Five years before homosexuality was ostensibly decriminalized in Canada, when same-sex sexual activity was still punishable by a multi-year prison sentence, Jane Rule published Desert of the Heart. It was a landmark of lesbian literature that was groundbreaking for its portrayal of a lesbian romance that was — boldly and unprecedentedly — positive. Rule received an influx of fan mail from women across the globe who had never had the privilege of reading a book they believed truly captured their experience, and the novel, which follows a woman seeking a divorce in Nevada who falls for a younger casino worker, was adapted into the acclaimed 1985 movie Desert Hearts. “I became, for the media, the only lesbian in Canada,” said Rule, who used the newfound attention to become an advocate for LGBT rights in Canada — regularly contributing a column, essays and reviews to The Body Politic, and living openly with her partner, Helen Sonthoff, for more than 45 years until Sonthoff’s death in 2000. Throughout her career, Rule published several novels and short stories, as well as a volume of criticism entitled Lesbian Images, and was the subject of the 1995 documentary Fiction and Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule.
Lynne Fernie, filmmaker and film festival programmer:
Brilliant conversation, a fabulous sense of humour, a love of scotch and her profound belief in human rights made Jane Rule a delight to know. She is one of the brightest stars in our Canadian firmament.
Half-Cree, two-spirit artist Kent Monkman, who is a member of the Fisher River band in northern Manitoba, often channels his subversive view of history through the trickster lens of his campy, gender-bending alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. And no one else could have celebrated Canada 150 quite like Monkman and Miss Chief. In his exhibit Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, the artist depicts moments in Canadian history in a way that balances bite with humour, often placing Miss Chief directly into the scenes; the painting The Daddies, for instance, sees her nude atop a Hudson’s Bay point blanket as the Fathers of Confederation look on in awe. The sublime images that grace Monkman’s canvases draw on the sweeping vistas of George Catlin and Paul Kane — painters who commonly documented Indigenous life — while upsetting the binaries of colonial settler and colonized subject, straight and queer, fact and fantasy. The painter makes public appearances as Miss Chief from time to time, and his work has traveled the world, always offering a playful, radical and undeniably queer reimagination of the Canadian landscape.
“Thank you Craig Russell for being an absolutely incredible, influential, amazing Canadian queer icon that everyone should know about. Voices like that can’t be lost to time and it’s important that people can still enjoy and respect this work that was made a long time ago and still holds up to this day.”
Allysin Chaynes is a Toronto drag performer (and was featured on the first season of the CBC Arts series Canada's a Drag).
While Michel Tremblay’s output draws directly from his upbringing in the then-working-class Plateau neighbourhood of Montreal, his hilarious and heartfelt plays have resonated with audiences across Canada. As an adolescent, Tremblay found himself a Québécois in a predominantly Anglo country and a gay teen in a largely intolerant society. The budding playwright began to write scripts as a way of probing that sexual and cultural identity, which led the way to his breakthrough work Les Belle-sœurs — a show about a clan of Montreal housewives who get together to paste trading stamps into booklets — in 1968. Another of Tremblay’s standout (if later controversial) works is Hosanna, which portrays the complicated relationship between the titular character — described as a "cheap transvestite, touching and sad, exasperating in her self-exaltation" — and her biker boyfriend one Halloween night. Tremblay’s plays are considered revolutionary for incorporating Quebec joual into mainstream theatre — and he did much the same thing with queer characters.
That smile of hers! It is sly and inviting, and knowingly filled with a self-possessed, quiet joy of intellectual restlessness. Among many people, simply saying the name Dionne Brand — a name always said in full — brings smiles to faces, too. And then there is her voice: its tone, its rhythm, its smooth, sensuous timbre. Try reading her poetry out loud, and you will begin to hear how her words inhabit you and how you begin to sound just like her. There is something about how Dionne Brand writes a sentence, a line or a lyric that makes it burst out of us in her voice. The truth is, Dionne Brand is an original.
“This is the closest to Jesus Christ some of you will ever get,” proclaimed Jackie Shane on a live recording from 1963. Born in Nashville, the trailblazing R&B singer joined forces with Frank Motley in the early ’60s and moved with his band to Toronto, where Jackie, who was trans, soon established herself as a musical force and a beacon of queer visibility. Shane had a commanding stage presence and routinely donned flamboyant getups and elaborate makeup, never seeking to conform — even in an era when homosexuality was illegal in Canada. Her 1962 single “Any Other Way” became a top 10 hit in Toronto, its lyrics rife with double entendres like “Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay, tell her I wouldn’t have it any other way.” But in 1971, Shane vanished from the public eye, and from much of music history — until a 2010 CBC radio doc by Elaine Banks tracked the singer down, bringing her music to a new generation. Her legacy was explored in the 2014 short film Whatever Happened to Jackie Shane?, and in 2016, a larger-than-life mural of the singer was emblazoned on Yonge Street in 2016. Shane died in early 2019 at 78, but not before a two-disc project culled from her old recordings earned Shane a Grammy nod for best historical album. “I have never felt that I had to change or do anything that wasn't natural to me,” she told Banks earlier this year on q. “I will never, ever be some kind of wishy-washy creature that pretends or lets others guide me. I guide my life. It is mine. No matter what anyone says, I'm going to be Jackie.”
“If I could thank all of the people involved in producing The Body Politic — all those writers, many of whom are no longer with us — I’d thank them not just for paving the way for myself to have fundamental rights and freedoms as a queer person, but also my own writing has been inspired by what they did. I know that there’s no equivalent to The Body Politic in 2019 but I really try in my own work to at least maintain that spirit of bringing Canadians together to understand what their fellow LGBTQ people are doing. So thank you, Body Politic.”
Peter Knegt is the writer of Digital Publishing Award-winning CBC Arts column Queeries, the producer of the CBC Arts docuseries Canada’s a Drag, and a filmmaker, author and occasional stand-up comedian.
In 2017, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of their revered 2007 album The Con, Tegan and Sara Quin compiled an eclectic roster of artists to perform covers of each song from the original. The Con X: Covers doubled as a way to raise funds and awareness for the Tegan and Sara Foundation, which “fights for economic justice, health and representation for LGBTQ girls and women.” Tegan and Sara have harboured that same inclusive spirit ever since their formation in late-’90s Calgary. The identical twins have both openly identified as queer from the moment they first introduced their heart-on-sleeve indie rock to audiences. They’ve since grown to sell over a million albums, releasing The Lego Movie theme song “Everything Is AWESOME!!!” — a cheekily brainless pop parody — even while they were crossing over into full-fledged pop territory themselves. “Our first goal is always, always music,” Tegan Quin explained in a 2012 interview. “But we’ve found clever ways right from the very beginning to ensure that we were infusing our political and social beliefs into our music.” The duo designate a charity for each tour, and with 2016’s “Boyfriend,” the pair accomplished something truly AWESOME!!! by expertly crafting a radio earworm out of lyrics about a queer love triangle.
Vivek Shraya, musician and author:
Tegan and Sara have been unabashedly queer from the beginning of their career, inspiring countless other artists — including myself — and fans to embrace who they are, especially in a time with fewer role models. Furthermore, they have always generously used their platform to support the advancement of LGBTQ rights and the betterment of LGBTQ lives. Tegan and Sara are national treasures.
As the non-binary child of Pentecostal parents, Rae Spoon faced their fair share of hurdles growing up in the Prairies — experiences which helped form the basis of their wildly empathetic musical career. Originating as a country singer, Spoon first broke ground with their 2008 album Superioryouareinferior, which featured tracks that traversed the Canadian landscape to address colonialism and personal trauma, casting the Great Lakes as an allegory for perseverance. Spoon has toured the country numerous times since and returned to their troubled upbringing with First Spring Grass Fire, a book about growing up in Alberta, and subsequently in the 2013 Chelsea McMullan–directed documentary My Prairie Home. Routinely incorporating Canadian geography, autobiography and pressing topics like climate change and modern politics into their lyrics, Spoon has pivoted from their country roots to become a multi-talented indie-pop musician who wears their disinterest in squeezing into the strict confines of the gender binary on their sleeve.
With her debut album, Peaches delivered a synth-punk kick to the balls of the music industry and the men who ran it. Lyrically, The Teaches of Peaches took all the painful, mournful, angry, horny, awkward, gnarly and unspeakable elements of sexuality, shoved them into hot pink PVC short shorts and made them the centrepiece of the conversation — all of which was a big no-no for a female artist to do at the time. Little did we know that this strange but seminal beast of a record would eventually permeate the mainstream, rearing its head in cheap (but very lucrative) knock-offs by the likes of Madonna and Lady Gaga, and in perhaps the best-case scenario, as Liz Lemon’s ringtone on 30 Rock.
To simply refer to Faith Nolan as a musician would be to minimize her impact. A fixture of Canada’s folk music landscape, Nolan is a committed social activist, community builder and cultural historian. She spent the earliest years of her life living in Africville, a former Black community in Halifax (and now a National Historic Site), and has since sought to preserve the systematically unsung history of Afro-Canadians, even naming her 1986 debut album Africville. Through her music, Nolan has also given voice to feminist struggles and advocated for workers’ and children’s rights. She has also notably fought to raise awareness of the disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous women who are imprisoned in Canada. Nolan proudly identifies as a lesbian woman, and her activist efforts were spotlighted in Dionne Brand’s 1993 National Film Board documentary Long Time Comin’.
Adrian Stimson attended three residential schools growing up. Now, as an internationally renowned interdisciplinary artist, he often incorporates physical remnants of actual residential schools into his artwork. A two-spirit member of the Siksika (Blackfoot) Nation in southern Alberta, Stimson produces work that examines Indigenous identity and cultural erasure. He uses the slaughter of the bison as a route to exploring his people’s history, and fashioned his shapeshifting alter-ego, Buffalo Boy (a play on Buffalo Bill), as a satirical commentary on colonialism and the historical persecution of two-spirit peoples. Melancholic and camp, Stimson’s exhibitions and performances wield humour and homoeroticism as tools for coping with the colonial violence that his practice is ultimately always confronting.
Paul Wong’s phone is both his paintbrush and his canvas. The seminal Canadian multimedia artist has been producing art for screens of all shapes and sizes since the mid-1970s. He cut his teeth in the art world as a member of avant-garde collective the Mainstreeters, which grew out of Vancouver’s Main Street neighbourhood. Wong is known for merging queer and Chinese-Canadian cultural perspectives in his work, and was once dubbed the “Chinese-Canadian Warhol.” Among the more notable pieces he’s produced are a series of anti-racism TV PSAs entitled Refugee Class of 2000 and the 1996 documentary Blending Milk and Water: Sex in the New World that plays off the genre of the AIDS educational video by asking a diverse cast of people to offer their candid views on sex. In 1984, he drew controversy with his project Confused: Sexual Views, a video installation that featured 27 people talking about sexuality for nine hours. In recent years, Wong has embraced new technologies as the foremost tools for artistic creation. “This is my studio,” he said of his phone in a CBC Arts Art Minute. “I proudly and loudly say [my phone] is where I do most of my work.”
“I think the real turning point for me in which she became a real inspiration for me was after her coming out speech at the HRC Time to Thrive conference in 2014. She was so raw and vulnerable and honest about her personal struggles with self-love and self-acceptance and I think it was really powerful proof that you can have it all in the eyes of the world, but if you can’t be openly and honestly who you are, there’s no way to really enjoy that success.
I just want to thank Ellen Page for all the hard work that she’s done and the bravery she’s shown in helping change the film and TV industry for queer actors like me.”
Ben Lewis is an actor, writer and director born and raised in Toronto, best known for his role on the CW show Arrow and his award-winning short films Zero Recognition and Apart From Everything.
Upon watching his baby boy being breastfed, Loudon Wainwright III penned the tongue-in-cheek track “Rufus is a Tit Man” — which assumed an ironic new meaning when that boy grew up to be gay. The Montreal-raised son of folk singers Kate McGarrigle and Wainwright III came out of the closet when he was a teenager, confirming a parental suspicion that was piqued by his commitment to singing along with Blondie on the radio as a child. Wainwright has been equally forthcoming about his homosexuality from the outset of his musical career, infusing his lyrics with drama, explicit queer desire and heartache. Following the release of his debut album, Wainwright moved into New York City’s Chelsea Hotel to write his sophomore effort, where he spiralled into a period plagued by drug addiction. After getting treatment, Wainwright expressed the belief that he was especially susceptible to addiction as a gay man: “Years of sexual insecurity, the low-grade discrimination you suffer, the need to belong — speed takes care of all that in one second,” he told the New York Times. The one-time libertine (he formerly subscribed to the “Wildean school of homosexuality”) eventually settled down and started composing operas — a fitting second act for a peformer who’s built his career on songs of yearning and thwarted desire.
AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal were my mentors, my friends and my gay dads.
I moved to Toronto from Vancouver in the late ’80s, after graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from UBC, and after the death of my father from liver cancer and many of my gay friends and lovers from AIDS. It was a rough go at first — but as luck would have it, I eventually found myself working as the video/media coordinator at Art Metropole. AM was one of the oldest artist-run centres in Canada, which General Idea started in 1974 after having published FILE Megazine since 1972. My job was to view every one of the 650-plus artist videos in the archive, write a description of each video and a videography of each artist (if one didn’t exist) and design and compile the Art Metropole Video Archive Catalogue 1991.
Billy Newton-Davis knows from divas. His debut gig, back in 1973, was as a backing vocalist to Gloria Gaynor, and in 1989 he released “Can’t Live with You, Can’t Live Without You,” a duet with Céline Dion (herself an unlikely queer icon). But that doesn’t mean he’s not a formidable presence in the Canadian music industry himself. The versatile R&B, jazz and gospel singer received Junos for best R&B/soul recording for his first two albums Love Is a Contact Sport (1986) and Spellbound (1989), and more recently took home a trophy for dance recording of the year for his foray into house music with the Deadmau5 collab “All U Ever Want.” For decades, Newton-Davis has been forthright about his identity as a gay man. It was during a powerful 2000 TV interview with Sylvia Sweeney that he first opened up about being HIV-positive, and the singer continues to lend his voice as an activist for HIV/AIDS awareness and the ongoing fight for equality.
On her 35th birthday, multidisciplinary artist Vivek Shraya published a Facebook post where she announced that she would now be identifying using female pronouns. It had been years since she’d felt the drive to express herself through songwriting, but to accompany the announcement she recorded “Girl It’s Your Time,” a single about self-acceptance in which she sings: “All those years I wore myself hard, all those years I kept you barred, I’m never going to hide you.” Shraya, the Alberta-raised child of Indian immigrants, was in her 20s when she first learned about transness. “I remember wishing that I had been presented with the option when I was younger,” she recounts. “It felt like a ship that had sailed.” Since transitioning, her work has courageously explored feminism, sisterhood, identity and surviving as a trans woman in today’s world. In 2017, Shraya collaborated with the Queer Songbook Orchestra on the EP Part-Time Woman, and in 2018 she published I’m Afraid of Men, a non-fiction account of all the havoc toxic masculinity and misogyny has wreaked upon both Shraya and the world at large. A director on the board of the Tegan and Sara Foundation, this year she made lemonade from the anonymous hate mail that she's been receiving since 2017 by transforming it into a comic book entitled Death Threat.
Born on a West German air force base, Ann-Marie MacDonald trained at Montreal’s National Theatre School of Canada before moving to Toronto to explore its experimental theatre scene. At the same time, she got caught up in post-Stonewall queer and feminist liberation struggles, and landed a number of stage and screen roles — including Mary in the iconic Patricia Rozema film I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. But MacDonald is perhaps most recognized for her successful writing career, including a series of acclaimed plays and her 1996 novel Fall on Your Knees, which follows a Cape Breton family over the course of several generations and was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 2002. Her most recent work, 2014’s Adult Onset, focuses on a middle-aged writer who has assumed the bulk of the child-rearing duties in a same-sex marriage, all while navigating the pain caused by her parents’ refusal to accept her sexuality. “I came of age in a world that thought it was absurd of same-sex people to marry one another,” MacDonald says. “It was like that until I was 40. So getting married and having children is the most surprising thing that has happened to me.”
Leila Marshy, author:
Ever since Fall On Your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald has been my lodestar idea of a writer: brilliant, sweeping, determined, undaunted. Our biographies are similar but we’d never met when last year — boldly and out of the blue — I asked if she would blurb my novel; then, bolder still, if she would host my launch. Reader, she said yes to both. This unexpected gesture is testament to her generosity and her commitment to giving back and paying it forward. She's also just really, really cool.
“Elvira existing just meant that I could too. And her being such a big name and swooping in in her neat outfits and me introducing her and me being so scared just meant that one day I could have that. I could be as big as her and have a family in show business and exist. So thank you for being my mentor and for being such a dear friend to me. And also thanks for supporting all of the kids. You’re a big deal, and you don’t have to but you always make sure that everybody's okay, and it’s really good to have you as a mama bear in the community.”
Chanty Marostica is a three-time Canadian Comedy Award winner, Juno nominee and Canada’s “Top Comic” 2018 and is the first out trans person to do all of those things.
A member of the Young Romantics movement alongside a small group of his peers at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design (now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design), Attila Richard Lukacs quickly left home after graduating to spend decades variously calling Berlin, New York and Hawaii home. Lukacs’s diverse body of work is representative of this itinerant spirit. His often blatantly homoerotic paintings marry classical configurations of the male body with contemporary renditions of deviant masculinity, depicting everything from military cadets to skinheads. Using pornographic magazines and his love of nature as reference points, Lukacs’s irreverent and thought-provoking canvases have been widely exhibited across Canada and abroad, drawing attention for their interrogation of the violent beauty of the male form captured through the gaze of a gay man.
One of the first things Wayson Choy told me about himself was that he had once been in a music video with David Bowie. We were meeting for the first time, over breakfast, to discuss a collaboration centred around music and memory, when Wayson recounted standing on a downtown Vancouver pier in 1983 amidst a makeshift Chinatown set: planes zooming overhead, capturing aerial footage; Bowie, arguably at the peak of his fame, chatting casually between takes.
If you find yourself in Montreal but can’t catch one of Mado Lamotte’s uproarious live performances, you can always head on over to Grévin Montréal to lay eyes upon a garish, hot-pink wax statue of the iconic drag queen. A product of the mind of Luc Provost, Mado Lamotte is a staple of Montreal nightlife and Quebec’s most famous drag queen. Provost gave birth to the character after dropping out of theatre school and beginning to experiment with drag personas as the host of a variety of bingo nights. He has said that he was influenced by the work of Michel Tremblay and the women he remembers from his childhood in Montreal’s Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie neighbourhood when creating Mado, whose look has evolved over the years from cigarette girl to Royal Highness. Conceived at the tail end of a fraught period in the city for queer people, when police regularly raided Montreal’s Gay Village, Mado amassed so much of a following that she decided to open a club in her name — Cabaret Mado — in 2002.
Jean-François Guevremont, director of programming and human resources at Fierté Montréal:
Mado has always been a unique and flawless character. She has paved the way for so many clown queens, allowing them to be themselves and to live their most colourful dreams. Smart, bitchy but sensitive, she is undeniably a forced to be reckoned with. Long live the queen!
It is important to Syrus Marcus Ware that activists feel loved. As an engaged member of Toronto’s activist community himself — he’s a core member of Black Lives Matter Toronto — Ware decided to pay tribute to community mobilizers with the Activist Portrait Series. The project saw Ware paint portraits of activists on a massive scale typically reserved for dignitaries or the wealthy. In fact, a tendency to approach his subjects in large-scale is characteristic of much of Ware’s body of work. A trans man who splits his time as a visual artist, activist and scholar, Ware works with paint, installation and performance to confront oppressive systems. Beyond the Activist Portrait Series, Ware has commonly rendered trans activists, political heroes and people with disabilities in a larger-than-life fashion. His practice extends over large spans of time, too: since 2014, he has been the curator of the That’s So Gay exhibition at the Gladstone Hotel. Ware is also a father who works in youth advocacy and contributed the chapter “Going Boldly Where Few Men Have Gone Before: One Trans Man’s Experience of a Fertility Clinic and Insemination” to the book Who’s Your Daddy?: And Other Writings on Queer Parenting.
Keisha Williams, actress:
Syrus Marcus Ware works tirelessly to create spaces for Black, Indigenous and Racialized Queer and Trans people that celebrate our resilience and help shape and craft a revolutionary and beautiful future. He never stops bringing the world innovative ideas for how we can disrupt and change the systems that often oppress us.
There is a photo of k.d. lang that hangs on the wall in the office where I work. I sometimes stop in front of it and enjoy a moment of quiet reflection (and complete adoration). I take a moment to draw inspiration and channel any ounce of her greatness, strength and talent into my own being as I continue to push through the mundane aspects of my day. Kathryn Dawn Lang is not only the greatest voice I’ve had the privilege of hearing in my life, but she has also been a tremendous, trailblazing icon who has led the way for so many who are considered outsiders and those who haven’t fit a mould. She’s a force, and we are lucky to have her.
If there’s one thing Sky Gilbert isn’t afraid of, it’s going against the grain. In 1979, he co-founded Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Canada’s preeminent theatre company devoted to staging plays written by and for queer people. Gilbert served as Buddies’ first artistic director, holding the role until he passed the torch in 1997. While more than 40 of his plays have been produced, Gilbert has also authored multiple collections of essays and poetry, and a handful of novels, including Sad Old Faggot, a work of autobiographical fiction. Gilbert also contributes opinion pieces — which often draw fiery backlash. A frequent critic of his own LGBTQ community, Gilbert proclaimed in a 2009 article that “gay is everywhere and, paradoxically, gay is also over” in response to the mainstream commercialization and sanitization of queer identity; in another article he described himself as “so hated by the gay community.” Gilbert performs in drag under the name Jane, and teaches in the school of theatre at the University of Guelph. In 2014, a laneway behind Buddies was dubbed “Sky Gilbert Lane.”
Last year, a Globe and Mail journalist criticized Dan Levy’s presence on The Great Canadian Baking Show for its “feyness” — and Levy clapped back. He called out the critique for being “offensive, irresponsible and homophobic,” adding: “To all the ‘fey’ kids/people out there who read that and were made to question whether their ‘feyness’ is deserving of criticism, it’s not. You are loved for who you are.” But before serving as co-creator, star and showrunner of the CBC sitcom Schitt’s Creek, Levy says he felt self-doubt about his abilities as a writer and actor. Cast under the shadow of his father Eugene’s immense legacy, he first rose to prominence on MTV Canada, co-hosting MTV Live and an aftershow for The Hills, but the work ultimately left Levy feeling unfulfilled. “I just realized I’d rather be the person somebody wanted to ask questions to than the person asking the questions,” he told Interview. All that changed when Levy debuted his hit character David, the fashion-forward, sharp-witted prodigal son of the show’s Rose family. Initially presumed to be gay, Levy subverted viewer expectations by giving David an unforgettable coming out episode, where he used his all-inclusive taste in wine — “I like the wine and not the label” — as a nonchalant metaphor for his pansexuality. Levy has been vocal about his intention to depict a queer character who doesn’t come up against judgment or homophobia, deciding early on that David’s sexuality would be a non-issue — and isn’t it nice to imagine a world a little more like that small town?
Salvatore Antonio, Schitt’s Creek writer:
Dan’s brilliance as a creative is that he writes for the world we should live in — a world without hatred or bigotry. It’s an exercise in queer world-making that shows us all how things could be, but Schitt’s Creek never crosses the line into preaching — instead, Dan leads with heart and humour and, above all, characters whose quirks are matched by their decency. With Schitt’s Creek, he’s created a world that somehow feels both completely singular and relatable to people from all walks of life.
Evergon has always made art as an affront to the conventions of dominant culture. Born in Niagara Falls, Ont., he rejected his birth name — Albert Jay Lunt — from the outset of his photographic career and rechristened himself with a slew of aliases, including Celluloso Evergonni, Egon Brut, Eve R. Gonzales and, most recognizably, Evergon. Known as one of the country’s most eccentric and frequently exhibited photographers, Evergon has, for 40-some years, audaciously probed marginalized queer sexuality, the construct of gender and the nude body. He has employed everything from non-silver printing to Polaroid photography to digital imaging to achieve his singular effect, imbuing his prints with a baroque sensibility through elaborate staging and the intense use of light and colour. Revitalizing and confrontational, Evergon’s work offers a queer take on the sort of photographic subjects society is accustomed to seeing.
“Richard Fung has made it possible for queer Asian artists like myself to be brave and fearless and public with the work that we produce. He’s done all of this work with a sense of humour, a generosity, a kindness and a sharp intelligence with the hopes of creating a more equitable world not just for LGBTQ people but for everyone. And for this I am grateful. Richard Fung — you are my shero, my hero, my artistic everything, so thank you for everything.”
Casey Mecija is an accomplished multidisciplinary artist primarily working in the fields of music and film.
After publishing her first collection of poetry, Aube à la saison, in 1965, Montreal writer Nicole Brossard spent decades carving out a place for herself in the pantheon of Canadian poetry by penning a formidable body of work that unabashedly echoes her declaration that “loving a woman is always political.” Brossard took an active role in the feminist movement in the mid-’70s, and that grounding has informed all the non-poetry work she has undertaken in the literary realm, from co-founding feminist newspaper Les Têtes de pioche to taking part in the publication of an anthology of Quebec women’s literature. The two-time recipient of the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry in French is known for — among many other things — her 1987 novel Le Désert mauve, which will soon receive an opera adaptation, and her poem “Smooth Horizon of the Verb Love,” which is an ode to Montreal lesbian bar Chez Madame Arthur.
Marie-Ève Blais, author:
It’s hard to imagine writing by women, by lesbians, by homosexuals, without thinking about what Nicole Brossard’s writing conveys: the strength and the pride in complexity, in the margins — and beyond that, the literary quality that expresses what is, in my opinion, literature’s great strength: expressing desire. A writer of desire, of flesh, of the body, of translation, she is without a doubt one of the greatest writers of our time.
There’s an Ivan Coyote T-shirt that lives on a shelf in my closet, and when my mum first handed it to me, I couldn’t help but giggle. She had always purchased my clothes a couple sizes too big when I was a child so that I could grow into them, and, even though I was entering my mid-20s at the time, her old habit had endured. She’d always been practical, so it stood to reason that my couture — which read Tomboy Survival Guide in bold orange writing — would be oversized. But that was only part of her decision, which had also been influenced by Coyote themselves.
“These women have never been heard,” Makeda Silvera writes in Silenced, a monumental work of oral history woven from the accounts of Caribbean domestic workers in Canada. Throughout her career as a writer, editor and political activist, Silvera has laboured to make sure the stories of women — particularly queer women of colour — get told. In 1985, she co-founded Sister Vision, a pioneering Canadian indie press devoted to publishing writing by women of colour, and in 1991, she published Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology — the first anthology of its kind to be published in North America. Silvera has also painted vivid, multilayered portraits of the immigrant experience (she immigrated to Canada from Jamaica at 12 years old) and the African and Caribbean slave diaspora in her rousing works of fiction, which include the short story collection Her Head a Village and novel The Heart Does Not Bend.
“What I would say to Daniel is thank you. Thank you for creating a space and clearing the land — which is what a lot of these artists did in the ’80s and ’90s and early 2000s. I mean, there was no subgenre of LGBT. They walked into these spaces and they said, ‘I’m here.’ We have to keep pushing forward. We have to take the space that they’ve created for us and not waste it.”
Best known for sparking the global wave of Ginger Pride by marching hundreds of redheads through the streets of Edinburgh, Shawn Hitchins is an award-winning entertainer and author.
Standing 5-foot-8, finishing with a C average in school and having a run-of-the-mill appearance led this pop artist to decide the moniker “Joe Average” sufficiently represented who he was, which happened to be, well, average. But the magnitude of his contributions to Canadian art and queer activism have proven he is anything but. When he was 27 years old, doctors told Average that he was HIV-positive and may only have months to live. Receiving this news filled him with the conviction to live without inhibitions and unflinchingly pursue his dream of becoming an artist. The oeuvre he has crafted since — a kaleidoscopic collection of cartoonish people, animals and elements of nature — has touched viewers worldwide for its tenderhearted portrayal of the harmony of all living things on earth. Average is also a well-known advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and LGBTQ rights, and frequently donates his artwork to charitable causes. In 2002, Vancouver’s mayor proclaimed Nov. 3 “Joe Average Day,” and his contributions were recently recognized by the Royal Canadian Mint, which commissioned the artist to design a 2019 loonie to commemorate the progress achieved by the queer community — and point to the work still to be done.
Léa Pool’s fiction and documentary films are characterized by their nuanced investigations of exile and identity. The Switzerland-born daughter of a Polish Holocaust survivor, Pool relocated to Canada at age 25 to study in Montreal, where she went on to produce a number of films with the National Film Board that conveyed the female experience with authenticity. In Pool’s narratives, sexual identities and emotional conditions are in states of flux — from Genie Award-winning films like Anne Trister (about a grieving student who develops an attraction to an old friend) and Straight for the Heart (which follows the end of a of bisexual polyamorous relationship ends) to her sequence within the omnibus film Montreal Stories (starring Anne Dorval as a young lesbian woman in an ambulance, recalling her life). Treading the fine line between homoerotic and homosocial female relationships, Pool's characters have added remarkable depth to the Canadian film canon.
This may be revisionist history, but in my first recollection of Will Munro, he’s dressed in a head-to-toe chicken suit. An homage to Clara the Carefree Chicken — one of the original New York City club kids — the suit was garish and feathered and (if memory serves) involved absurd, Muppet-calibre feet. Will wore it while working the door and the stage and the floor one night at Vaseline, his cult queer rock ‘n’ roll party at the El Mocambo, a gloriously rundown club on the fringes of Toronto’s Kensington Market. (Later, under pressure from Unilever, the name morphed, becoming Vazaleen.)
What I remember is this: walking in past dingy, mottled black walls graffitied with the ghosts of punk shows past, my shoes sticking to a floor shellacked with several decades’ worth of beer and sweat, the guttural thrum of an indelible guitar riff echoing through the sound system (“Ça plane pour moi,” maybe, or “Kids in America”) and feeling awestruck by the masses of beautiful misfits. Everywhere in the bar, in denim, leather, ornate costumes, sequins and sparkles, and various states of undress, people of myriad genders milled and moshed, danced and drank. It was maybe 20 minutes away — 10 by cab — from Church and Wellesley, the city’s “official” gay village, but this celebration of unfettered perversity and glorious weirdness couldn’t have been further removed from the stoic conformity that dominated in the mainstream clubs on the strip. And there, in my mind, is Will — a yellow-feathered beacon in a sea of undulating bodies and joyful chaos.
I don’t know if Will really wore the chicken suit on that particular night in the fall of 2000, the first night I was dragged by a (cooler, gayer, more libertine) friend to Vaseline, the party that transformed my conception of what queer culture could be — what queer community could be. But he did wear it often: to go out dancing, to run errands around the city, to visit the Black Eagle, a Church Street leather bar. And in my mind, that captures so much of the spirit that defined his life’s work: hilarious and absurd, slightly twisted, oddly affecting, entirely without shame. It was a strike against propriety, against arch expressions of coolness, against conventional notions of sex and desire. And it was a tribute, in its way, to a way of being and a mode of creating that had come barely a generation earlier.
That spirit was ever-present in his artwork, which reframed recognizable icons (Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover recontextualized with the insertion of ACT UP’s “Silence = Death” motto), revisited traditionally “feminine” practices (the meticulous sewing, crocheting and textile wizardry he used to produce everything from bespoke briefs to a patchwork sex sling) and drew on the cut-and-paste aesthetic of zines and classic rock-show posters. It shaped his DJ playlists, the performers he brought to town and the intergenerational mix of people who hung out at The Beaver, the hybrid café and club he co-founded on a proto-gentrified stretch of Queen Street W. in 2006.
The peak years of Will’s club nights coincided with the very earliest pokes and likes of the social-media era, but he could be ridiculously rooted in his analog ethos. Even though he had an email address, he rarely checked it. If you were hoping to weasel your way onto the guest list for one of his events, you had to call his landline, leave a message and hope he checked his voicemail before you showed up and had to negotiate a huge lineup that likely included at least three of your exes. Still, most of the time, miraculously, his old-school system worked.
Will died of brain cancer in 2010 at the age of 35. Three and a half decades doesn’t seem like nearly long enough for the scope and depth of everything he accomplished (then again, his busyness was legendary), nor does it seem like an adequate lifespan for someone who had so much more to make and say and do. Will was transformative — and I mean that in the most literal, non-hyperbolic way. His genius, his magic, came from a place of wanting to effect change on every level. He was a vegan, punk, feminist, anarchist, sissy, homo hero; a kid from the suburbs who worked to create a haven for other freaks; an iconoclast and a superfan; a tender maverick who carved out public spaces where a startlingly diverse collection of people could feel validated in their most private selves. And that’s all any of us want, isn’t it? To feel safe and beautiful in our own skin — or chicken suit.
Sarah Liss is a writer, editor, and cultural critic who lives in Toronto with her family.
In his writer’s bio, Tomson Highway jokes that “at one point in his life, his trophy case collapsed from the terrible weight and killed three people.” It isn’t far outside the realm of possibility — Highway is among Canada’s most decorated playwrights, and his impact as a queer Indigenous writer is immeasurable. At age six, Highway was taken from his parents and placed in a residential school, and after graduating from university, he got involved in social work within Indigenous communities until he turned 30 — at which point he started to write. Highway took the country by storm with 1986’s The Rez Sisters, which blended a realist view of day-to-day life on a First Nations reserve with elements of camp and Indigenous spirituality — and even boldly included a character grieving the loss of her female lover. Highway worked closely with his brother René, a dancer and choreographer who was also openly gay, before René passed away from AIDS-related causes in 1990; Highway’s 1998 novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen, is a fictionalized account of their childhood experiences in a residential school, and the René-inspired character Gabriel is gay — a portrayal that Margaret Atwood praised as “pioneering.” After René’s death, Highway told Maclean’s that his job was to be “twice as joyful...because I promised to be joyful for both of us.” For years, he served as the artistic director of Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts, the country’s oldest professional Indigenous theatre company, and now splits his time between Ontario’s Sudbury area and Gatineau, Que., with his partner of 30-plus years.
From nearly the very start of his career as a playwright in 1981, Michel Marc Bouchard’s dramatic work has probed ideas about what it means to be a queer individual both within Québécois society and the world at large. Born in small-town Quebec, Bouchard went on to study theatre at the University of Ottawa, and secured his place in the national theatre pantheon with Les Feluettes, a coming-of-age romance between two young men presented through a play within a play that recalls a past atrocity. (It was later turned into an award-winning film adaptation, Lilies, directed by John Greyson.) A number of Bouchard’s other works have received movie renditions, including Les Muses orphelines and Tom at the Farm, the latter of which Xavier Dolan brought to the big screen in 2013. His 2012 play Christine, la reine-garçon, about the 17th-century Swedish queen who became an unlikely icon for defying gender norms, is currently being turned into an opera co-commissioned by the Opéra de Montréal and the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Composer Julien Bilodeau has theorized that Christine resonates so widely because it explores the “foundation of modern society...free spirit, gender equality, and scientific knowledge.”
“Go and pick up a copy of Wanting in Arabic, Trish’s first collection of poetry, and immediately you’ll be struck by the beauty and the deep lyrical joy of Trish’s poetry. She makes trans women’s lives visible, but more than that, she makes incredibly gorgeous art.
To Trish I would say thank you for your outstanding contributions to trans poetry and trans literature and scholarship in Canada. You’ve made it possible for me and many other trans women to exist, to feel that our voices matter, that we could speak and create art. You’ve helped us have a bridge between the trans women who came before us and the trans women who are coming after us.”
Gwen Benaway is a trans woman of Anishinaabe and Métis descent and the award-winning author of three collections of poetry.
25 years ago, a debut novel arrived to an outpouring of praise for being one of the most stirring depictions of the tensions leading up to the 1983 riots in Colombo, Sri Lanka ever written. That novel was Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, which evoked elements of the author’s upbringing as a closeted youth coming to terms with his sexuality against that volatile backdrop (Deepa Mehta is set to direct the film adaptation). Just as in the novel, Selvadurai’s family immigrated to Canada, where he attended university and dabbled in TV writing before publishing a number of widely read novels and short story collections that powerfully draw on his Sri Lankan heritage and his experiences as a gay man. In a 2003 essay entitled “Coming Out” that appeared in a 2003 issue of Time magazine focused on Asian diaspora, Selvadurai explored these intertwined themes. “In this country that I still considered my home,” he wrote, “I could never be at home.”
In 1982, Lorraine Segato and Billy Bryans received a phone call that would change everything. The Toronto International Film Festival was looking for musicians, but neither of the bands the pair played in together (Mama Quilla 11 and V) were available — so they decided to assemble a new group. Their one-off band, featuring Segato as vocalist, performed to a rapturous reception, and soon they were offered a recording contract, leading to the formation of influential new world music group The Parachute Club. They rose to fame with their equality anthem “Rise Up,” a song that became the de facto soundtrack to queer social causes and political movements at the time. Segato — an out lesbian — served as the group’s lead vocalist and songwriter until the band broke up, and has since gone on to release three solo albums and record a dance remix of “Rise Up” for WorldPride 2014. In addition to her musical endeavours, Segato is a dedicated activist and played pivotal roles in the creation of the documentaries Queen Street West: The Rebel Zone and Lowdown Tracks.
“An older gentleman once asked me, after a show, whether all my plays were ‘gay-themed,’” recounts Jordan Tannahill, the prolific, sui generis Canadian theatre-maker. Tannahill’s knee-jerk response was to try to dispel the perception that all his work was inherently gay, but in hindsight, he wishes he’d responded: “‘Yes. Even the plays about straight people.’ Because my queer politic suffuses everything I write.” The Ottawa-born artist moved to Toronto at 18 to mount a relentless streak of plays that discarded convention by incorporating amateur actors, on-site staging, live-streaming, myth and reality, Tannahill’s suburban upbringing, and queer love and politics. In 2012, Tannahill and his then-partner William Ellis gave an old barbershop in Toronto’s Kensington Market a makeover to turn it into Videofag, a now-legendary multidisciplinary arts hub where they lived and held readings, screenings, exhibitions and parties until 2016. Tannahill has also collaborated with choreographers Christopher House and Akram Khan on staged pieces at the intersection of dance and theatre; penned the autofiction novel Liminal; and produced a virtual reality experience, Draw Me Close, a recreation of his childhood living room drawn by artist Teva Harrison. In 2018, Tannahill became the youngest two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award for Drama for his pair of plays Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom.
Christopher House, choreographer and artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre
Jordan Tannahill is a force of nature: a radical queer amalgam of artist, polymath, activist, sensualist and kind-hearted, wayward angel. Whether writing, directing, co-creating Videofag or challenging the hateful policies of the Sultan of Brunei through an intervention at Claridge’s in London, he brings the same calm ability to cut to the essence of what is necessary. And he’s just scratched the surface of his extraordinary potential!
Who are Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue?
Educators. Community builders. Activists. Mentors. Feminist trailblazers. Artists. Curators. Writers. Organizers and facilitators. Intersectional. Political. Unabashedly queer.
Logue and Mitchell have contributed in innumerable ways to the contemporary art landscape. They’ve also inspired a generation of queer, feminist, experimental and just plain weird artists, makers and thinkers in Canada and beyond.
You can’t unfasten John Greyson’s films from his political convictions. The Toronto-based filmmaker first made a name for himself in the 1990s with a string of eclectic works that were influenced by topical issues in the queer community, including homophobic violence, police mistreatment of the queer population and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 1991, Greyson produced the musical short The Making of Monsters, partly based on the murder of Kenneth Zeller, a Toronto schoolteacher who was beaten to death by five students. Shortly after, he directed a CBC docudrama entitled After the Bath about a sensationalized news story that London, Ont. law enforcers used to justify a witch hunt of local cruising venues. Greyson’s breakthrough work, Zero Patience, melodically calls the urban legend of Patient Zero into question by way of an original musical book and score. His 1996 film Lilies, an adaptation of a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, tells a multilayered love story between two young men — and won the 1996 Genie Award for best picture. In 2013, Greyson was arrested in Cairo after filming a protest and imprisoned for 50 days, leading to a campaign that pressured the Egyptian government to release him. A figure who is as radical in his activism as he is in his media production, Greyson has also helmed a number of video essays, a murder mystery web series and Fig Trees, a “documentary opera” chronicling the struggles of two AIDS activists.
“I feel like he’s the Queero we all need because he reminds us that we can do something. And we have a lot of compassion in our generation and if we activate that we can make a lot of change.
Thank you Glenn for all the music you’ve created, all the space that you’ve created for people. Thank you for never stopping making music. I’m glad it’s been a long road with this. And thank you for being one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know.”
Stephen Jackman-Torkoff is a performer, playwright and wandering poet who has acted in productions across Canada and is the resident poet with the Queer Songbook Orchestra.
While cinephiles mourn the demise of the big-screen experience in favour of living room viewing on Netflix, Midi Onodera is a proud pioneer in the field of “tiny movies”: films shot on small, mobile cameras, with the intent of being viewed on small, mobile screens. Informed by her background in experimental cinema, Onodera is a filmmaker and video artist whose work fuses a number of formats — from the old-school mediums of Hi8 and 16mm, to low-fi iPhone apps and mass-produced toy cameras — in order to point a personal lens at the world, letting the viewer see it through the eyes of a Japanese-Canadian, lesbian woman and feminist. Onodera has explained that “mobile videos have the potential to expand storytelling conventions and can empower disenfranchised voices,” and her penetrating micro-shorts — including 2006–2007’s A Movie A Day “vidoodle” series — use this short-form, small-screen format to explore individual and transnational identity. Through her art, she’s been on the cutting edge of exploring what has now become an everyday practice: pointing our phone cameras at ourselves and uploading constantly to social media. Onodera has also helmed video essays on her creative methodology and directed the award-winning 1995 feature Skin Deep.
After a bad day of school back in 2010, I typed the name Xavier Dolan into my Facebook search bar and sent the filmmaker — or whoever owned that account — a dewy-eyed plea. My message opened: “I know that this may be a shot in the dark, but I feel that you might be able to relate to my situation.” I proceeded to congratulate him on the success of his debut feature, J'ai tué ma mère, recount how miserable I was at school and propose that we were kindred spirits because we shared the same taste in cinema. “I may seem young and fairly inexperienced,” I wrote, “but I’m sure you can relate with the Truffaut-like need to leave school and make movies.” I then asked for his permission to run away from home and work on the set of his next film.
Bruce LaBruce is not for the faint of heart. The cult filmmaker originally set out to be a film theorist or critic, and first amassed a following through the publication of “queercore” zine J.D.s alongside Toronto punk fixture G.B. Jones. As an active member of the local punk scene, LaBruce first got involved with experimental filmmaking when he started shooting Super 8 movies that documented his circle’s subversive lifestyles and radical takes on sexuality. 1991’s No Skin Off My Ass, which chronicles a punk hairdresser who falls for a young skinhead, was LaBruce’s first film to make waves on the indie circuit. It also featured graphic sex and radical politics — two elements that, along with brutal violence, would come to define the transgressive body of work that he has moulded since, including Super 8½, Otto; or, Up with Dead People and The Misandrists. LaBruce has said the substantial use of violence and anti-establishment ideology that permeates his work are likely the product of being called a sissy so many times growing up. Forget respectability politics and rainbow Doritos — LaBruce has never worried about being “safe” enough to fit in.
Unmistakable for her jet-black fringe and provocative lyrics that boldly brought songs of lesbian desire to the ears of Canadians in the ’80s, Carole Pope first rose to fame as the vocalist of Toronto-based rock group Rough Trade. Although the band’s 1980 single “High School Confidential” explicitly referenced same-sex feelings and featured controversial lyrics like “It makes me cream my jeans when she comes my way,” Canadian audiences embraced Pope. The new wave legend was showered with Junos, winning the award for most promising female vocalist of the year in ’81 and best female vocalist of the year in ’83 and ’84 (and, of course, spicing up the broadcast with some onstage antics during the ’82 awards). As a solo artist, Pope has long been a fixture in Canada’s queer community: she re-recorded Rough Trade’s infamous track for use in the first season of Queer as Folk; she titled her 2015 EP Music for Lesbians; and in her 2001 memoir, Anti Diva, she gave fans unadulterated access into her personal history, which included an account of her early-’80s romance with Dusty Springfield. Pope is an undeniable envelope-pusher who broke barriers for queer representation in the Canadian music industry.
For being such a highly regarded author of novels, plays and short stories (not to mention a number of scripts for television and radio), Timothy Findley did his best to stay out of the spotlight, eventually moving to split his time between Stratford, Ont., and the south of France in order to work on his writing in peace. The author was similarly discreet when it came to talking about his sexuality — he rarely alluded to it while giving interviews — yet he peppered his writing with homoerotic undertones, complex depictions of masculinity and the occasional affair between same-sex characters. Before turning to writing, Findley had built a successful career as an actor, sharing the stage with Alec Guinness and William Hutt at the Stratford Festival. In 1962, he met the man who would become his lifelong romantic partner and collaborator: William Whitehead, an acclaimed documentary writer for the CBC who would type up and review many of Findley’s manuscripts. Findley went on to become one of the most esteemed members of Canada’s writing community and was remembered by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson as “a most extraordinary person” and “an atmosphere” when he passed away in 2002.
“I love that she proves that there’s no one way to be a queer woman. I love that she explores all aspects of her identity and shares all of them and encourages people to think about their isms as well and how the things that make us different are also our super powers in a way.
Candy, I just want to thank you for kicking ass and taking names. Despite all of the adversities you’ve faced in your life, you are an incredibly strong and inspiring woman and I appreciate all of the work that you do so much — and that you do it with a sense of humour.”
Natasha Negovanlis is an award-winning actor, writer and producer best known for playing Carmilla Karnstein in the web series and feature film Carmilla.
In a theatrical career that spanned more than 50 years, William Hutt was the longtime face of the Stratford Festival who climbed its stage to play almost every Shakespearean hero written. But in his private life, he did something even more heroic: he was openly bisexual. Although Hutt kept his personal relationships more concealed from the public, his director Richard Nielsen put it pointedly: “As a young man, he was openly gay at a time when being openly gay was a very dangerous identity.” Before working in the theatre, Hutt served as a medic in World War II, where he would intermittently take leave to travel to London and catch theatrical productions. Upon returning to Canada, the aspiring actor enrolled in the University of Toronto’s Trinity College and joined a student theatre troupe. While he once used a family dinner to confess “I’m another Oscar Wilde!,” Hutt struggled to accept his sexuality for some time — until he performed as an androgynous Pandarus in a Stratford Festival production of Troilus and Cressida, a role that, according to his biographer, helped liberate him from some of his anxiety. For Hutt, acting wasn’t just his craft — it allowed him to accept who he truly was.
A highly prolific artist and social activist since the early 1990s, Mirha-Soleil Ross is a force of nature. Raised in Montreal, she moved to Toronto and co-founded the pivotal queer zine Gendertrash From Hell with her partner Xanthra Phillippa Mackay. New issues of Gendertrash were published between 1993 and 1995, compiling original art, poetry, fiction and resource lists, all with the aim of giving “a voice to gender queers, who’ve been discouraged from speaking out and communicating with each other.” Ross went on to helm Counting Past 2, the world’s first trans art festival, and developed a number of performance art pieces that sought to educate audiences about the realities of sex work and debunk stereotypes about trans identity. A staunch animal rights activist, Ross used her post as grand marshal of the 2001 Toronto Pride to lead a squadron of queer animal rights activists into the parade. She has also persistently spearheaded community programs — such as The 519’s Meal Trans program and a trans sex worker outreach program — to fight for better conditions for trans individuals and sex workers in Toronto.
I moved to Montreal in 2000 on a whim, at the tail end of a big love. Over my first weekend in my new city, I climbed the stairs of a triplex on Ste-Catherine Street into the world of Sisters, a lesbian hangout I’d heard of but never visited. Looking out over the knots of women drinking and dancing, I wondered what they were all about. Would any of them come to know me? Would I come to know them?
A few months later, a new friend I was desperate to impress suggested I read Les Nuits de l’Underground, a study of Montreal’s lesbian scene in the 1970s. (Reader, I married her.) The novel’s protagonist, a sculptor named Geneviève who splits her time between France and Canada, falls for an aloof Austrian doctor named Lali. Their affairs — with each other and with others — play out against a backdrop of late nights full of young and lively Québécois women.
For those who watched him come up under the name Final Fantasy in the Torontopia scene of the mid-aughts — a violin, a loop pedal, clever songs riffing on Dungeons & Dragons — Owen Pallett’s rise feels both improbable and inevitable. A Polaris and a Grammy later (for 2006’s He Poos Clouds and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, respectively), Pallett finds himself providing string and orchestral arrangements for the likes of Frank Ocean and Taylor Swift, penning viral musicological analyses of Katy Perry and composing movie scores and operas. And while queerness has always permeated his musical output, his sexual identity assumed a more prominent position with his 2014 release In Conflict. “There’s a lot of people out there who cannot hear the words that a homosexual Canadian is singing and think that it has any bearing on their own lives,” he said after the album’s release. “When I look at my fellow indie musicians, the ones who are queer and who sell the most tickets and get the biggest guarantees, they are all closeted, with the exception of Tegan and Sara.” But Pallett, undeterred, knows how important this sort of openness is — and he’s not waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
“Hip hop spaces are often really homophobic and really transphobic...But when I go to an 88 Days show or when I’m listening to their work or listening to Leilani’s work, I don’t have to work to reconcile my identity, and know that the culture that’s being created from this space is only supporting our community and is not doing anything to harm it.
I want to thank you, Leilani, for the work that you’ve done in Toronto — the spaces that you have made for us to vibe in and to get to know each other. Thank you for being such a creative visionary and for pushing even without the support that I know you need.”
Kim Katrin Milan is an award-winning human rights educator, writer and content producer.
G.B. Jones was a product of Toronto’s queer punk scene of the 1980s and ’90s — or, rather, Toronto’s queer punk scene was a product of G.B. Jones. The multidisciplinary artist helped launch the city’s queercore movement alongside filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, and together the partners-in-crime produced a number of no-budget films that have since gained cult status, as well as the era-defining fanzine J.D.s (which stood for “juvenile delinquents”). In addition to appearing as a frequent face in LaBruce’s early work — although her face is so often masked by her signature sunglasses — Jones’s filmography includes The Troublemakers, The Yo-Yo Gang (a 30-minute exploitation flick about girl gangs) and The Lollipop Generation, which reportedly took 13 years to complete (take that, Boyhood). She was also a central figure in the post-punk band Fifth Column, who are perhaps best known for their controversial single “All Women Are Bitches.” Her visual work, some of which channels Tom of Finland-style erotic tropes to form lesbian fantasy images of bikers and cops, has been exhibited internationally and was compiled into a 1996 limited-edition book entitled, naturally, G.B. Jones.
The summer of 2000 will hopefully remain an all-time low in terms of both my self-esteem and self-glamour. I was a closeted, overweight 16-year-old working as the “night maid” at a Holiday Inn off the side of Highway 401 near Trenton, Ont. I had to wear hospital scrubs that very much did not flatter my body and my job was essentially to deliver towels or toiletries to any room that needed them between the hours of 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. If there were no deliveries to make (as was often the case), I was supposed to vacuum the hallways and clean the windows. Instead, I would sneak into a vacant hotel room with some chips from the vending machine and watch TV. It was in one of those rooms where I discovered Thom Fitzgerald’s 1997 debut film The Hanging Garden.
When the exhibition Drawing the Line — a provocative photo series portraying acts of lesbian sexuality, from kissing to bondage — opened in 1989 Vancouver, it didn’t cause a stir for merely subverting the male-dominated gaze of traditional photography. The series was also groundbreaking because it invited attendees to inscribe their reactions to the images on the gallery walls, incorporating an interactive dimension that forced the viewers to examine their sexual biases and desires. This was by the brilliant, renegade design of Vancouver’s Kiss & Tell collective: a trio of artists — Persimmon Blackbridge, Lizard Jones and Susan Stewart — who spent the ’90s unleashing a number of envelope-pushing multimedia pieces upon the Canadian public. Kiss & Tell perpetually put lesbian sexual politics at the foreground and used live performance to transcend the limits of verbal expression.
Her mother was a library technician, her father was a writer and she’s been a voracious reader since the mere age of three — so should it come as any surprise that Nalo Hopkinson grew up to pursue a literary career? The celebrated speculative fiction author was born in Jamaica, grew up in Guyana and Trinidad, and moved to Toronto at 16, which resulted in a fusion of her new and former homes weaving their way into her creative output. Hopkinson often draws on Afro-Caribbean culture and folklore, synthesizing these influences with feminist, futurist and sci-fi elements — her debut novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, takes place in a dystopic Toronto ravaged by economic collapse. Hopkinson’s queer identity has materialized in both explicit and implicit forms in her fiction: her story “Fisherman” centres on a trans fisherman who was assigned female at birth, and “Something to Hitch Meat To” chronicles the employees of a company who produce pornography for straight men, even though few of them are straight themselves. Last year on Bi Visibility Day, Hopkinson tweeted: “Didn’t know I was queer till my 30s...Society makes sexuality so fraught, non-normalized sexuality even more so. So it makes sense that some of us don’t ‘just know’ our own sexualities right away.”
Leaving home in search of oneself isn’t an unfamiliar chapter in any queer individual’s origin story. At 19, Christopher House left his birthplace of St. John’s to move to Ottawa because it was where the budding choreographer most believed he could “become the person I [wanted] to become.” House eventually graduated from York University and joined the Toronto Dance Theatre in 1979, going on to become the company’s artistic director in 1994 — a post he’s held for the last 25 years (House just announced earlier this month that this will be his final season). The link between his passion and his identity is clear: “Dance, by its very nature, is queer,” he told In Magazine in 2013. “Men of my generation have searched for expression, vulnerability and sensuality.” And he’s helped those who have come through TDT find just that. Throughout House’s time as the head of the company, he has played an integral role in building its image, contributed more than 60 original works to its repertoire and made time to frequently collaborate with artists from other disciplines, including indie band The Hidden Cameras and theatre-maker Jordan Tannahill. Whether he’s carefully choreographing original movements or making room for improvisation to allow his dancers greater freedom, House’s entire oeuvre is suffused with depth and expression.
Michelle Mama, showrunner of In The Making (which will feature House next season):
Possessed of the cool precision of a scientist and the fiery passion of an artist, Christopher House is the inimitable lion of the contemporary dance world. His stubborn resistance to the status quo and his innovative collaborations with creatives of every stripe create a frisson and magic that can only occur with great risk. He queers traditional notions of dance by pushing against conventional methodologies and staying curious and open. His commitment to presentness and being “embodied” in his work is deeply meaningful and inspirational. As a dancer, artistic director, choreographer and collaborative queer elder, House continues to forge an authentic creative path that we all enthusiastically follow.
“Lucas, I would say, thank you so much. I would not be able to be where I am without the work that you’ve done. And so I’m really thankful for your bravery, and I’m thankful for your generosity and your wonderful laugh. You bring humour to everything and I think that that is such a gift and such a testament to your strength. So, thank you.”
Heath V. Salazar — also known as their drag alter ego Gay Jesus — is a Dora Award-winning Latinx performer and writer.
When she was just 28 years old, Patricia Rozema burst onto the Canadian film scene with her accomplished debut feature I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. The low-budget comedy, following a daydream-prone temp worker who develops a crush on an art gallery owner (whose ex-lover is played by fellow Super Queero Ann-Marie MacDonald), screened at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews and the Prix de la jeunesse award. Mermaids performed exceptionally well at the box office (at least for a female-led Canadian arthouse flick) and landed a spot on TIFF’s list of top 10 Canadian films of all time in 1993. Rozema went on to helm a number of Canadian indies, including the sapphic love story When Night is Falling, before directing Mansfield Park, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl and a range of television work. The filmmaker — who was raised in Sarnia by strict Dutch Calvinist parents who limited her access to TV and movies — was initially wary about coming out publicly and being labelled “that lesbian filmmaker.” But as the industry has finally made inroads toward the mainstream inclusion of LGBTQ voices, Rozema’s decision to be a pioneering queer filmmaker has paid off. Her career in Canadian cinema is having a renaissance, and her most recent efforts — Into the Forest (starring Ellen Page) and Mouthpiece — are fearlessly feminist and as powerful as anything she’s ever produced.
I can’t think of a better song than “Smells Like Happiness,” which sings about the stereotypes of young gay life in a way that is equally titillating and self-critical; in this regard, it is a Hollinghurst novel as a song. “In our minds our fathers have died and we realize / that cities have bars and we like to get drunk / and high from the smells we inhale in dirty wells / and the neck of a boy who smokes cigarettes.” When I asked Joel Gibb what his tone was when he sang this, he said, “It’s meant to be kind of sad.” It feels sad, and joyous, and sexy at the same time — “The Smell Of Our Own” is a document of the explosive sexuality of young gaydom, in its beauty and its sadness.
When Scott Thompson came of age, openly gay male comedians were more or less unheard of. Buddy Cole — Thompson’s celeb-name-dropping, martini-swirling gay socialite alter ego — was a big part of changing that. The comic recently toured the country with Après Le Déluge: The Buddy Cole Monologues, his one-man show that revives his iconic Kids in the Hall character known for scandalous rants about the queer community and his personal life. “I feel sorry for young gay men today,” Thompson screams in the opening monologue. “Now they’re expected to get married, to have children, to be...mah...ma-nah...maaaa...monogamous.” In an interview with CBC Arts last year, he spoke frankly about the fact that in the decades since's Buddy's debut, there still isn't an openly gay male star in comedy. “I think the level of self-loathing with gay men is a lot higher than people think,” he said. “And as a result gay men have a very difficult time giving it up for other gay men.” Whoever makes it, he’ll have Buddy to thank.
Andrew Johnston, comedian:
Growing up in the ’90s, out gay male characters in film or TV who weren't cautionary tales were rare. I think there was Christian in "Clueless" and that might have been it. Visibly out gay male comedians? Well, there was only one, and that was Scott Thompson. The first time I clapped eyes on Scott doing any one of his countless singular, brilliant character creations on Kids in The Hall was a five alarm, this-is-not-a-drill, siren song that this was possible for me, and I can solemnly swear that I would not be doing comedy had I not seen Scott do it first. Were I a woman in song paying tribute to a trailblazer, Scott would be Aretha Franklin, Patti Smith, Madonna, Lauryn Hill and Ariana Grande all rolled into one — he's that iconic. Eons before his time, he has been ballistically bent on communicating the gay male sensibility through comedy and diving off every edge he can find, and I'm thrilled to say he still very much is. On behalf of myself and every other gay male stand-up, sketch and improv comedian to come after...Scott: we love you and thank you for letting us stand on your shoulders.
And it’s not just the poetry of the exceptional and canonical; it’s also the poetry of the everyday. And it’s not just on the paper or in the mouth; it’s also on the lips. It’s often accompanied by good wine and even better friends, and maybe an oyster or two. It’s not unlike...an earth-shattering whisper of love.
The words are by Rumi and Rilke, Ling Huchu and Anne Carson — but it also goes beyond words to include the poetry of his gaze. What that feels like is reminiscent of an effortless weight of an individual pixel in his laborious renderings of well-known artworks, but holds space, too, for the expansive, zoomed-out image of all your good and not-so-good complexities to be embraced. Like the lights or the flares or the smudges, it allows you access to a timeless dimension.
Winnipeg-based duo Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan first entered the public eye with "We’re Talking Vulva," an educational music video about female genitalia. Everything the performance artists touch is saturated with this irreverent approach to convention, as they insert queer and gender politics into popular spaces typically absent of them. (Dempsey and Millan were, at one point, a couple, but decided to remain partners in art even after breaking up.) In 1997, they masterminded the One Gay City project, which featured bus shelter ads that parodied Winnipeg’s former civic slogan “One Great City.” The ads were never installed because the agency in control of the shelters objected to them, leaving the artists to recreate the project as a series of postcards instead (the dispute was the subject of a human rights challenge that ended in settlement). You might also recognize the artists from Lesbian National Parks and Services, an ongoing performance piece that sees the pair don forest ranger outfits to queer the Canadiana cliché of national parks tourism. The pair’s work has routinely incited uproar and faced censorship, but they have never shied away from performing a shameless, comical queer reality into existence.
“Canada, you are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance.” So began Jeremy Dutcher’s rousing acceptance speech for the 2018 Polaris Prize, which he was awarded for his debut album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. Dutcher’s boldly original album grew out of research he did into traditional Maliseet songs that were recorded more than 110 years ago by an anthropologist who visited the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick. The album is Dutcher’s response to the music of his ancestors, and the entire album is recorded in Wolastoq, a language now spoken fluently by fewer than 100 people. At the 2019 Juno Awards, Dutcher arrived draped in a flowing floral cape, took home the award for Indigenous music album of the year and used his speech to protest Justin Trudeau’s approach to reconciliation with the Indigenous population. Dutcher identifies as two-spirit and has also spoken out about colonialism’s suppression of the queerness that has long existed in the Indigenous community. “I think it’s really important to acknowledge that two-spirit people and Indigenous queer identity have been a part of this landscape for a very, very long time,” he told CBC Arts last year. “Long before colonization.”
Sean O’Neill, host of In The Making (which will feature Dutcher next season):
I had the opportunity to visit Jeremy Dutcher on a rare trip back to the shores of the Wolastoq river this spring, where I saw gloriously camp pictures of his high school musical theatre days, heard his parents describe with touching pride his show-stopping teenage talent show performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and listened to him play Mehcinut on his family's upright piano, with mementos from the explosive eighteen months he's just spent at the forefront of contemporary music hanging on the walls around him. It was a moving, intimate, humbling time — as a settler invited into private spaces to witness his most sacred relationships, and as a fellow queer who watched this sweet man navigate all of his relations: with his boyfriend, his parents, his elders, our crew, the river itself — with remarkable care and consistency. Wherever Jeremy goes, and whenever he sings, it’s all there, all at once: his compassion, his mischievous humour, his vulnerability, his deep respect for his elders, the worldview that’s shaped him, his moral clarity and his immense talent. Jeremy Dutcher is the real deal, and like all great artists, he sings of a future that many of us are only just beginning to imagine.
Michelle Ross has been a reigning queen on Toronto’s Church Street and beyond for a sublime 45 years. Glamorously brandishing the self-appointed title of “professional diva,” Ross first climbed onto the stage to deliver a fiery performance of Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” in 1974. A Warwick track may have been her opening number, but more than anyone else, Michelle Ross is a supreme authority on her namesake, Diana Ross. Ross (Michelle, that is) has been known to cap off her show-stopping acts by removing her wig as a clever way of calling attention to the fine line between identity and performance. For Ross, conceptions of male and female are no more than tropes: “Both sides are equally part of the glamour,” she says. “I see them as stories that are ready for a makeover.” Even though the Jamaican-born drag queen has brought her exalted energy to stages all over the globe, her home is still Church Street, where she continues to perform weekly.
Tynomi Banks, drag queen and Canada's a Drag star:
I remember the first time I saw Michelle Ross. I must have been 22, just entering the gay scene, figuring out, “How do I fit in this new world?” Then one evening I was out with some friends at a drag show and this beautiful being/creature walked out onto the stage. The way she commanded everyone's attention was effortless and magical. The impact this woman has had on my life has been so inspiring, and it has given me ambition and push to reach my goals and create new ones constantly. Her love and support of the community goes beyond. She is the mother of all mothers, and I'll always cherish our friendship.
Produced by: Peter Knegt and Mercedes Grundy | Writing and editing: Oliver Skinner, Peter Knegt, Reiko Milley and Eleanor Knowles | Design: Mercedes Grundy and Jeff Hume | Website: Jeff Hume | Video: Lucius Dechausay, Mercedes Grundy and Kiah Welsh | Illustrations: Jonathan Busch | Graphics: Allison Cake | Special thanks: Christopher DiRaddo, Michael Erickson, James Fowler, Trevor Green, Rachel Iwaasa, Thomas LeBlanc, Zachari Logan, Renata Mohamed, Kathleen Mullen, Matthew-Robin Nye, Sean O'Neill, Tanya Schuh, Michael Venus, Johnnie Walker, Tranna Wintour