Toronto's Alternative Queer Party Scene History Lives on in This Psychedelic Collage Series
Sarah D'Angelo's project honours the legacy of the late Will Munro, legendary activist, promoter, and community builder.
All images by Sarah D'Angelo
"Community is not a given, a natural consequence for living with others but rather it is something that needs to be actively created and renewed."
- Emelie Chhangur and Philip Monk, Will Munro: History, Glamour, Magic
Not everyone who frequents the Beaver Café knows the historic value it holds amongst the Toronto queer community. In the mid-2000s, the Queen Street West venue was co-owned by Will Munro, a trailblazing artist, club promoter, and activist, who built a home for an alternative community of people who didn't prescribe to the gay and lesbian homonormativity of the city's Church Street scene. At the time, there was no communal place for people to congregate and explore different expressions of gender. While Munro was not the only Torontonian working towards new inclusive LGBTQ2SI spaces, he was, and still is after his passing in 2010 from brain cancer, regarded as a major catalyst for change through venues like the Beaver, and his hybrid music and art parties like Vazaleen and Peroxide.
Born in Australia, he grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, before graduating from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2000. He quickly made an impact on Toronto's club scene after starting the monthly party Vazaleen, which happened at Lee's Palace and El Mocambo, where homos, dykes and fags all converged to dress up, get drunk, take off their clothes, and make out. Though the night was centred around rock and funk music—uncovering the queer roots of punk culture often overshadowed by overt machismo in the process—many notable Canadian and international electronic acts got their start at the party including Crystal Castles, Peaches, The Gossip, and others.
After the legendary monthly ended on a high note in 2006, Munro became a co-owner of the Beaver, where he worked towards transforming it into a late night destination. While the café became his DJing headquarters, in equal importance, it was a place where young queer people could hang out, draw, eat good food, and get to know each other. As that part of Queen West has become increasingly more commercialized over the years, the Beaver's presence in the neighborhood feels more important to me. Against the landscape of new condo developments, high-end restaurants and tourists, the Beaver is still a low-key spot where anyone can come enjoy a drag show, listen to post-punk DJ sets or screen some porn during a dance party. It's a visibly queer space, an active space for experimentation that can still ruffle the sleek composure of gentrification settling all around it. And no, you don't have to be gay to go there, but if you need to ask that question, maybe you should just stay home tonight.
Will Munro's impact on Toronto felt magical for many people because he created something new from the fragments of disjointed social groups around him, something that hadn't been done in that community before. The Beaver still holds a glimmer of that magic when I watch families eat brunch under the landscape of overtly lesbian art on Sunday mornings. Recently, my co-worker bestowed upon me a dusty bag filled with original screen-printed poster art from the early days of the cafe's existence, when Munro was throwing parties there including NO T.O., Peroxide, Xerox, Off White, and CHUNK.
These parties were significant for the queer community because they were unconventionally themed and broadly appealing. On any given night, you could walk into the bar and find yourself submerged in obscure no wave, rare vintage soul, filthy garage rock, and on Sundays, the special girl-on-girl action of the Beaver's Bush parties. Sorting through the pile of posters from back in the day, I was most touched by parties that featured women-oriented nights. A big part of the venue's appeal and importance is its alignment with feminist issues. In the early 2000s, and unfortunately still today, there is not enough visibility for queer women and QPOC-identifying people.
Today the Beaver serves up special nights like Electricladyland, perhaps one of the few nights in the city still geared towards women. For two months this summer, the café hung a "PULSE" banner in its window to grieve the loss of the individuals who lost their lives during the Orlando, Florida shooting that took place on June 12, 2016. I found this especially impactful on Queen West, given that the area has received such an influx of money in the past ten years, which has consequently pushed out a lot of minorities, racial demographics, and queer people.
This collage series commemorates Munro's work and will be displayed permanently at the Beaver, not just for those who personally knew Will, but for young queers who might not know about how the places they dwell in came to be. Having visible alternative histories to gay and lesbian identities is so crucial for future generations to understand their own cultural heritage. It's about more than just celebrating his legacy, it's about being able to shape our community, and having the agency to carve out spaces that feel safe, inclusive, and inspiring.