Just over two years ago, Toronto lost one of its most important queer civic heroes when local artist, DJ, activist, impresario, promoter, party-thrower, café operator, community-builder, and lover Will Munro died of brain cancer. We still haven’t recovered from the loss.
This is a love letter to Will Munro.
As I write this, it is two years and a month, to the day, since he died at the unfathomably young age of 35 from brain cancer.
If you knew Will, this letter is for you. If you didn’t know Will, I’m so sorry you missed out on meeting him. This letter is even more for you. And I can guarantee that in myriad ways, you’ve tripped over, or passed by, or sat in, or danced at, or made out to the soundtrack of something that only exists because of him.
Will was a great many things—an acclaimed visual artist, a diehard activist, an awesome DJ, a business owner, a party promoter, a tireless advocate for underground bands—but above all else, he was a bringer-together of people, groups, and things in this city. It’s a terribly inelegant descriptor, but I can’t think of a better way to articulate what he did that was so special. This gentle, hilarious guy who looked, I swear, like a whippet, was the bridge between hardcore punk and drag queens, indie-rock and fetish parties, nudists and proud prudes, youth support groups and textile art.
Will was a pioneer in the geographical exodus of LGBTQ culture. Certainly, there were events happening in pockets outside the Church-Wellesley corridor before he came along, but he led a charge of queers into rock clubs and dive bars from the Village to the west end of the city. In his hands, The Beaver, on Queen West, east of Gladstone, was transformed from a staid brunch spot that serviced spillover crowds from the Drake into a de facto hub—not only for the queer community, mind you, but for a wide swath of both stroller-toting Beaconsfield Villagers and creative oddballs who chased their late-night booze with mid-morning espresso.
He was a fabric artist, and this will sound unforgivably corny, but that medium seemed to inform his approach to everything—he wove, he stitched, he sewed and appliquéd things together that would never naturally have fused. He brought the sleaziest roadhouse rock into his monthly queer party, Vazaleen (originally Vaseline, until copyright infringement got in the way), which he launched in January of 2000, and which was itself a novel bridge-building exercise that brought lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transfolk, and genderqueers together under one roof. In an interview in 2003, Will explained the rationale behind his parties. “Everything I do in nightlife is a critique of mainstream gay nightlife,” he said. “We need a space that’s not exclusively gay white men. We need a space where our straight friends can hang out. We need a space where cool, interesting people can mingle, get down, network, have sex, get dressed up. I gave it a good chance, but neither gay nor straight nightlife culture gave that to me.”
For a time, Vazaleen was the most idyllic, perverse, anything-goes community love-in that you could imagine. My memories of most of these parties are admittedly hazy, but I can vouch for the energy inside Lee’s Palace when “Fox on the Run” or “Fuck the Pain Away” or “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” was playing, and weird, blurry porn flickered on the walls, and Will was wearing a chicken suit, or a Limp Fist t-shirt, or a little boy’s school uniform, or that brimmed grey-wool cap he always used to wear, and smiling cherubically while a motley crew of weirdos bobbed for buttplugs: It was the most connected I’ve ever felt to any other group of people. Will dreamed up Vazaleen at a time when gay parties were all about circuit house, and lesbian parties barely existed. Mixed crowds, especially ones that managed to welcome not only a wide spectrum of gender, but race and class, were like unicorns.
Among Will’s gifts was his uncanny ability to combine activism with hedonism, to fuse edification and unabashed, over-the-top revelry. That might not sound like such a big deal, but it was, and is, for a bunch of reasons: Traditionally, queer culture is not something that’s been exceptionally well documented—it’s challenging to keep track of a movement and a group that, until very recently, was stigmatized and forced underground. Will seemed driven by a desire to share our collective history, and he did so in all his work. He quietly put forward the notion that simply bringing a diverse group of LGBTQ people together en masse at a nightclub could have political consequences. Because Will didn’t let his own political beliefs (other than a staunch commitment to anti-oppressive ideals) dominate, you had the sense that any kind of conversation could—and did—happen in the spaces he created.
You could chat, for instance, with same sex–marriage activists while local gay indie-folk band The Hidden Cameras played their tune “Ban Marriage,” a catchy critique of what they viewed as a conservative institution. Trans punk kids could safely talk about getting bashed for not passing while, inches away, thirtysomething lesbians debated the merits of known versus unknown sperm donors and traded bondage tips. And yet, even with that range of experience and opinions, these exchanges were defined by an atmosphere of mutual respect.
Recently, as the mainstream media has seized on our most sexless, easy-to-digest fight for equal rights and privileges—namely, gay marriage—our communities have become more internally divided over which battles should be prioritized. The beauty of the spaces Will cultivated lies in their tendency to expose people to a host of different perspectives and spark the open discussions that can shift even the most embedded beliefs. Without them, the range of queer identities sometimes becomes distilled—in the media and within the subculture itself—to an inane dichotomy between “good gays,” who strive for socially permissible forms of equality, and “bad gays,” who cling to the bacchanalian practices left over from the disco era. The reality, which Will knew, is that there are way more than two, or even 50, shades of gay.
I’ve been shocked by how swiftly his unifying influence has vanished from queer nightlife. In talking about this absence, I don’t necessarily mean the world still inhabited by Will’s friends—and “friends,” here, is a big group (just attending one of his events seemed to put you in a charmed circle). Two years later, I can’t be the only one who still feels a real chasm where Will used to be. We’ve lost not only a leader, but a sense of far-flung connection that used to make the city feel whole.
Earlier this year, the art gallery at York University mounted a mammoth exhibition of Will’s work, titled “History, Glamour, Magic.” Many visitors commented on the display of Will’s trademark reconstructed Y-fronts, which hung like strings of hopeful Buddhist prayer flags across the cavernous ceiling of the gallery. I loved the undies, but what gave me goosebumps was gazing up at a giant wall of screen-printed posters for Will’s many events—from Vazaleen to Moustache (at the male strip club Remingtons) to Peroxide (his new-wave night in Kensington Market) to No T.O. at The Beaver—and thinking, This is our youth. By that, I don’t simply mean to reflect upon my cohort of late-twenty- and early-thirtysomething queers. That wall of posters documented a particular kind of coming of age for Toronto’s queer community.
“The connections between young and old people in terms of talking to each other and sharing knowledge, they’re eroding,” Will told me in 2003. “Instead, it’s all about fucking. That’s great. That’s fine. But if you don’t have anything else, then what’s gonna happen to our culture? Is our culture gonna become Queer as Folk? How can you look to the future if you don’t know the past?” Crowds at all these events, but especially Vazaleen, were made up of people who ranged from 18 to 78 years old, and that collision between generations was so crucial to both the energy at Will’s parties and his investment in making sure LGBTQ history was kept alive.
Maybe what’s died is this particular strain of youthful idealism. It’s a cliché, like finding love in a hopeless place. We were younger and less busy then; we had better metabolisms and more energy and genius plans to make art, or to combat poverty, or to learn how to be DJs. But I don’t think that’s it.
To be sure, the collective anomie I’ve noticed building over the last few years is highly subjective. I know that dedicated listeners are still staffing the Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line—an organization dear to Munro’s heart, and one for which he volunteered for years and years. Thanks to city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, the Youth Line—which was named the year’s honoured group at Pride on June 22—has introduced an annual “Spirit of Will Munro” award, which recognizes youth organizations and individuals who’ve bolstered the local community through the arts. And Vazaleen lives on in the form of periodic benefit shows, spearheaded by Will’s brother, Dave, like this week’s Vaz/Shame party, featuring queercore icons Limp Wrist. That show will benefit the Will Munro Fund for queer people living with cancer.
There are still brave and crazy punk-rock lovers (like notorious concert promoter Dan Burke), who bring left-field performers to town knowing full well they’ll probably lose money on every show. There are kids doing drag, kids invading public space, kids dressing up and throwing parties. Remarkable things are happening: About two weeks ago, the Ontario legislature passed Toby’s Act, a bill that will codify the rights and protections of transfolk under the provincial Human Rights Code. A number of unbelievably brave, self-possessed LGBTQ youth recently faced off against the musty homophobes in the Catholic church in their protracted fight—first to be allowed to have Gay-Straight Alliances in Catholic schools, and then to be able to call those groups by their rightful names. Queers for Social Justice, a small but growing group of tenacious activists formed this past May, is aiming to make a ruckus about issues that affect LGBTQ folk inside and outside Toronto’s city limits; they organized a flashmob die-in at City Hall on Monday, as well as a politically focused night march. And glimmers of Will’s spirit are alive in the initial efforts of the Almost Not Quite collective, a bunch of local art-makers and community organizers whose stated mission is to put on art-focused events that are a priori inclusive and invested with a sense of queer history. These are all great and powerful developments.
But since Will’s death, as we’ve gradually tried to recover from the shock of losing someone so vital to transforming our city and our community, that grief has been twinned with a different, nagging sense of emptiness. There are numerous tiny revolutions currently rippling through the LGBTQ community and just as many fabulous parties, but the connection between the fights and the fêtes is tenuous at best, while the sense of history has faded. And we’re missing out on too many opportunities to make links between separate groups and their (often overlapping) struggles—conversations that, in my smudgy recollection, happened so effortlessly in the context of Vazaleen. We’ve lost an overarching sense that these fractal satellites—of activism and community and art and sex—could merge into a force of solidarity.
This is not another obituary, but a reminder of what we’ve lost, and a hopeful appeal to do better, to make change, to draw connections and join forces and dance our faces off, collectively, in efforts to include as many voices, perspectives, and preferences as possible. There’s no single person who can step in to fill the void, but maybe it takes a village to make a Will. The Facebook group set up in his memory is called “Honoring the Heart of Will Munro,” and perhaps if we focus on bringing together a bunch of people who, on their own, are doing work that resonates with Will’s energy and spirit, we can do some small part in honouring his heart.
There’s a memorial for Will in Trinity Bellwoods Park near the south end of the dog bowl. It’s a young tree and a plaque with his dates of birth and death, and a simple inscription: “An army of lovers will never be defeated,” a ’70s-era slogan derived from a poem by lesbian-feminist writer Rita Mae Brown, and a motto for the way Will lived his life. There are a lot of lovers in this city, trying to bring about positive change in a host of incremental ways. But our only hope of avoiding defeat is to join our forces and build up our reserves.
Next page: The Golden Gitch Awards—six Toronto artists keeping Will Munro’s spirit alive