'Army of Lovers' embodies community spirit of a Toronto queer icon

Will Munro contained multitudes. The Toronto queer icon was a brilliant artist, organizer, nightlife impresario, DJ, go-go dancer, longstanding volunteer at the Toronto LGBT Youthline, lifelong teetotaler and the world’s foremost creator of custom-made men’s underwear. But what Army of Lovers: A Community History of Will Munro by Sarah Liss demonstrates foremost is that Munro, who died of brain cancer in 2010 at the age of 35, was a community-builder; he was "a bringer-together of people, groups, and things."

Liss tells Munro’s life story in the form of a community oral history, consolidating dozens of interviews into a fascinating, multi-perspective narrative. Including the voices of his immediate family, his collaborators in the art scene and several of his close friends, Army of Lovers is as much a portrait of the community that Munro valued and contributed to as it is the biography of a single remarkable individual.

In assembling this chorus of voices, Army of Lovers wonderfully embodies and extends Munro’s own celebrated community spirit.

Army of Lovers follows Munro’s life from the start, beginning with his childhood as a goal-oriented boy scout. As a gay teenager he became alienated by suburban Mississauga and his brother Dave recalls how Munro suddenly picked up a skateboard one day, said "Fuck doing after-school programs," and became deeply involved in the all-ages hardcore punk scene.

Leaving the suburbs for Toronto at the age of 17, Munro moved into a punk house, started exploring his queer identity, enrolled at OCAD University and began what would become a brilliant career as an artist.

After art school Munro continued to make a name for himself in Toronto with his monthly Vazaleen parties. Beginning in 2000 this rock-n-roll-fuelled bash was radical for bringing the city’s gay nightlife out of the Church Street Village. Vazaleen welcomed all comers: queers of all stripes rubbed shoulders with freaks, rockers, and punks. The anything-goes late night dance parties featured live music, anarchic performances and a trashy sense of fun. Already Munro was building community.

Artist Luis Jacob recalls that while Munro was in charge "he gave people the license and the support system to manifest their own ideas within the umbrella of his projects. Like encouraging young musicians or DJs ... He would set up this framework, but it would be filled in by the creativity of so many people."

Liss suggests that this community-building impulse also drove Munro’s unique art practice, which was at the centre of everything that he accomplished. She writes that "he was a fabric artist, and that medium seemed to inform his approach to everything -- he wove, stitched, sewed and appliqued things together that would never have naturally fused."

Early on Munro used underwear as his primary material, creating politically charged pieces that spoke to themes of male intimacy, queer coming-of-age and radical politics. His first show, at the Nora Vaughn Gallery in 1997, caused a media stir when conservative pundits decried his use of thrift-store y-fronts in artworks.

As Munro’s art career developed his work often focused on recuperating queer history, as in one piece, "Hardcore Babylon," in which he constructed applique logos of influential punk bands with gay members.

Musician and activist Maggie MacDonald attributes Munro's fascination with queers and freaks from previous generations to his drive to create community. She states that Munro wanted his peers to know that "there’s another generation of artists that did weird stuff before us, and we’re part of a cycle. We’re part of a historical community."

Munro’s final show, created while he was suffering the effects of brain cancer, was completed with the assistance of several helpers. Despite his commitment to community, Munro was also fiercely independent and found this process difficult at first. Performer Lex Vaughn emphasizes the positive, observing that Munro "was learning how to collaborate."

The result, Inside the Solar Temple of the Cosmic Leather Daddy is widely considered Munro’s masterpiece, a meditation on life and death, featuring mirrors, bold textile pieces and a leather sex sling covered in crochet tea-cozies and spider plants.

Following the hedonism of Vazaleen and other parties, Army of Lovers ends with a description of the final stages of Munro’s illness and the tight-knit circle of care that formed around him. Liss’s compassion in assembling the final section describing Munro’s death and the outpouring of love and grief that followed puts me in a foul mood each time I read it. This was both inevitable and also a testament to the success of the book: the fact is, the hero -- our hero -- dies in the end.

Will was a dear friend to me. We began as penpals when I was an awkward teen punk and he was in his early 20s, and I regularly hitchhiked from suburban Ottawa to stay with him at his studio in desolate Liberty Village. Will was a consummate artist and multi-tasker and while I visited his hands were always stitching as we stayed up gossiping together into the early hours of the morning. At dawn we would climb to the roof and watch the sun come up over the city that he would go on to change in so many ways.

Army of Lovers embodies the sense of belonging and warmth felt by the crowds at Will’s parties as well as by anyone who knew him personally. Rather than presenting it as exclusive or finalized, Liss’s choice to tell this story from many, at times conflicting, perspectives means that everyone who knew Will, or who knew of him, can find a place in these pages where their own stories and memories might fit.

Army of Lovers is a beautifully assembled and moving account of Munro’s life. But it is also a vital document, not just for those who knew Munro, but for anyone interested in radical nightlife, art, queer politics and civic engagement in the first years of the 21st century.

 

Jeff Miller is a writer living in Montreal. He is the author of the nonfiction short story collection Ghost Pine: All Stories True and the long-running zine of the same name.

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