Thoughts on the Building of Outliers: A Queer History Exhibit #1

Written by Tom Miller

A fortunate, and unfortunate, confluence of events brought me to a point earlier this year in which I actually had time to pursue a project with the Calgary Queer Arts Society. I’d known for a while of the archive of magazines that the Society had received in preparation for their brilliant 2018 documentary Outliers. Upon hearing of the archive, I had a thought that there must be lots of queer comics in there, just waiting to be dug up, and as comics are something I like to think I know a bit about, I decided I was just the person for the job.

It helps that Executive Director James Demers is a friend.

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I’ll talk about the comics a bit more in a later blog, but as we poured through these magazines one afternoon, we began to talk about a historical exhibit James was preparing separately, to be installed at the beautiful Lougheed House. I grew more and more intrigued by the project, again excited by the thought of pouring through an archive. It’s one of my favourite things to do as a comic collector, just to scroll through boxes, pulling out a comic or two, making neat connections between parts of the collection. So I offered my help, which was gladly accepted.

I wasn’t prepared for the transformative experience it would be.

A bit about me. I’m a cis white guy, he/him, mid-40s, bisexual. I’ve only really been out for the last ten years or so. Close friends, people who knew me, knew. But, married and with children, the rest of the world saw me as heterosexual. Ten years ago, I went back to university to finish my degree. I was tired of being the guy at the bottom of the hill that all the shit rolls down on*. When I got back into classes, and started talking to people, I was delighted by the range of gender identities that people just proudly wore, unashamedly. It was like a light went on inside me, and a while later I came out to a dear friend I’d met at school. I’ll never forget her response of “You’re a lot more interesting than I gave you credit for.” I’ve tried to live up to that ever since.

The other side of this, however, is that I was, for most of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, insulated from a lot of the tension and tragedy that struck the queer community. Not completely, of course. Queer sex education in the late 80s can pretty much be summed up in “Don’t have sex with other men or you’ll get AIDS and die.” For me, for a long time, every time I touched another man sexually, I was terrified that I was going to die. My only source of information was school, and the town I grew up in was very, very conservative. So I lived for a while in a closet. It was spacious, and had lots of nice friends and lovely experiences in it, but it was a closet nonetheless.

I didn’t really know where I came from, as a queer man. I didn’t really know…a lot, really. The best way I can describe it is that I’ve discovered a history that I was only aware of on a very surface level. But there is deep history here.

When I started reading through the magazines in this archive, I was struck by so many things at once. The passion practically weeps from the pages, the fierce conviction in the rightness of their actions, of the justness of their cause. To read these words is to read the fierce, inspired prose of revolution. These are the voices of the leaders of our movement.

But so too from the pages drips despair. So much despair. Hopelessness in the face of government, abject fear of being bashed, the greedy spectre of AIDS. Barely an issue goes by without an article on AIDS. It is the sad legacy of this generation of queer people to be a generation defined by an illness.

Then there is the joy, however. Even in the face of this plague, in the bleakest of circumstances, there is such joy. It’s often noted that the news these days is only bad, that nothing good seems to happen. But every one of these publications goes out of its way to report on not just the tragedies, but also the triumphs, to trumpet them loud and proud. Because each one was proof that victory was attainable. That, to me, has always been the greatest strength of the queer community. It is one that embraces joy, provokes joy, and seemingly never gives in to the forces that would stamp out that joy.

Passion. Despair. And Joy.

Over the next little while, I’d like to share with you some of the thoughts and feelings I’ve had going through this remarkable series of documents. I’d also like to cordially invite you to come and see the exhibition when it opens up on May 8th at Lougheed House. It’s not an easy exhibit to see. But, like me, it might just change you.

*There are those reading this post who will get a chuckle out of that sentiment. I see you.