really felt like "the edge of the city" then. I remember the glass jars of lentils and beans on your counter, and how you could make a gourmet vegetarian meal appear out of nowhere. Your obsessive record collecting was just starting then. I don't think I had ever known anyone to handle records quite so reverentially, like they were precious cultural artifacts, archaeological records of lost glam, punk and art rock tribes of yore. That was your mission and your monomaniacal genius: sewing the thread of art-punk faggotry and DIY glamour through everything, stitching new worlds from those sacred scraps of fabric you found.

My most precious memory of you is a fragment (there's so much I don't remember clearly from those days). I remember being at your place at Ossington and Dupont one night, hanging out with you in your loft. You got me to follow you out the back of the building so you could spray paint stencils on some poster or art piece you were working on. I don't remember what it was. We had to go outside because of the fumes and mess from the spray paint. I remember being at the back of that dirty parking lot with you, just sitting there chatting with you as you worked. I remember how I had nowhere else to be. 

Love, 

Mike

Will Munro. (Mike Barry)

Bernadette Houde and Lynne Trepanier (Lesbians on Ecstasy)

Dear Will,

When we were playing with Lesbians On Ecstasy, you were always so amazing at making us feel special, like what we were doing was important and we could be weird, loud queer dykes  —and the weirder, the louder, the dykier the better. On tour we had to spend a lot of time with dude bros who didn't always connect with the "ladies" and it could be a helluva slog. Playing for you was always a party. The dressing room had the funnest people — everyone was loving life.

We remember sitting on that filthy couch in the green room at Lee's Palace and meeting people who inspired and terrified us. And now we're so lucky to have them as our friends and family. This was greatly due to you and your generous queerdo spirit. You made our lives better. We miss you.

Love,

Lezzies On X

Will Munro. (Zoë Dodd‎)

Michael Cobb

Will, 

You were more than charismatic: you were magnetic. People were drawn to you because we felt so special, so valued just by talking to you — even if it was simply to ask the name of the Ladytron song you had just played. As if by magic, you could create an atmosphere, populate it with interesting, quirky, eclectic people, and being queer suddenly felt expansive. You told me that all your spaces were created because you simply wanted people to have a place to meet one another. You also told me that you wanted people to hear music they hadn't heard before, to be exposed to people, figures, icons from the queer past, so you'd play things like Limp Wrist from your astonishing record collection; you'd dress as Klaus Nomi or Leigh Bowery; even porn projections at the parties had to be vintage. Community, collecting and commemoration animated so much of what you did.

I had always longed for — but could never quite find — a queer scene that included more than its trademark promiscuity, game-playing and overindulgence. But here, up north, fortune was mine, and the world you brought into being felt more loving than sexy, more open than sketchy, more direct than gamey and more generous than stingy (we hadn't been ruined by our phones yet). I couldn't believe just how good you were at making everyone (not just the hot, six-packed gays or the adorable twinks) feel like we all had a stake in queer desire, that we all belonged to something profound, fundamental and ecstatic. If there was any rule, it was that one had to show up — you had to be present, you had to dance, you had to be sincere, you had to ensure that these beautiful occasions thrived. And if you were in a costume, even better! 

Listen, Will, whether you know it or not, I think that this is the inheritance you gave me (and so many of us): you taught me that loving need never be an isolated activity, and it shouldn't be abandoned in the face of great loss, anxiety or fear. That you can trust all that love you built with the people you gather around you, and that love will not only catch you if you stumble but also hold you, give you grand meaning and purpose, change and enlarge your world, heal your heart, celebrate your successes, succor your sorrows. And, when the time comes, as it will for us all, that love can rock you into even the most heartbreaking death.

The tree we bought as a memorial for you in Trinity Bellwoods, overlooking the dog pit, has a plaque inscribed with the old queer-and-feminist-activist slogan, "An army of lovers will never be defeated." The words are appropriate not just because of the great courage and generosity and hope they promise. The words are appropriate because they are as true as you were, as you are, and as true as what you had planned for us. In a very genuine, real way, you drafted us all into this army, into this wish. You wanted us to all meet, to gather, to remember, to dance (to good music), to work hard and to hold on to each other for as long as we're allowed to, so our ends won't be our defeats.  

Not an easy set of commands, not an easy life for sure — but as everyone certainly knows, legends are never that easy. 

I love you, Will. I'm sure I never thanked you enough. So here: Thanks.

Sweet dreams, 

Michael

Will Munro. (Lex Vaughn)

Lex Vaughn

Hi Willamino! 

I was JUST thinking about you. I was remembering that story you told me when you came over, freshly sweaty from your ride, about how you had just been at Caribana Family Day in Queen's Park. You were walking your bicycle around looking for a place to lock it up, saying hi to people on blankets, watching kids climb up on giant tree limbs and listening to the next band start to play. It was pretty crowded, so you did a few laps around the park and kept seeing this white lady in a "super fancy, dumb car" circling and circling really slow, with her mouth open, looking confused. She rolled up on you and her window came down, and she shrieked, "What is happening here?" And you said, without hesitation, "BLACK PEOPLE are happening here!" She nearly plowed into another car she left so fast. You just shook your head, laughing about her stupidity.

And then I thought about when we moved you to Grace Hospice, when you were still shaking off the fog terror from your hell at Toronto Western Hospital. You hadn't spoken for several days — just nods and grunts. There were about four of us sitting in your room, talking about Quebec's recent move to ban religious headwear, and how ludicrous and maddening it all was. You were munching on a carrot and staring out the window, and then all of a sudden said, "Wait! Are we all in agreement here?" Everyone stopped talking, startled by your abrupt cognizance. You said again, with a furrowed brow and mild admonishing tone, "Are we all in agreement here that racism is bad? Are you saying that these things are racist?" Everyone nodded yes, and a few shocked yeahs slipped out of our mouths. "Oh. OK. Good." Then you went back to munching.

Anywaysies, I just wanted to tell you thanks for standing up for everyone. You did so many good things for so many people. You would be so mad at the shit going on right now. And everyone would hear about it.

Left to right: Alex McClelland, GB Jones, Will and Keith Cole. on the set of The Hidden Cameras video for "I Believe In the Good of Life." (G.B. Jones)

G.B. Jones

Our Will. That's how I always think of him, as "Our Will," in the way that the British use the expression to indicate a fond possessiveness — a member of the family, the Will on our street, in our community. There are other Wills, but this is Our Will. Most of his friends need only use his first name, and we all immediately know who we're talking about. 

I first heard of Will via Scott Treleaven, who'd interviewed him for his documentary Queercore in the 1990s, a time when there was still only an underground scene of artists, musicians, filmmakers and zine editors who were publicly queer. Then Scott Miller Berry and I went to see Will's incredible art exhibition in a basement in Parkdale full of wounded mannequins wearing Will's handmade underwear, bandages and slings. After that, it seemed like no time at all tilll Scott and Scott were showing films at Will's club night, Vazaleen. Next thing I knew, Will and I were dancing around in a silo with Keith Cole and Alex McClelland for the Hidden Cameras' video "I Believe in the Good of Life." 

That was Will, part of so many communities: art, film, clubs, costumes, crafts, posters and punk rock. You name it and he did it — and made it all fun. That was Our Will.

Will Munro at Pride in 2003. (Jeremy Laing)

Scott Treleaven

I was making my homopunk documentary, Queercore, during my final year at the Ontario College of Art & Design in 1996. Will was in his first year, and while he was yet to become a brilliant impresario, everyone was already in love with him. All of my friends kept saying, "You have to interview Will for your movie." So I went to the communal household he lived in, set up my camera, asked him a few questions — and swiftly fell in love, too. 

A few months later, I was on a road trip with Will in a friend's car, on our way to a punk film fest in Montreal. The trip should've taken six hours, but the miniscule, aging vehicle barely made it, sputtering along under the weight of Will's latest artwork: a pile of bricks he was sedately stitching up in pairs of Y-front underwear. This was Will: fastidious, aunty-ish, practical and yet motivated by a deeply rambunctious, rebellious streak. He was using the bricks to build a sculpture, an edifice, connected to a memory of stealing a friend's underwear when he was a kid — one of those things we do as queer kids that seem baffling to us at the time and later realize were the first glimpses of our difference.

I also remember Will for his ferociously loving, uncompromising ethics. He embodied everything that was transformational and worthwhile about punk, a kind of genuineness we're in such dire need of these days. As an activist, he cared about other people's wellbeing in a way that felt both radical and entirely natural, and in a very short time, he managed to create dozens of enclaves for the outcasts of the outcast, the misfits who stood on the margins of the gay scene and their allies. From one-off events to enduring (now legendary) scenes like the Vazaleen parties, he brought together a disparate, splintered group of freaks and queers to network, dance, fall in love, share ideas and create communities we'd never imagined before. The fact that we all seemed so different from one another was a requisite for Will's idea of paradise. 

Inspirational, impishly incendiary and always bent on doing the impossible, it's not unreasonable to call Will one of the great punk heroes of all time.

Jeremy Laing and Will Munro performing Inside the Pavilion of Virginia Puff-Paint, at the AGYU, 2004. (Jeremy Laing)

Maggie MacDonald

2003. Will made things happen that gave a lot of people a sense of joy, even people who never got to know him. When I think of him, I am full of happy memories of dancing at nightclubs and performing in bands he promoted. Looking back after ten years without him, I think of his strength and what a solid person he was, not just in the good times — someone rock solid in a crisis. Will and I almost died together one night in the summer of 2003. 

Will was an early champion of The Gossip, booking them regularly for Vazaleen at Lee's Palace. At the time I was singing in the Barcelona Pavilion, a punk/electronic band that sometimes played Club 56. One night in May, I was visiting family in Cornwall, Ont. when the band received a last minute invite to open for The Gossip at Call the Office in London, Ont. To make the gig I would have to drive seven hours straight, alone, and leave right away. I knew Will would be game for a surprise road trip. My mother, a big Will fan, packed us a huge picnic for the trip and I peeled out.

Five hours later, I picked Will up from his studio at 888 Dupont in Toronto and we got right back on the road. By the time we got to London the rest of my band was ready and waiting, along with an audience of maybe 30 people. We screamed and jumped so hard the sole fell off of my left shoe. I gave it to Beth Ditto as a tribute. The Gossip played like Call the Office was a stadium and the fate of humanity was at stake. They never gave less than 200 per cent, and Will saw that. It was one of the reasons he brought them back again and again and everyone in our scene fell in love with them.

After the set, the club emptied out and I opened mom's picnic basket on one of the patio tables. We laughed and cooled off while eating a mountain of cheese and strawberries. I have a grainy black and white photo of Beth, Will, my bandmates Steve Kado, Kat Gligorijevic, Ben Stimpson and the painter Stephen Appleby-Barr to commemorate that happy moment at what felt like the beginning of our lives.

I took the wheel to drive from London back to Toronto in a great mood. Will and I were alone again, and he played cassettes and told stories about the queer and punk bands we were listening to — who slept with who, who inspired who and who ripped off everyone. About halfway home I was passing a semi on a bend in the 401. We were going fast, and the trucks ahead of us were not. We weren't yet clear of the truck I was passing when it pulled into our lane, no signal, no warning. There was nowhere to go but dead ahead. We held our breath as I floored the gas pedal. I was terrified, and so was he. Will stared ahead. His presence anchored me and focused my mind on reaching the road ahead rather than on thoughts of dying. We made it by what seemed like inches. Shaking and sweating, we pulled over at the first exit. Will took over the driving after that. 

Beside Will, I felt capable. I will always miss him and the times we shared, both good and bad. 

Will Munro. (Jeremy Laing)

Scott Miller Berry

Dear Will,

I regret not having a chance to say goodbye.

I will always remember where and when I last saw you, last laughed with you, last hugged you. It was just over 10 years ago now...it feels like last week. That gathering had you waxing about the next gathering. I miss so many things about you (that laugh! That nocturnality! That spontaneous dancing!), but I absolutely loved your drive to get people together — to gather, to celebrate, to protest, to work it out together. 

I'll also never forget that day in the winter of 2002, while we were roommates at 888 Dupont, when I stumbled upon a going-out-of-business sale at that record store Abba-Zappa on Bathurst. I must've used the payphone (!) half a dozen times before I finally woke you up (probably at 1 or 2 p.m.) to tell you all the albums were $1–2. Without missing a beat, you biked over in a snowstorm, and we did some serious digging for hours — sharing finds, sharing faves (you scored Come Away with ESG, and I learned we shared affection for Joni Mitchell as we each snagged a gatefold copy of Blue). 

I loved your knack for somehow, magically, being an outsider while accepting anyone and everyone just as they were. When I asked if you applied for arts council grants, you snapped back, "Why would I spend all that time writing grants? It only takes away from time to make art!" I love and miss that scrappy, understated wisdom that was somehow always at the tip of your tongue.

You are missed by so many people you touched along the way, including me.

With love, 

Scott

Will and Luis Jacob, sleeping enroute to NYC, 2004. (Jeremy Laing)

Luis Jacob

Hi Will!  

What music are you listening to these days?

I'm doing well, living in quarantine like everybody else. Wow, our stitch-and-bitch gatherings with the Westside Stitches seem like a time long ago and a world far, far away! But honestly, I appreciate the enforced downtime of this epidemic, the daily bike rides, time in the studio, cooking and nerding out at home with my laptop.

Recently, I saw some textile works by Tim Jocelyn at Cooper Cole in an exhibition curated by Jacob Korczynski. It's strange, isn't it? I was seeing Tim's work from the 1980s while social distancing in 2020. This scenario made me think of the ways in which people and communities try to survive during times of crisis. There was an especially gorgeous work titled Rainbow Skyline jacket, which I thought you'd enjoy. Its appliquéd geometries reminded me of the tie-dye fractals of your quilt titled Total Eclipse (Klaus Nomi), which you made in 2005.

Klaus Nomi is known as one of the first artists to die of AIDS. But he is remembered for his music and his persona as the alien-diva who landed here from outer space. He is one of innumerable artists — David Wojnarowicz and Félix González-Torres, Leigh Bowery and Derek Jarman, Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz, David Buchan and Robert Flack — who died during the worst moments of a global pandemic that has not yet reached its end.

What is it like to be a young artist when so many important figures of the previous generation have vanished? I remember something that Cookie Mueller once wrote about her society's response to AIDS:

"It's like wartime now," my aunt told me a few weeks ago. She lived in France during World War II. "You young people are losing friends and relatives just as if it were bullets taking them away." She's right, it's a war zone, but it's a different battlefield. It's not bullets that catch these soldiers, and there's no bombs and no gunfire. These people are dying in a whisper.

That "whisper" refers to the conspiracy of silence that was U.S. government policy while thousands and thousands of people fell ill and died during the early years of AIDS. They died because society considered these people (mainly gay men and injection-drug users) to be disposable.

The Nomi quilt hung on the wall of your hospital room as you battled brain cancer 10 years ago. Next to your bed, I felt its weird and colourful fractals absorb our fear and sadness, and emit its own energies of transcendence and joy. Fear and joy, sadness and transcendence — also illness and artistic creativity — all these things had a role to play. Like a talisman for so many of us who love you, the quilt gathered together contradictory emotions and reconfigured them.

Today, in contrast to the silence surrounding AIDS during the early 1980s, we deal with COVID-19 on social media, accompanied by the anxious chatter of 24/7 news cycles. It's not a whisper that accompanies the dying now. The leaders of Brazil, the U.K., the U.S. and Russia do still decide to sacrifice working-class citizens as disposable for the sake of the economy and their own hold on power — this is true. But around the world, people seem to realize that this is a crisis that affects us all.

Self-isolation is becoming our experience of collectivity. I can't help but wonder what you think of this predicament — you, who worked so hard to create sweaty spaces for overcoming isolation and alienation. Your art-making connected people to one another. Your DJing always told histories linking "now" and "then." Dancing — at Vazaleen at Lee's Palace and the El Mocambo; Peroxide at 52 Kensington; NO T.O. at Thymeless; Moustache at Remington's — became, for us, the opposite of vanishing.

Thinking of you leads me to think of many others, whom I mention here by name. This is something you taught me about: the deep and often invisible bonds that connect "those who don't belong." We need to describe these bonds in all their strange colours and contours, because these bonds are our means and testament to survival. An army of lovers will never be defeated.

This lesson is your gift. It lives like the spider plants at my window. I see them thrive today, a decade after you gave them to Chris and me, following your last exhibition. These plants spread — they live by spreading. I breathe the air they breathe as I write you this letter.

A kiss to you, my friend. Say hi to Tim and Klaus the next time you see them. And please save a dance for me!

xo,

Luis

Will Munro. (Scott Miller Berry‎)

You can honour the memory of Will Munro by donating to the fund set up his honour at Toronto's 519 Community Centre that supports queer and trans people living with cancer. 

About the Author

Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an art history instructor and is always quite terrified of bees.

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