Arts·Queeries

Gaynadian apparel: This "pop and pop" shop turns Canadian LGBT history into must-have shirts

Jonny House and Sandy Watts are queering the north by offering you some fabulous new wardrobe options.

Jonny House and Sandy Watts are queering the north by offering you some fabulous new wardrobe options

One of the SOAP shirts. (SOAP Shop)

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.

Jonny House and Sandy Watts are partners of nearly eight years who have always shared a reverence for Canadian queer history. They decided to turn that mutual interest into SOAP, an online "Gaynadian apparel" shop which designs shirts that reflect our country's LGBTQ past.

"We call ourselves a Pop & Pop shop because we're truly a small operation of two and we want people to feel that touch in what we're doing," House says. "Also it sounds really cute! "

The name SOAP comes from "Operation Soap," the code name the Toronto Police used to storm four Toronto gay bathhouses in February 1981.

"For us, reclaiming this name as something that instead celebrates our beautiful Canadian queer culture was a powerful idea," Watts says. "SOAP represents an opportunity to air out some dirty laundry and hang it on the line for everyone to see. With that we consider it to be a kind of punk Queercore protest. Our mission is to represent overtly queer ideas for people to display proudly as part of their identity but do it in a way that's entertaining and tongue-in-cheek (or in-ear) too. Canadian artists like Bruce LaBruce, Jeremy Laing, Carole Pope, Will Munro, Peaches and Kent Monkman have mastered this mix and they're the type of people that inspire us."

Jonny House and Sandy Watts. (Brian Wilson)

SOAP was conceived on a "dreary winter Sunday" when the couple were flipping through some vintage gay magazines on the couch.

"After joking about what gay Canadian nostalgia would look like on a T-shirt, we realized that we'd hit upon a special little niche that felt both very wrong and very right," House says. 

"Ideas started flowing from there and we thought: maybe this is something others might dig too. From the outset, we had a pretty clear vision that we wanted this to represent the intersection of queer culture and Canadiana — a niche we're super jazzed by, but as far we know, hasn't yet been done in this particular way. We haven't stopped working on it since and believe us, it's a hustle!"

House and Watts find a certain power in "gayifying" Canadian institutions and ideas, and in reimagining  Canadian symbols that haven't traditionally represented queers.

"We call this 'queering the north,' a slogan we dreamt up before we connected it to our hometown basketball team — and you'll notice it in some of our designs," Watts says. "For example, our 'Buoy's Baths' design advertises a bathhouse for fishermen at low tide in Digby, Nova Scotia — the first in a series that will queerify Canadian places and spaces ... and, hopefully the last places you'd expect to be queer."

Who doesn't want a homo milk-inspired hoodie? (SOAP Shop)

"Our 'Fresh Milk' design celebrates something that has united queer and closeted Canadians by the hilariously unspoken taboo of having fresh 3.5% HOMO MILK in their fridges," House adds. "These ideas are exciting to us and fun to create because they represent where we've come from personally — every design has one or both of our personal experiences wrapped up in it. And, although we're just getting started, we aim to find ways to represent other Canadian queer perspectives through SOAP too, not just our own."

They say overall, their main goal with SOAP is to make people feel proud.

"Proud to be part of a rich community, proud to be a part of a common voice, proud to be Canadian (Canadians do have a lot to be proud of, by the way) and proud to be in — even in a small way — part of our collective protest toward more LGBTQ visibility and space," House says.

They also want LGBTQ allies to feel proud and represent their ally-ship via SOAP attire.

"We've been careful to offer a spectrum of designs that range from less boundary-pushing (like our mock Hanlan's Point Lifeguard Service tees) to more boundary-pushing (our re-invention of the 1980s Canadian show 'Today's Special' characters as leather enthusiasts)," Watts says. "We hope these shirts — and whatever SOAP becomes in the future — gives all kinds of people a stronger sense of belonging and togetherness."

A design inspired by Toronto gay nude beach Hanlan's Point. (SOAP Shop)

As for that future, Watts and House are pretty optimistic. The response they've had to date has been "overwhelmingly-positive." They say they have more ideas than time to explore, which feels really good (and say to keep an out for their fall 2019 line).

"SOAP at its core is a platform to broadcast Canadian queer cultural ideas, so there's lots of room to explore our ideas beyond just T-shirts," House says. "We're also excited about the prospect of collaborations with other like-minded Canadian artists, collectives, fundraisers, media outlets, politicians, you name it. Seriously, slide into our DM's if you're interested…ahem, Jann Arden."

Check out the SOAP Shop here.

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.