The year in queer: An A-Z guide to the exceptional LGBTQ arts and culture of 2018
In music, we had #20GAYTEEN — but the queer takeover stretched into movies, TV, books and beyond
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
As the world seemed to generally continue to fall into an abyss of pre-apocalypse in 2018, creative queer folks around the world sure did decide to make the most of it. Across essentially every medium, LGBTQ artistry felt like it was having a renaissance, with queer film, television, literature and music all offering so many examples of true greatness — and a lot of it finding its way to the mainstream to unprecedented degrees along the way (so much so in music's regard that the hashtag #20GAYTEEN was born).
So before we head into the ideally just-as-queer waters of 2019, let's reflect back on the year that was using some good old fashioned A to Zs to pay tribute to the arts and culture narratives that defined just how queer and here we were indeed in 2018.
A is for Adrian Stimson (and AA Bronson)
Two-spirit Blackfoot artist Adrian Stimson has been one of Canada's most compelling queer figures for well over a decade. In 2018, that was deservedly given a spotlight, with Stimson winning a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts and debuting new work at Vancouver's brand new queer-focused SUM gallery. And in the midst of that, CBC Arts' new docuseries In The Making gave us an intimate window into Stimson's life and art in an episode centred around both Stimson's work as his alter-ego Buffalo Boy — work he sees as part of this lineage of connection with the buffalo, saying the art feeds him — and his collaboration with felllow Canadian art legend AA Bronson to address Bronson's unsettling family connection on Siksika Nation. Watch the entire episode here — it's really quite something.
B is for Buddies in Bad Times
Back in September, the largest and longest-running LGBTQ theatre company in the world entered its 40th season (which continues into 2019) of offering Toronto audiences extraordinary queer onstage artistry — a massive milestone for the iconic institution. And while Buddies is sure to inspire the careers of LGBTQ folks for decades to come, what's never been more clear is how much it's already done so. In this column commemorating the anniversary, 40 artists enthusiastically stepped forward to share the impact Buddies has had on their lives. As current artistic director Evalyn Parry put it: "Buddies has been an inspiration, a challenge, a beacon, a creative playground, a centre for so artistic and queer community meaning-making: a home" — a thought echoed throughout. And may that home continue to grow: long live Buddies in Bad Times.
C is for Canada's a Drag
RuPaul continued to help drag find world domination, with Drag Race finally winning that Emmy for best reality series ahead of a much-anticipated announcement of expansion to the U.K. But what about us? As many Canadians have known for a long time, drag should be as much a part of our national identity as poutine or hockey, with literally hundreds of performers from coast to coast proving nightly that we are the true North strong and fabulous. And in 2018, some of them finally got a spotlight — though admittedly it was one I have some mild bias in my enthusiasm toward. This past March, CBC Arts debuted the first season of Canada's a Drag, a short docuseries with 9 episodes focused on different drag kings and queens from across the country. And it was a hit! So much so that it's coming back in January with an expanded 12-episode second season featuring performers from Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Kelowna, St. John's, Winnipeg and Victoria. Honestly, there's enough drag talent in Canada for at least a dozen more seasons if y'all keep coming back.
D is for Desiree Akhavan
If you saw the 2014 film Appropriate Behavior, you've known for some time to expect (more) great things from its writer-director-star Desiree Akhavan. And in 2018, that time came, with Akhavan following up Behavior with both a film and a TV series: the former, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, easily the superior of the year's two "gay conversion therapy" movies (and the winner of the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize), and the latter, Hulu's The Bisexual, one of the year's best new queer shows. Neither have quite seemed to find the audiences they deserve, so how about this for some appropriate behaviour: find your way to both of them before year's end.
E is for Elite
There was no greater guilty pleasure on screens this year than Netflix's Spanish-language high school soap opera Élite. Featuring multiple queer characters and storylines, the intensely addictive teen drama follows three working class friends given scholarships to attend the most exclusive private school in Spain. A whole lot of sex and lies (plus a little bit of murder) ensues, and before you know it you've watched all 8 episodes in one sitting and have multiple crushes on a bunch of extremely attractive young Spanish actors. Good thing la segunda temporada is coming in 2019...
F is for The Fruit Machine
One of the best LGBTQ documentaries of the year, Canadian filmmaker Sarah Fodey's The Fruit Machine offers a horrifying look at one of our country's most homophobic legacies: a device the government of Canada used for decades to try and "purge" gays from government jobs. This started during the Cold War, and the prevailing fear was that homosexuals would be at a greater risk of blackmail by Russian spies. They needed to be identified and removed, the thinking went, so they wouldn't reveal the nation's secrets. But it wasn't fully eliminated until the early 1990s, and far too few people in this country know about what damage it ultimately did to the lives of so many gay Canadians. Hopefully The Fruit Machine helps change that — especially since it's easily watchable for free on TVO's website right now.
G is for The Assassination of Gianni Versace
Ryan Murphy truly outdid himself in 2018 — so much so that we've included two of his television series on this list, because they are simply too outstanding (and vastly different) to lump together. The first came shortly after the new year, with Murphy following up his intensely acclaimed O.J. Simpson-focused first season of American Crime Story with a look into the events surrounding — you guessed it — the assassination of Gianni Versace. Except as the series developed over 9 gripping (and occasionally quite horrifying) episodes, it became less about Versace and more an examination of the psychology of his murderer, Andrew Cunanan. Anchored by a stunning, who-knew-he-had-that-in-him performance by Darren Criss as Cunanan, The Assassination of Gianni Versace ultimately came together as a brutal and brilliant dissection of homophobia — both internal and institutional — unlike anything television's ever seen.
H is for Heritage Minute
Since the early 1990s, the 60-second mini-documentaries known as Heritage Minutes have undoubtedly become a Canadian institution, offering introductions to various figures and moments in our country's history. But despite over 80 editions being produced, none of them dealt with the rich, extraordinary history of Canadian LGBTQ folks and their contribution to our society...until this past June. In a clip directed by Stephen Dunn (Closet Monster) and narrated by none other than k.d. lang, Canada's first known public gay activist Jim Egan became the subject of our first queer Heritage Minute, with over 350,000 viewers collectively watching the English and French versions since. And if you want to know more about Egan than a minute can offer, this column did a deep dive in his honour.
I is for iridescence
The #20GAYTEEN takeover of this list starts here, with an album from a hip hop collective that makes me feel as far from being an actual gay teen as humanly possible: Brockhampton's iridescence. To be honest, I'd only been vaguely aware of Brockhampton before this album, despite their mass popularity with folks a wee bit younger than me. Led by openly queer rapper and songwriter Kevin Abstract, the collective formed in Texas in 2015 and currently consists of more than a dozen men of diverse races, sexualities and backgrounds. Essentially redefining what's possible from the idea of a "boy band," they're also...really good. After reading about their genuinely groundbreaking configuration, I curiously checked out their fourth album iridescence (which debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 this October) and quickly found most of the 15 tracks in heavy personal rotation. As will be further proven on this list, embracing #20GAYTEEN might also mean feeling a little old, but the music behind it is well worth the shame.
J is for Janelle Monáe
Speaking of redefining what's possible in pop music, god bless Janelle Monáe. Five years after her last album The Electric Lady was released (which is not to suggest Monáe was being lazy: she built up an impressive acting career in between), Monáe graced us with her glorious Dirty Computer on April 27th, one day after coming out as a queer on the cover of Rolling Stone. "Being a queer black woman in America — someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker," she said in Rolling Stone, and Dirty Computer sure did reflect that. Full of queer anthems that felt markedly transgressive in the mainstream context Monáe led them to, the album surely gave a generation of queer folks new light — and introduced a lot of people to the term pansexual. "I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you," she said in the same interview. I have no doubt she succeeded — and became a true queer icon in the process (not to mention a nominee for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards).
K is for Keep It
If 2018 brought me any consistent joy, it was waking up every Wednesday knowing there would be a new episode of the Crooked Media podcast Keep It, which offers truly the best pop culture commentary this side of anywhere. Hosted by two staggeringly clever queer men (Ira Madison III and Louis Virtel, the latter of whom is the only person whose encyclopedic knowledge of Oscar history makes me feel like a failure in that regard) and one equally clever if not even more so straight woman (Kara Brown), I assure you that adding their takes to your weekly podcast rotation will be one of the best things you'll do for yourself this year and beyond.
L is for Lit
Specifically Canadian queer lit. As evidenced by LGBTQ literary festivals like Blue Metropolis and Naked Heart, queer and trans Canadian authors are having a moment, and there's no reason to think that's stopping anytime soon. 2018 saw the acclaimed releases of Casey Plett's Little Fish, Jordan Tannahill's Liminal, Joshua Whitehead's Jonny Appleseed, Vivek Shraya's I'm Afraid of Men and Amber Dawn's Sodom Road Exit, just to name a few notable examples. "The great thing about our literature is that it's not relegated to the sidelines," says Christopher DiRaddo, the programmer of Blue Metropolis. "Our writers — and their works — get taken seriously: our books are reviewed, recognized by juries and read by more than just LGBTQ people (a favourite Good Reads review for my book is by a straight bus driver in Halifax). I'm not sure you can say the same of south of the border."
M is for Chanty Marostica
Did trans comedian Chanty Marostica ever have a big 2018. They became the first trans comedian to have a solo show at Just For Laughs Toronto and won Sirius XM's Canada's Top Comic competition, all well in the midst of transitioning. All the more, this rise has happened in part because of how Marostica decided to take matters into their own hands and reinvent the LGBTQ comedy landscape in Toronto so that they and other queer and trans folks could get the opportunities they all deserve. Read all about their remarkably inspiring story here.
N is for Nanette
Speaking of LGBTQ comedians having big 2018s, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone that applies to more than Hannah Gadsby. Her Netflix special Nanette singlehandedly changed queer comedy through its extraordinary dissection of what it's like to be a queer comedian. And pretty much any LGBTQ comedian will tell you it's been beyond impactful. Pioneering out comedian Elvira Kurt says the special "will be life-affirming and life-changing to more people than Hannah can imagine or will ever know," counting herself among that tally. "What appealed to me most was her pursuit of being her authentic self onstage. Very relatable to me personally because it parallels my own journey with the craft and form these past years." And Toronto writer and comedian Shawn Hitchins took that proclamation a step further, penning this essay for CBC Arts about how Nanette inspired him to finally seek therapy and learn how to find his own truth as a queer artist.
O is for Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides
After years of releasing intensely catchy singles (see 2013's "Bipp" and 2015's "Just Like We Never Said Goodbye"), Scottish producer, singer and songwriter SOPHIE finally gave us a full album, and what a joy that was. The trans artist's Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides was released in June (the title reportedly an alternate way of spelling "I Love Every Person's Insides"), and it has rightfully become one of the year's most acclaimed albums, landing a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album along the way. Despite this, SOPHIE hasn't quite found the international profile of some other LGBTQ musicians on this list — so if you're part of that problem, change that immediately (start with "Immaterial" and "It's Okay To Cry").
P is for Pose
The aforementioned Mr. Ryan Murphy would probably be the first to admit he's been aided by his privilege as a white gay cis male who has been working in the industry since the 1990s. But with Pose, he smartly surrounded himself with a diverse staff of talented writers and directors (including the likes of Janet Mock, Our Lady J, Tina Mabry and Steven Canals) to tell a story that's hardly his own: the New York ball culture scene of the late 1980s. With the largest cast of trans actors ever assembled for a narrative television series — many of whom had never acted before — Pose had a lot riding on its shoulders when it premiered. But thanks to the thoughtful writing and multiple star-making performances (Indya Moore and Mj Rodriguez in particular), the show found an undeniably engaging and heartfelt groove within a few episodes, deservedly becoming one of the year's most talked-about shows.
Q is for Queering The Map
Multidisciplinary Montreal designer and researcher Lucas LaRochelle gave queer culture a true gift in 2018 with their project Queering The Map. An interactive map that allows anyone to add a pin anywhere on Earth and use it to describe a queer experience, its intent is essentially to make us explore the plurality of queer experience. "The project comes out of the desire to collectively document queer spaces that are rendered as such through the presence — however ephemeral — and activity of queer people," LaRochelle says. "It operates from the perspective that queer existence is resistance, and aims to merge subjective experience into a collective voice. The aim of the project is to make legible memories, histories and moments of queerness that would otherwise disappear." Read more about it here, and then go add your own memory.
R is for Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy
OK, so Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy are both straight and it is still a massive problem that, like, every single great queer role goes to straight actors. But can you ever forgive me for listing them here anyway because the movie they made together this year is just so rare and special? Respectively playing late author/convicted forger Lee Israel and her right hand man Jack Hock, McCarthy and Grant were the ultimate cinematic duo in Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me? when it comes to queer women and men together onscreen. In part, of course, that's because queer women and men are literally almost never together onscreen. But it's also just because the chemistry of the two actors — mixed with Heller's graceful direction and Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty's delicate script — is basically perfect.
S is for Scott Thompson
Back in October, I wrote this column about how despite Scott Thompson being Canada's true gay national treasure, so many gay men don't seem to acknowledge it. And in 2018 (which also just so happened to be the 30th anniversary of The Kids In The Hall), Thompson gave us even more reasons to do just that, touring his show Après Le Déluge: The Buddy Cole Monologues in character as the classic Kids role. I also had the true honour of chatting with him as a result, with Thompson offering some pretty candid insight into why gay men seem to have such an issue championing other gay men: "You can't really blame society any longer — this is our problem. Gay men need to look at themselves and go, 'Why can I not let another gay man shine?' You ask any gay male comedian and I'm pretty sure 99% of them would agree with me. Lesbians are much more supportive of each other. Remember, gay men are still men...and let's be honest, the gay media is absolutely guilty too. It does nothing to help this. Really, they really just show if you're hot and hunky, that's all that matters." Let's work past this in 2019, shall we?
T is for Troye Sivan
The idea of being a queer teenager in 2018 honestly sounds pretty horrifying to me. I'll take the more vocal institutional discrimination of the late 1990s over having to deal with the self-esteem destroyers that they must be facing on various social media any given day. But if there's one reason why I'd wish for an alternative universe where I was 16 years old today, it's Troye Sivan. Because I'm not sure I personally could have asked for more as a confused queer teenager than a self-assured, well-spoken and painfully dreamy twink idol who also makes really, really great music. And that is Troye Sivan, who gave us Bloom this past summer: an instant classic pop album filled with bops from start to finish, including a title track that is basically a beautiful ode to bottoming.
U is for "Under The Weather"
While they haven't quite risen to the zeitgeist ranks of Mr. Sivan, two Canadian twin brothers also made a mark on 2018. Ottawa-raised Joel and Kyle Curry's alt-pop project Pansy Boys offered an anthem for anxious times this summer with their new single "Under The Weather," a follow-up to their 2017 debut EP In Days of Yore. The brothers — both openly queer — talked to CBC Arts about the genesis of the song back in July. "After the positive energy surrounding the reactions to [the EP], we felt encouraged and excited to create even more limitlessly, and felt it necessary to expand on our sound. We feel like we have added more depth and texture to the sound, such as recording a grand piano in a concert hall." Listen to "Under The Weather" here.
V is for Vida
Mexican-born playwright Tanya Saracho — whose few TV credits before this included writing four of the best episodes on HBO's dearly departed Looking, itself a pioneering queer show — assembled an all-Latinx writers room to create Vida. The show tells the story of estranged Mexican-American sisters Emma (Michel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) who return home to East Los Angeles after their mother's sudden death, only to discover they've both inherited her bar and a stepmother in what they thought was her roommate. Both sisters, one of whom is queer herself, unravel as the six-episode season tackles complicated intersections of humanity — and a lot of queer sex — like nothing else that's come before it. And while Vida didn't quite get the attention the two Ryan Murphy-produced shows on this list did, it's just as deserving.
W is for Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa
In September, the Polaris Music Prize for best full-length Canadian album was given to two-spirit musician Jeremy Dutcher for Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, an album performed entirely in his native Wolastoq language. Dutcher followed in the footsteps of Kaytranada (2016's 99.9%) and Lido Pimienta (2017's La Papessa) to become the third Polaris winner straight to identify as something other than straight. "It's so exciting, the kind of space that's really opened up in this music scene," Dutcher told CBC Arts earlier this year. "For two-spirited artists, trans artists, queer artists...anyone under the umbrella. It's really incredible." What's also incredible is Dutcher's year in general, of which the Polaris win is only one of many highlights. He personally believes that the album's release itself is his true 2018 pinnacle, given it was five years in the making. A classically trained operatic tenor and composer from the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, Dutcher studied 110-year-old wax cylinder recordings of Wolastoqiyik people singing their traditional songs. The album incorporated these recordings, writing musical arrangements around them.
X is for Xtra
LGBTQ media has not been having an easy ride the last decade or so, with so many print publications folding and their online counterparts struggling to follow in their historic footsteps. That's why it was such great news to hear that Xtra, Canada's most prominent example, was taking a major step toward reinventing itself for the future through the hiring of Rachel Giese as its new editorial director. "I'm looking forward to helping build on the work that's already begun at Xtra in rethinking how it tells stories and reflects our lives and experiences, with video, personal essays, social media and events," Giese said of her hiring. "I want Xtra's journalism and editorial content to be deeply informed by and engaged with our community." We're certainly hoping for the same, and have high hopes Xtra will do just that under the guidance of Ms. Giese.
Y is for Years & Years
And for your #20GAYTEEN finale, I present Olly Alexander-led British synth-pop band Years & Years, who released their second studio album Palo Santo in April. They also held two honours for me personally in 2018: when Spotify offered us our "2018 Wrapped" stats, Years & Years were my most-listened to artist and their single"All For You" was my most-listened track. And with good reason: Palo Santo is yet another great album from a queer artist to come out this year, and "All For You" is a wonderfully vicious (and catchy!) breakup song that I feel like I will continue to play on a loop for all of my years and years.
Z is for Jeremiah Zagar
You may not have heard of Jeremiah Zagar, but he made one of the best queer films of 2018: We The Animals. A lyrical, dreamlike adaptation of Justin Torres' semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, We The Animals follows three children growing up in upstate New York as their volatile parents struggle to make a life for themselves. It's a slow build to an ultimately beautiful and devastating climax for youngest child Jonah (Evan Rosado, who is truly astounding), and one more than worth the journey — a journey very much made possible by Zagar, making his first narrative film after a decade of work in documentary. (And yes, I know Zagar himself is not queer and clearly the lack of options for "Z" helped him fill this slot, but that doesn't change how absolutely wonderful We The Animals is.)
What were your favourite moments in LGBTQ arts and culture this year? Tweet me at @peterknegt and let me know!