In Robin Ganev and RJ Gilmour’s collection of thirteen essays Queers Were Here, Canada’s queer community is put at the forefront. The essays explore the stories of the figures who shaped gay culture and identity across the country. The book ultimately demonstrates that queer people have always existed in Canada and that, despite years of adversity, the queer community’s experience has been rich, vibrant and full of a diversity of perspectives.
Contemporary members of the Canadian LGBTQ community tell stories of their personal heroes, demonstrating the power of community. The book offers a look into the alternative spaces carved out by seminal queer figures, such as Nancy Jo Cullen and Gordon Bowness. This collection serves to honour these figures, who mentored some of the leading voices of today’s gay community. These stories remind the reader that the human rights we enjoy today, specifically those of the LGBTQ+ community, were hard-fought for.
While the book isn’t always engaging—certain essays have slow moments of long-winded prose, detail, and inaction—Queers Were Here is consistently worthwhile for the sheer sake of the cultural importance of its subjects. The subjects include figures like Carole Pope, a provocative singer who was one of the first lesbian entertainers to break into the Canadian mainstream. This book brings to light some of what has been forgotten about these figures such as these, either through the passage of time or the simple truth that it was never properly exposed in the first place.
There is a different essay for every reader. Some are first-hand accounts of the political processes of Canada’s biggest steps towards equality, such as the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969. Others are poignant stories about first love, or reflections about the role of queerness in shaping an individual’s identity. In particular, Karleen Pendleton-Jiménez’s essay about her relationship with the activist Tim MacCaskell and Alec Butler’s piece on writer Marie-Claire Blais should not be missed. These brief essays are poetic, insightful, and touching at once.
Queers Were Here introduces the reader to heroes and icons of gay Canadian history who too often go unrecognized and unhonoured: Scott Thompson, an iconic member of the comedy sketch comedy group The Kids in the Hall, who provided one of the first positive portrayals of gay men on Canadian television; Marie-Claire Blais, the Quebecois writer who wrote fiction about the queer experience that went far beyond tokenizing, and many more icons, champions of social justice, and everyday queer Canadians who changed lives by providing others with the tools and encouragement to be proud of their own identities.
The prose is generally easily digestible, but the depth of historical detail and queer theory in certain essays makes it interesting for critical reading as well as personal pleasure. Essays from Maurice Vellekoop and Steve MacIsaac are in fact told through comics, which provides relief from the dense prose of some other essays.
It would have been even more powerful, however, if there were more diversity among the creators of this collection. While writers like Karleen Pendleton-Jimenez and Alec Butler write from the perspectives of a Latina lesbian woman and transgender man, respectively, half of the collection’s fourteen contributors are gay white men. While this doesn’t take away from the validity or merit of their work, the collection lacks representation of certain voices that are often doubly marginalized, even within the LGBTQ+ community.
Queers Were Here is a collaborative exploration of the heroes and icons of Canada’s queer history, retold with emotion and heart by the people who loved them, knew them, or were inspired by them. In its retellings, the collection celebrates the achievements made towards equality, and highlights some of what still needs to be done. All in all, this is a socially important book that explores some of the most overlooked, underrepresented, and important parts of Canadian history.