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It’s been over three years since Toronto lost queer artist, activist, and community builder Will Munro to brain cancer at the age of 35. The full title of Sarah Liss’s collective memoir in tribute to Will, Army of Lovers: A Community History of Will Munro, the Artist, Activist, Impresario and Civic Hero Who Brought Together Toronto’s Club Kids, Art Fags, Hardcore Boys, Drag Queens, Rock ’n’ Roll Queers, Needlework Obsessives, Limpwristed Nellies, Stone Butches, New Wave Freaks, Unabashed Perverts, Proud Prudes and Beautiful Dreamers, unabashedly encapsulates not only Will’s spirit and whimsy, but that of the communities to which he belonged and which he helped fashion.
Divided into three sections, “Mississauga Goddam,” “Rock Show,” and “Heaven,” Army traces Will’s life from the isolating suburbs of Mississauga, to the success of his monthly queer rock party Vazeleen (and how it magnetized people and paved the way for new opportunities), to his final hospital moments at Toronto Western. Interspersed within the larger narrative are accounts of familial love and tensions, unrequited love, coming out, boyfriends, drag get-ups, subway parties, financial schemes, art shows, among other moments of wonder and bewilderment. Will’s desire to create non-homogenous communities was reflected by his artistic practice. As a Y-front underwear obsessed textile artist, Will also wove communities together that not only cut across the queer / straight divide, but spectrums of race, class, gender, musical scene, and sexuality. “When you were [at Vazaleen],” Liss writes, “you felt not just desired and desirable, but like whatever turned you on—fruit, feet, silk scarves, leather, bondage, bruising, baby talk, plain vanilla missionary action—was nothing to be embarrassed about. Imagine the thrill of entering a world without shame.”
While Army goes through the major developments throughout Will’s life chronologically, the collective memoir form of Liss’s book meanders across a sea of collective memory. A testament to the people whom Will managed to affect, love, and inspire that is both heartwarming and startling. There are moments of triumph, as well as moments of pain and honesty. Army reads less as a biography, and more as an exchange of stories by those closest to Will. It’s clear that Will gave much of his time, energy, and love to the community, and Army showcases one of the ways the community is giving back through collective narrative.
With personal accounts from family, friends, and lovers, Army also includes anecdotes from Beth Ditto, singer of The Gossip, Joel Gibb of The Hidden Cameras, Peaches, legendary performer Vaginal Davis, filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, violin virtuoso Owen Pallett, John Caffery of Kids on TV, among others.
As Liss writes, “This is a love letter to Will Munro.” And, “If you knew Will, this letter is for you. If you didn’t know Will […] This letter is even more for you […] chances are you’ve tripped over or passed by or sat in or danced at or made out to the soundtrack of something that exists only because of him.” Although Will was interested in making queer spaces outside of Toronto’s Gay Village to “avoid some of the problems of ghettoization, and be more integrated into the larger culture and crossover with punk […] he was still connected to a gay or queer consciousness as well, and some old-school gay stuff,” says queer icon Bruce LaBruce. Indeed, for all the strange and heartbreaking moments of this community history, one cannot escape the overarching sense of nostalgia and sadness not only for Will but for what and who he was able to inspire and generate.
Ian Munro, Will’s father, writes that “the saddest thing that seems to have come to pass is the plug’s been taken out of the drain. No longer is it a cohesive group. And I feel very, very badly about that.” Lex Vaughan, artist and friend, writes, “What pisses me off so much about Toronto is that now it’s completely returned to its previous state. The same shit’s going on.” Owen Pallett, musician and friend, also writes that he “[worries] about Toronto.” And Kevin Hegge, filmmaker and friend, writes that he has a “lingering paranoia that, as time goes on, we’re regressing from all the work Will did to make Toronto’s queer scene as unique as it was.”
Perhaps it is simply, as Jeremy Liang said to Owen Pallett, that they “all grew up and became adults.” Or perhaps it is, understandably, that such sentiments come to the fore during such incredible moments of loss. But if the most productive force of Army lies not only in conveying the community history of a queer, whimsical, superstar community builder, but in its very documentation through collective memory. Army gives us a different history of queer life in Toronto that must be remembered in order move forward.
In Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Heather Love writes that “the longing for community across time is a crucial feature of queer historical experience, one produced by the historical isolation of queers as well as by the damaged quality of the historical archive.” Such longing becomes clear in the final pages of Army. Lest we regress, however, and cast Will’s story and community history into some petrified past, Army should remind us that one queer kid from the suburbs set out to change things—and did. But equally as important, that the threads of queer making are always something that is possible, on the horizon, and waiting.
Army of Lovers: A Community History of Will Munro
By Sarah Liss
Coach House Books
Paperback, 9781552452776, 160 pp.