For The First and Last Time

For The First and Last Time
By Elisha Lim

Now Magazine article profiling the art show Elisha Lim curated at the Gladstone, “Say It To My Face” (June 2013).  Image from “Citizen Kenney” by Bambitchell.

If we consider the digitization and onlining frenzy of recent years… this update has “cared for” and “saved” our queer past by writing over, by destroying, “its epistemological sphere” (Muñoz 1996, 6), necessitating an ever-updated finding aid to make TFQ cultural, political, sexual scenes discoverable. As we continue to realize with each new (un-released) iteration of the Cabaret Commons, such digital archival impulses might write over/obscure the negotiated intimacies and strategic ephemerality through which such scenes thrive. (Cowan and Rault, 130) 

1. What collection/event are you working on?

I’ve been thinking about the Cabaret Commons aspiration to establish ethical queer performance archives online. This dilemma faces two opposing demands: to make permanent queer history, but also to preserve the sanctity or privacy of their original context. As a case study, I have been considering the digitization of The Body Politic, a Toronto queer magazine that ran from 1971 to 1987 on the website of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

I pored over the event listings of The Body Politic, starting from the most recent issue to the oldest. The listings section didn’t occur in every issue, nor were they even explicitly gay, but they covered events that wealthy gays might like: musical theater at the O’Keefe Centre, a symphony orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall, live dance at the Harbourfront. In the February 1986 issue I found the first party listings that sounded like a community event, at least for cis-gender queers: the Zodiac Dance (a women’s dance) 519 or Anti Freeze (by Gay Community Dance Committee). That issue also included listings for more grassroots events, like the crucial Right To Privacy Meeting to organize against the bathhouse raids, or a Valentines Party by the magnificently named Federation of American and Canadian Transsexuals. 

2. What kinds of materials/belongings, are part of this collection/event?

As I studied the collections I reflected on its critics, Toronto’s queer BIPOC archive (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) called Marvellous Grounds based out of York University. In the introduction to their history of queer racialized Toronto, Marvellous Grounds: Queer of Colour Histories of Toronto, they discuss the exclusionary culture generated by The Body Politic (Haritaworn, Moussa & Ware, 1)

The collection seemed to confirm their arguments. I was not able to identify party listings for poor queers. I wondered, were there parties for the transfolks excluded from the “women’s dance”? Were queers of colour listing their parties elsewhere, or not at all, but instead through phone trees and photocopied flyers?  Where were smaller groups? Were they unlisted or totally unable to thrive? Marvellous Grounds also warned of the anti-Black racism “that repeatedly played out within the paper’s content and collective publishing process, e.g., a 1985 advertisement in the paper by a white cis gay man calling for a Black “houseboy” (Haritaworn, Moussa & Ware, 1).

3. What kinds of permissions protocols are you (and your collaborators) thinking about? 

I think about the standards and rules set by Marvellous Grounds. The Body Politic was in fact itself a catalyst for their inception. The 45th anniversary of The Body Politic brought together white queer writers and founders for a day-long symposium called Paper Trail: The Legacies of the Body Politic which commemorated “a distinctly white version of the public archive that has become recognizatble as queer Toronto” (Haritaworn, Moussa & Ware, 1), forsaking the diverse racialized poor and or trans richness of queer Toronto history. 

This is a significant but common posture towards queer local history, and so in order to reinstate an accurate history, Marvellous Grounds made a callout for marginalized queers to contribute their own stories. They developed three media: a blog, a collection of stories and an academic book about Toronto’s queer BIPOC history. The resulting archive establishes queer BIPOC history that also respects the boundaries that its subjects chose to draw on their own. 

Marvellous Grounds addresses the dilemma of onlining minoritized queer histories by soliciting history straight from the source — that is, from the people responsible for that history, rather than the existing (or in this case, non-existant) published records of it. One downside of this respectful system, however, is that the onus falls on us to come forward.

4. What is your relationship with this material, these events?

I kicked myself for dropping the ball even though Marvellous Grounds invited me over and over and offered generous deadline extensions. I regret missing the chance to recount the story of Les Blues, the live documentary of queer Black history that I directed along with nine performers and writers; Fresh to Def, the weekly BIPOC party I co-organized with Leroi and Kalmplex; That’s So Gay: “Say it to my Face,” the annual Gladstone Pride exhibit that I took over curating in order to wrest it from its overwhelmingly white legacy (art review above); The Illustrated Gentleman, my exhibit of qtBIPOC portraits that inaugurated Deirdre Logue and Allyson Mitchell’s FAG gallery; Qouleur, the “first” exclusive BIPOC annual festival in Montreal that I launched. At least I think. I regret it now every time that younger generations of queers claim to throw the “first” BIPOC party ever. In this sense I long for the Cabaret Commons to seize on the long trail of posters each generation left behind and plaster them on the information highway forever.

My personal wish for queer archives is selfish. My queer collective intimacies were negotiated within a specific generation, context, political attitude, group that no longer meet, lead, or in a sense, matter. I grieve their disappearance and wish to leave evidence. These are not just performances, they are proof of my personal value, family, predecessors, belonging, community, cultural worth. Digital archives matter for establishing a family tree. 

But my selfishness can be destructive. The collectives and posters that I belonged to include names and places that need to stay safely concealed in the past. As Cowan and Rault point out, past events were part of a vulnerable and fragile ecology. They belong to a group contract, an intimate context, a need, a political atmosphere and a way of seeing. How can our digitized archives preserve “its epistemological sphere” (Muñoz in Cowan and Rault, 130)? 

This question recalls Rinaldo Walcott’s demands in his polemic “De-celebrating Black Expressive Culture: A Polemic” on the responsibility of the critic. Walcott invokes the need to research and establish work within its cultural history and lineage. Walcott urges that critics, or in our case archivists, thoroughly research the context of their subjects, in order to prevent the false hyperbole of discovering the first groundbreaking instance of its kind. An archivist is responsible for helping viewers see the bigger picture of the performance’s references, hinterland and legacy, its epistemological sphere.

5. Do you think it is possible to create this kind of online space? Have you seen anything online that resembles this or inspires this?

One example that inspires me is The Independent Voices Movement and its digital preservation of DYKE A Quarterly. It seems to successfully fulfil all criteria, accomplishing Walcott’s call for thoroughness and Marvellous Ground’s voluntary oral histories, while also uploading the original documentation from the period. As Michelle Moravec explains,

The site now offers enlargeable scans and searchable text of all issues alongside ‘ephemera’, augmented by ‘annotation’, and contextualised by ‘side trips’ and ‘reader comments’. Some articles appear as blog posts, accompanied by [Liza] Cowan’s additional reminiscences, along with images of contextualising archival materials, and links to further information. (Moravec, 194)

Its subjects are able to participate in this archive by uploading “contemporaneous documents, photographs, music, art, oral histories and memories” (Moravec, 194), and this context locates the archive within its appropriate historic circumstances and lineage.

In this spirit, and inspired by The Independent Voices Movement, my blue-sky exhibit would be of a podcast where older generations of queers read through the listings of the Body Politic and tell us what else was going on. Where was everybody else? Where were the scrappy triple gay sissy Asian transfolks like me? What was the heartbreak, the funny memories, the breakups and move-outs, the fights and the group hugs? What does this particular archive remind them of, if at all? I would love to hear it straight from them.

Works Cited:

Cowan, T. L., and Jasmine Rault. “Onlining Queer Acts: Digital Research Ethics and Caring for Risky Archives.” Women & Performance: a Journal of Feminist Theory 28.2 (2018): 121-142.

 “DYKE A Quarterly.” 2017. DYKE A Quarterly. http://seesaw.typepad.com/dykeaquarterly/

Haritaworn, Jin, Ghaida Moussa, and Syrus Marcus Ware. Marvellous Grounds: Queer of Colour Histories of Toronto. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2018.

Moravec, Michelle. “Feminist Research Practices and Digital Archives.” Australian Feminist Studies 32.91–92 (2017): 186-201.

The Body Politic. Canadian Museum for Human Rights Archive

Walcott, Rinaldo. “De-celebrating Black Expressive Culture: A Polemic.” Fuse 22.2 (1999): 11–16.