Let’s make a canon! And let’s fill it with queer art, or queer-ish art, or art that has no idea how queer it is. Queer art is often secret art: black-market, whispered-about, read-between-the-lines art. And since secret art can be hard to find, let’s shine a light on a few of our favourite things so all our friends can see them.
We’ll call it a canon, because it sounds Weighty and Important and Serious, but we also won’t be too serious about it. We won’t make The Canon, just a canon. Each month, we’ll chat with a different queer-about-town and ask them to submit something to the canon. And they’ll tell us what that book or play or movie or TV episode or sculpture or poem or dance piece or opera or photograph or painting or performance art piece or anything else means to them and why they think it deserves a spot in our illustrious canon.
So, Heath’s a drag and burlesque performer and they submitted you to the canon. Now you’re going to complete the cycle by submitting Toronto’s drag and burlesque scene, is that right?
Right on! There’s all this talent in Toronto. It blows me away. I was so in my own little bubble of the music industry that I wasn’t really paying attention to indie art. Everything was like: focus on the mainstream. And then I was like: wow, the mainstream really makes me feel invisible and it’s gross out here! And ever since I’ve pulled away, I’ve tried to find connections in the local arts scene. And I happened to go to a Femmes Fatales show, and I was like: where have I been and why am I not watching more of this? Because when you hear burlesque in your head, you think “Oh, it’s a bunch of people dancing to songs and taking their clothes off.” You don’t really think—or I didn’t, at least—that it could be extremely artistic and that it could be actually connective and telling me something. I went to see The Femmes Fatales and I was gutted by the show. Because it was all about something that I had very recently started practicing in my personal life, which was self-love! These people are celebrating their bodies. There’s no shaming of the body. And not only that, but there’s so many different kinds of bodies—bigger people, people of colour, everything you could think of. And the actual content of the pieces was so gorgeous. The outfits, the choreography, everything. It’s so funny, because many, many years ago, in my early 30s, when I had just come out as trans, I worked with a local burlesque troupe. I don’t know if you know who Sasha Von Bon Bon is?
Sure, from The Scandelles.
I worked with them! And it was the first time that I had ever even seen queer burlesque—or burlesque period. And I had issues with my body. A lot of gender dysphoria and self-loathing. They hired me and my band to do songs throughout about an hour’s worth of burlesque. And it was brilliant, it was beautiful, and it was the first time I was at Buddies. And I was around these people being completely naked all the time. No shame, just walking around backstage, doing their thing, not paying attention to each other, just being like: yeah, this is my naked body. And I felt so shy! I didn’t have to take off my clothes or anything, but it was a really life-changing moment for me. Because it showed me that you didn’t have to be the status quo, six-pack… At the time I identified as a transman, but I wasn’t on testosterone, and I was always looking at my body and thinking I wasn’t masculine enough. And it was like: I could just be me. But it took many, many, many years for me to find that connection again by entering this scene of burlesque dancers.
I’m always amazed by the size of the burlesque community in Toronto. There’s so many troupes, there’s so many performers…
I had no idea! And the most amazing part is the shows are so well attended! At least the ones I’ve been at. And it’s not like they’re super inexpensive. And a lot of queers, they’re in lower income brackets, but they’re making the time and it’s almost like a night out of self-care for them. So, you can sell self-love. Isn’t that beautiful? (laughs) And entertain people and connect with them at the same time? There’s been a couple of dancers like Heath, Gay Jesus—that was a mind-blowing moment for me. To go out and see a performer doing a piece to one of my songs. And not a song I would have expected! It was so perfect and so beautiful and I was so honoured to see it. The work by the non-binary youth that are coming up is so beautiful to me. Being somebody who identifies as binary myself, seeing the freedom of Gay Jesus, the beauty in that freedom… It’s pure art. And for me, I’ve been a cynic for so long. I’ve been like: why can’t I find any good art? And I feel like I just found it, in the most unlikely place.
That’s very lovely.
It feels like one of the most connective artforms that exists right now. That’s what art is meant to do, you’re supposed to grow, you’re supposed to develop as a human. This is why I had to leave the mainstream music industry. I wasn’t growing as an artist. I went through a three-year writing block. I didn’t even wanna touch a guitar. I didn’t wanna listen to music, it just made me upset and angry. And then I started discovering parts of myself and growing as a human being, and I started writing again. And going to see these shows and meeting with these people and connecting with them…
How does it feel to be the first person who is both a submission and an interviewee for A Queer Art Canon?
It’s kind of cool, actually!
It’s a pretty unique distinction.
When I saw that Heath had talked about me, I felt so honoured. And then when you asked, I was like: I love that something like this exists. I always talk about how if I go into a relationship, I wanna feel lifted. And if I don’t feel lifted, I walk away. And I feel very lifted by this. Heath came in—as somebody who’s younger, too—and getting respect from such a young performer at my age and after everything I’ve done… And now I’m being honoured again. I think it’s very, very unique. Artists lifting each other up!