What Makes A Gay Icon?

An attempt to define Canada’s queer pioneers.

Pity the poor editor trying to wrangle an essay collection into something that stays true to its theme. Queers Were Here: Heroes and Icons of Queer Canada, edited by Robin Ganev, a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan, and history scholar R.J. Gilmour, has a very promising title, the kind that draws a queer bibliophile like myself in a flash. But this is a wildly uneven set that rarely introduces us to subjects that Canadians—of whatever sexuality—should know about. That is because the original mandate, as articulated by the editors, provides an unsatisfactory definition of hero. Here, it is anyone who had a profound influence on the writer’s understanding of their sexuality.

And that is a problem. What is a hero, anyway? It is a term I would not necessarily throw around blithely and, quite honestly, would not apply it to the first woman I slept with, or even the first person who introduced me to the first woman I slept with. To do so dilutes the term way too much. For that reason, I am perplexed by Gilmour’s opening piece, which focuses on his coming out. Gilmour got involved in a pioneering organization, the Homophile Association of London, Ontario, and met a man 20 years his elder, who became his first lover. While some of the history here is useful, the writing is pedestrian and, except for the freshness of the experience for Gilmour himself at the time, there is nothing new there, nothing that distinguishes it from anyone else’s coming out story.

I have a similar problem with Gordon Bowness’s “I Got Schooled.” His prose is considerably more compelling than Gilmour’s but his account of his life-changing encounter with the men in the household at 341 Seaton does not convince me that these role models are heroes. The house on Seaton was home to eight charismatic men in their twenties and thirties, a combination of queens, professionals, artists, waiters and various other bohemians. Their idea was to create a kind of perpetual salon. And you can see how a bright-eyed budding queer would be attracted to the scene. In Bowness’s case, it inspired him to try drag for the first time and he now makes a convincing drag queen, ably described this way: “By convincing I don’t meant that I look like a girl, I mean I look like a man who knows what he’s doing in dress.” But I am not sure why a collection of clever gay men who were able to be themselves—witty and fun—qualifies as a collection of heroes. Of course, that was the editors’ request, but this essay is another example of why the definition feels weak.

We need a reason for these essays to matter, something that makes the hero or icon transformative for the writer in surprising ways, elements that make the subject important not only to the writer, but also to us, the readers. And, as soon as you put Canada into the title, it better be Canadian.

That is why Alec Butler’s piece “Sacred Monsters”—about Marie-Claire Blais—is such a winner. Blais was the author of 20 novels, an out lesbian who, although she did not always write explicitly about her sexuality, always brought issues of female difference and independence to the fore. Not only does Butler’s piece skillfully convey the way she came to understand her own queerness through writings both by and about Blais—“Reading about Blais in Books in Canada, I had proof that I was not the only one transgressing gender,” she writes—it brings her hero to life. It also made me want to read or reread that books that influenced Butler so profoundly. Along the way, the piece name checks various authors who interviewed Blais—including Margaret Atwood and Don Harron—and brought her outsider sexuality to the fore, thus giving us a strong sense of Canada’s literary scene in the 1970s.

Derek McCormack’s “The Blitz Kid: Falling Victim to Fashion” puts the focus on a bona fide icon: the great rock groundbreaker Carole Pope. Pope, now still performing as a solo artist, took our homegrown music scene by storm in the early 1980s with her blatantly sexual, queer paeans to lust and transgression as lead singer of her band, Rough Trade. She was surprisingly successful, given our relatively staid pop culture of the time. Her song “High School Confidential,” in which she creams her jeans over her high school female crush was like nothing else ever heard on radio. And forget about Michael Jackson’s famous crotch-grabbing. Pope was doing that years before he ever thought of it.

McCormack, a writer with a wicked wit, is obsessed with fashion and, as a consequence, with Pope’s impact on his own sartorial splendour. But the piece has a scattershot quality and if his recounting of the ups and downs of various stores in Toronto’s Yorkville area is intended to be funny, it does not work. But at least, he is willing to get personal.

Nik Sheehan’s piece on General Idea—the Toronto art collective most famous for its mixed media installation in Times Square, IMAGEVIRUS—goes the other way. “General Idea and Me: Unfulfilled Expectations” is an excellent survey of the brilliant art bad boys’ career and the astonishing way they were able to make an imprint in the competitive art scene. They are to Canada’s art world what Pope was to Canada’s music scene: outrageous, creative, brilliant and very much in our faces. Calling themselves the poodles of the art world, they consistently appropriated pop culture images—turning the LOVE poster into an AIDS image, for example—and hosted art happenings and generally upset convention in whatever way they could think of. It is a beautiful piece, a heartfelt appreciation—I love the part about how New York’s Museum of Modern Art hid all the artists’ multiples. They were intended to subvert the institution’s consumerist inclinations, mocking the business of art at the same time, and MoMA would have none of it. The title is a bit of a tease: there is not as much of Sheehan in the piece as the name promises. Yes, the trio transformed the way we look at art, but how did General Idea change him? As a stand-alone piece on this treasured trio, however, it is terrific. And they are, indeed, true icons.

There are two fine contributions from cartoonists. Steve MacIsaac pays homage to queer allies the Kids in the Hall in “One of the Guys,” paying special attention to the gifted Scott Thompson. And Maurice Vellekoop delivers a tender comic called “Paul Baker: An Introduction,” a piece with uncommon subtlety. It tracks the author’s desperate search for reinforcement for his emerging queer identity. He imagines he will find it at the Ontario College of Art and Design, but he is disappointed by the lack of flamboyance and edge among his college cohorts. Then, his instructor for his Plays in Performance course, Paul Baker, grabs his attention immediately. Open, charismatic, a lover of the word “fuck,” he is full of the kind of ideas that light up the author. Soon the two have clicked—mostly over knowledge of obscure movie dialogue—and they strike up a friendship. But unlike those predictable coming out stories about an older man sexually leading the way for someone much younger, the author learns what is possible in the queer world and is changed by the simple act of having dinner with a couple in a long-term relationship.

Similarly, Nancy Jo Cullen discovers that the British Columbia town of Nelson is surprisingly gay friendly and finds comfort in the presence of a loving lesbian couple. These and the subjects of Paul Baker are people who became heroes because they brought into focus for the authors the possibility of a queer life well lived.

Anne Fleming discovers her lesbian potential when she finds herself in women’s spaces like LOOK (the Lesbian Organization of Kingston, and her piece’s title). Like the Lesbian Organization of Toronto, which I helped co-found in 1978, LOOK provided a safe environment for lesbians of all kinds to meet, talk and plan political action. These organizations were almost always the only lesbian public spaces in a given city. The essay is intriguing not only because of what it reveals about Fleming, but also because it acts also as a requiem for those spaces. There are very few of them left now. But—lesbian organizations as heroic? Or iconic? That is a bit of a reach.

The two more theoretical pieces, Maria-Belén Ordóñez’s “Doing/Writing Queer Research at the Margins” and “Queer Intimacies of Anarchism,” by Robert Teixeira, suffer from being too cerebral. I’ll admit to having a political predisposition not to want to buy into Ordóñez’s lionization of Robin Sharpe, a man hounded by police in the new millennium for taking photos of young boys that could be construed as sexual. And I take issue with her characterization of my resistance as a cliché. She writes that many of his subjects responded to his camera as bodies with agency and not as objects of the male gaze and that when it came to Sharp’s images, we should refuse to “look habitually or with persistent clichés. I would argue that the sexual obsession with youth on the part of both straights and queers is the cliché we should be -deconstructing.

She does urge us not to fall into the trap of assuming we know everything about Sharpe: he was not an arrogant creator who thought his artistic stance should make him untouchable, and that is a useful observation. But she also does not make the case for him as a hero, and neither is she very open about what he changed in her.

Teixeira’s piece about the biker-esque anarchist Raven and how the two formed a fast friendship begins well enough, but then devolves into a fairly plodding survey of all the anarchist literature that he ever got his hands on and every demonstration he attended. It turns out, though, that the author has a valuable contribution to queer discourse on the issue of class, bemoaning how that topic is seldom breached among radicals, most of them hopelessly middle class. “Activists from solid middle-class backgrounds never understand how their privilege enables their practices, and their disavowal of this contributes to a sense of doubt, confusion and unreality. These are troublesome emotions and a disorienting environment for those of us not so well positioned.” And in the end, he meets the much younger Sam who, like Raven, teaches him the virtue of being a queer bandit.

But neither Sam nor Raven is a hero like Tim McCaskell, the subject of Karleen Pendleton Jiminéz’s affectionate portrait in “Downtown.” In a better world, McCaskell’s would be a household name. He has been a queer activist for over 40 years, active with the now-defunct queer magazine Body Politic and a key presence in the AIDS community, and he is not done yet. He mined his connections to curate an exceptional panel on the infamous 1981 bathhouse raids—full disclosure: I was on that panel—at last year’s Toronto Pride and now works for the Toronto District School Board’s Equity Department.

“Sometimes I find him in my daydreams when I second-guess myself,” Jiminéz says. “I feel stronger, more courageous, and more entitled to fight.” This, and not the act of sexual initiation, is the stuff that heroes are made of.

Having insisted that an essay about heroes should both take the word hero seriously and reveal something about the writer, I find that the best piece in this collection, ironically, does neither. Ian Young’s “A Whiff of the Monster” is about literary enfant terrible Scott Symons, who began his career as a journalist and then became the fearless, openly gay novelist in the 1970s, who coined the term homosentient and, in expansive—some would say incoherent—prose, described the life of a queer reprobate. During one lecture, for example, he passed around to the audience a nude picture of his much younger lover, which he had just received in the mail. There was no indication that the subject wanted to be on public display. His characters, too, were outsized personalities, queer, demanding, often unaccountable, which upset gay readers who worried about mainstream perceptions of gayness. Of course, the ability to outrage readers alone is not necessarily heroic, but Young can be forgiven here. He has written a vivid portrait of a singular, wildly undisciplined, character with whom he had an authentic friendship in an essay that is wholly Canadian in focus. And Young writes with electric energy. His is by far the best–written piece in the collection.

After reading these essays I am convinced that the collection is confusingly titled. The subjects of these essays are queer but they are not icons and heroes of queer Canada. Most of queer Canada has heard of maybe half of them. Where is singer Rufus Wainwright? The late artist Will Munro? Literary giants Jane Rule and Timothy Findley? The editors may have created a more compelling collection by choosing the queer icons all Canadians ought to know about and commissioning pieces about them from accomplished writers.

As it is, there are flashes of greatness in this compendium but these heroes and icons are not heroic or iconic enough.