Canadian History through the Stories of Activists

Scott Neigh
[Fernwood Publishing],

Resisting the State book coverHistory is often described as being written by the victors; a single story in which voices of struggle and resistance are often lost. Scott Neigh’s pair of books, Resisting the State and Gender and Sexuality, work to counteract this dominant account of history, entering “Canadian history-from-below through the words of long-time activists.” Neigh’s books tell the history of opposition, oppression, and struggle. These are the voices of the people that resisted settlement, resisted residential schools, resisted war, resisted the dominant paradigm of racism, sexism, ableism, and heteronormativity.

Each chapter in the books contains the story of a particular activist, told in their own words through interviews conducted with the author. These personal stories are prefaced with thoroughly researched commentaries by Neigh, taking the very specific story of one person and giving it a context within centuries of world history. For instance, the preface to an interview with Lynn Jones, a Black woman who fought for power and respect within the labour movement, contains a history of the African Nova Scotian community going back to 1605, explaining the impact of the slave trade, the destruction of Africville, and the legal struggles of Viola Desmond.

More importantly, Neigh weaves the chapters together, showing the connections between the fights for Indigenous sovereignty, against domestic violence, for immigration reform, for LGBT rights, and against the psychiatry movement. As 2013 kicked off with the rise of Idle No More, the words of Josephine Grey, founder of Low Income Families Together (LIFT), resound: “I may never see another success for as long as I live, but I made a promise… If the seeds that I plant today sprout in six hundred years, I don’t care, I’m going to do it anyway. I’m just going to keep going.”

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2013


Venus With Biceps

David L. Chapman and Patricia Vertinsky
Arsenal Pulp Press

Venus with Biceps book cover For David L. Chapman, the bodybuilding women of 1950’s-era Muscle Beach inspired a fascination with muscular women that has lasted for decades. This passion led him to amass a collection of rare postcards, photographs, and broadsides depicting strongwomen, bodybuilders, dancers, and gymnasts. These remarkable women, many of whom lived during the buttoned-up Victorian era, have fantastic names like Vulcana, Madame Herculine, Miss Lala, or Flossie La Blanche, and are shown flexing, posing, wrestling, and lifting, often while wearing feathered headdresses, frilly skirts, or nothing at all. Chapman isn’t satisfied to collect these images as objects, he is also fascinated by the women themselves, seeking out the survivors of Muscle Beach, the inspiration for his years of collecting. Asking them why they dedicated their lives to the pursuit of a body type that is subject to ridicule and rejection, the women tell him that it was all about self- fulfillment—they were doing it only for themselves.

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2012

Counter Culture Classics: Bikini Kill

Bikini Kill album coverThis summer I found myself standing in the narrow aisles of the stacks of New York University’s Fales Library, reaching inside a shallow cardboard box to touch the thin fabric of a musty dress. “That,” exclaimed the excited librarian of the Riot Grrrl Collection, “is the dress from the cover of Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped.”

Founded in Olympia, Washington, in 1990 by Kathleen Hanna, Billy Karren, Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill helped kick off the riot grrrl movement, a feminist punk revolution that quickly swept across North America. Riot grrrl’s DIY ethic encouraged young women to pick up guitars, learn three chords, and take over the clubs that previously only hosted all-male hardcore bands. In those pre-internet days, word travelled via handmade flyers and ‘zines cobbled together with scissors, glue, and illicit late night photocopying. These fragile pieces of paper, like the dress from Pussy Whipped, were the Holy Grail of female empowerment and agency for thousands of teenage girls.

I admit that when I first heard Bikini Kill, and lead singer Kathleen Hanna’s distinctive nasal growl, I thought they were too abrasive, too scary, too hard. I wasn’t ready for their message, which was in direct opposition to everything mainstream culture found acceptable. Bikini Kill didn’t behave like ladies. Bikini Kill didn’t believe in propriety. Kathleen Hanna spit and cursed and owned her sexuality, prowling the very edge of the stage in micro-mini skirts, daring anyone in the audience to try and grab her. Frankly, I found Bikini Kill intimidating.

But as I ventured out of my teenage bedroom and into the real world, I found myself running up against the misogyny and violence that Bikini Kill sang about. Just like I needed feminism to give me strength, I needed Bikini Kill. In three short albums, Bikini Kill managed to cover issues of sexual assault, domestic abuse, incest, eating disorders, and poverty. These thirty minute bursts of noise became my feminist Bible, with each three minute song standing as a psalm of righteous indignation. Now, when rape culture rears its ugly head, I have “I Like Fucking” and its last lines, “I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe.” When men harass me on the street, leering at me and my girlfriend, I always return to the power chords and defiance of “Rebel Girl,” which marked the first time I ever heard someone express the power that can be found in being queer. Bikini Kill’s rebel girl embodies revolution–a queer revolution, an outcast revolution, a feminist revolution–“in her kiss,” screams Kathleen Hanna, “I taste the revolution.”

The riot grrrl movement was imperfect, often falling into the same trap as the mainstream feminist movement in prioritizing the voices of middle class white women, and eventually ending up co-opted and repackaged as the Spice Girls. Despite these problems, the net result of riot grrrl was a sea change in the music world. Rock clubs and guitar shops never returned to being all-male spaces. Teenage girls kept picking up guitars and learning to play. The space that Bikini Kill helped carve out was permanently occupied by queer and trans and all-girl bands. Women’s voices and self-expression became important enough to be collected by university archives. Kathleen Hanna went on to form Le Tigre with J.D. Samson, and J.D. Samson went on to form MEN, a queer dance band that I saw play at Toronto’s Sneaky Dee’s last year. When J.D. sang the opening lines of Bikini Kill’s “Double Dare Ya,” the crowd went wild. “Hey girlfriend, I got a proposition, it goes something like this: Dare ya to do what you want. Dare ya to be who you will. Dare ya to cry right out loud. You get so emotional baby.” Bikini Kill broke up in 1998, but revolution grrrl style now is forever.

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2012.


The Pack a.d.
[Mint Records]

Unpersons album coverUnpersons is an unrepentant breakup album, with all of The Pack a.d.’s quieter, gentler tendencies drained away and distilled into tight, angry rock. Drummer Maya Miller bangs out backing rhythms as vocalist Becky Black howls out the pain of a broken heart. But even in their sadness, The Pack have maintained their trademark nerdy humor. The video for “Take,” with its plaintive chorus of “And you take everything I love” was shot, for no discernible reason, as an homage to “Cars” by Gary Numan, a decidedly un-sad song about… a car. Just as improbably for a garage rock album released in 2012, the accompanying press release quotes bubblegum pop king Neil Sedaka’s 1962 song, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” Well, yeah, it is, but it’s made so much easier by bluesy songs involving robots.

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2012

Love is a Hunter

Rae Spoon
[Saved By Radio/Vinyl],

Love is a Hunter album coverAbandoning the spare country folk of 2008’s superioryouareinferior, Rae Spoon’s latest album, Love is a Hunter, pulses with barely contained dance beats. Backing their signature high tremolo with electronica makes for an odd, but enthralling combination of vulnerability and bravado. Singing “You can dance with the one you came with, or you can come home with me,” Spoon manages to bring romance and emotional honesty to what would have been a shallow club track in the hands of anyone else. Most importantly, Love is a Hunter is a stellar collection of queer anthems, ranging from the solidarity and strength of “Joan,” a “love song to the trans community,” to the power of “Dangerdangerdanger”’s final verse: “Glitter in our eyes/from Berlin to Calgary/Hold each other up/Queer’s surviving.”

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, Spring 2011.

Butch Hagiography

Elisa Lim
Feminist Art Gallery

Elisa Lim & their Illustrated Gentlemen

Tucked away behind the home of Toronto-based artists Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue is the brand new Feminist Art Gallery (FAG). Not quite able to believe that such a magical place could actually exist, I went on a fact-finding mission this spring. Entering through the sunny garden, I found myself in a combination art studio/queer refuge, complete with a chipper volunteer sipping tea in front of plastic bins full of practical items such as macramé, vintage Playboys, ribbons, plastic doll heads, and sets of fangs.

The gallery’s inaugural show was Elisha Lim & the Illustrated Gentlemen, the centerpiece of which was one whole wall, floor to ceiling, covered with panels from Elisha Lim’s series of narrative comics 100 Butches, soon to be published in book form. Some pages were colorful and complete; some were mere sketches on delicate tracing paper; all included handwritten blocks of text to accent Lim’s signature shaky line drawings. On a facing wall, the butches exploded off the page into a mural, gazing down on gallery visitors.

Taken together, the show was a love letter to the butch—to masculine women, transmen, gender queers, drag kings, and everyone in between. Each frame told the story of a different butch, with a carefully recorded first-person narrative accompanied by a portrait. The illustrated gentlemen were an international bunch, telling stories of queer lives lived in places ranging from Berlin to London, Singapore, Israel, Palestine, Malaysia, New York, and Toronto. The stories were as varied as the locales, bringing together charming tales of first crushes and coming out with painful accounts of homophobia, racism and violence.

In my favorite page, an older woman describes the early lesbian scene in Toronto, where the only women’s space was Saturdays at the Cameo Club, a bar plagued by fistfights and police raids. Having moved to Toronto in 2006 to find a city so full of queer life that in five years I still haven’t been to every gay bar, I find it hard to imagine a time when it was necessary to crawl out the back window of one to avoid being arrested.

Collecting these stories is Lim’s greatest strength as an artist. In works like The Illustrated Gentlemen and polyamo rage, their ability to coax personal histories from their subjects results in a real sense of intimacy between the artist, the subject, and the viewer. polyamo rage, a small zine, collects stories from people who have experimented with polyamory. On one page, a photograph of Lim looking equal parts introspective and sad is paired with the text “I have to respect the rules if I don’t want to lose you. I’m going to try to make my partner happy.” Other pages detail the guilt, jealousy and rage that can often accompany polyamorous relationships. The back cover reaches out to the viewer asking, “What do you want? Do you think you can get it from poly?”

Signed “Elisha Lim and many,” polyamo rage, like 100 Butches, is a collective work, giving voice to often invisible ways of being. In North America, where the dominant queer voice is predominantly white, conservative, monogamous, and male, the diversity encompassed by Lim’s “many” is stunning.

100 Butches will be released as a book by Magnus Books in December 2011.

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2011.

Butch Hagiography [pdf]

Conference Adventures: Not exactly worthy of nightmares

Constance Crompton and I recently ventured South to the States for the Women in the Archives Conference at Brown University. Adventures were had, microbrews were enjoyed, architecture was admired, archives were discussed. We had some free time after the conference, and one of the conference organizers suggested we use it to visit Swan Point Cemetery. There were lots of old gravestones, she noted, as well as many bird-watching opportunities. Finally, she pointed out that H.P. Lovecraft was buried there and that his fans were always leaving “weird stuff” by his grave. Well, I am never one to turn down the promise of “weird stuff.” I have never even read H.P. Lovecraft, but I had created quite a vision of what might be there. I was imagining his grave might look like something along the lines of this:


Or this:


Or even this (we were in a university town, after all):

University Cthulhu

Sadly, after marching around in a freezing cold drizzle of rain for an hour while scrutinizing a cemetery map that would probably more accurately be described as Kafkaesque, rather than Lovecraftian, what we found was this:

H.P. Lovecraft's Grave

Oh. How understated. No wonder we couldn’t spot it from the car – I was looking for some sort of monstrous obsidian pyramid, possibly topped with some tentacled beast, possibly with a vortex opening in the sky above it. This rather pedestrian gravestone wasn’t WEIRD at all. The best effort towards “weird” was made by whoever left the toy dinosaur:

Toy dinosaur atop Lovecraft grave

We made our own “weird” offering of a Canadian penny. Sadly, Cthulhu did not make an appearance in order to thank (or eat) us.

Rage: The Toronto Bathhouse Raids

Last night I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Track Two, a 1982 documentary on the Toronto bathhouse raids. After nearly being lost to time and decay, the film has finally been digitized and made available in its entirety for free online, thanks to the generosity of Xtra! and the Pink Triangle Press.

The screening took place at Buddies in Bad Time Theatre and was sponsored by Queer Ontario and Xtra!, with proceeds benefiting the 519 Community Centre’s Seniors program. In attendance were two of the filmmakers, Gordon Keith and Jack Lemmon, as well as The Body Politic‘s Ken Popert and Gerald Hannon. It was a truly amazing experience to share a room with so many of Toronto’s gay liberation activists, without whom queers such as myself wouldn’t have all the rights we have today.

After the screening, I spoke with the filmmakers, who wanted to know how I, as a woman, felt about the movie. They said they had tried very hard to show lesbian contributions to the fight, and they were curious to know if they were successful. I told them that it was incredibly powerful to see the footage of lesbians taking to the street in defense of the men and the gay community as a whole. It was also thrilling to see interviews with some of my queer heroes, Pat Murphy and Chris Bearchell, and rousing speeches from Margaret Atwood and June Callwood.

Watch the entire film on YouTube, or read more about it and download a copy from Xtra!

Originally published on the Shameless Magazine blog, March 30, 2011