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.
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."
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."
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.
Queering Family Photography. Curated by Elspeth Brown and Thy Phu. Until May 26. Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto. www.bulgergallery.com
Peter Knegt (he/him) 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 nominated again this year) and hosting the video interview series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.