Out North by Craig Jennex and Nisha Eswaran

Out North: An Archive of Queer Activism and Kinship in Canada by Craig Jennex and Nisha Eswaran is a fascinating and wide-ranging documentation of queer history, activism, and community that examines the vast collection of The ArQuives, the largest independent LGBTQ2+ archives in the world. In reproducing and returning to these historical materials, the authors speak to the possibilities of queer life, community, and kinship to challenge the limitations of the state.

There's so much to unpack in this stunning book, published by Figure 1, that I thought instead of a traditional review, it would be great to speak with the authors behind the project. 

I had the chance to catch up with authors Craig and Nisha via email to talk more in depth about the book, the process, and the inspiration behind Out North. 

I was completely blown away by Out North, and found the book fascinating. Could you tell me about the process of putting it together?

CJ: Thank you! It was, in one sense, a dream project: we spent years digging through material held at The ArQuives in Toronto and getting to know this history through archival documents. Then we had to figure out how to present this complex history in a way that was visually appealing and exciting for readers. And this is where things got a bit more complicated and stressful—it quickly became clear that we could not include everything we wanted to in the book. I mean, Out North is almost 300 pages and reproduces hundreds of images and historical materials, but there are so many important stories related to LGBTQ2+ history that aren’t included. We hope that this book serves to open conversations about the movements—both through what is included in the book and what isn’t. 

This was also a unique project because we were researchers and writers but we were also curators. We needed to reach out to photographers, artists, activists, historians, archivists, and many other community members to put Out North together. In this sense, it was a real collective project and we feel really fortunate that so many people believed in the book and were willing to have their work included.

Lesbian Organization of Toronto marching for IWD 1980, by Gerald Hannon

What was the initial inspiration of Out North?

CJ: I’ve been a volunteer at The ArQuives for about a decade now and I’m still floored by the amount of material held there and how lucky volunteers are to get to spend time with this collection. In Out North, we wanted to share the historical materials held at The ArQuives with a broader audience and allow people to hold this material in their hands—to spend time with historical documents and allow this material to tell rich stories of LGBTQ2+ history and culture.  

NE: The initial inspiration for the book came from Craig, who had been volunteering at the ArQuives for some years and who wanted to undertake a project that would help bring the ArQuives’ collection to the public. It was a big project, so we decided to work on it together. I'd really enjoyed the times I’d spent in different queer archives, which have been really central to my understanding and experience of queer life, so I was excited to work with him on Out North. 

Female Impersonator Madam Melba, c. 1960s

What were the challenges in putting together the book and how did you overcome them?

CJ: There were many challenges in putting together this book. For one thing: the sheer amount of material held at The ArQuives! This was a great thing—we were so lucky to spend time learning this history—but was also challenging. Out North covers a lot of ground, but just scratches the surface of this vast collection. Hopefully other authors continue to explore and write about the material held at The ArQuives. There are so many stories that deserve to be told; we’re lucky volunteers and staff at The ArQuives work so hard to keep these stories alive. 

International Lesbian Week in Vancouver, 1987. Photograph by Li Yuen

You worked in collaboration with The ArQuives for the book. I'm sure it was incredible to have access to that amount of history. What was it like digging through all of that?

CJ: The ArQuives is such an amazing institution. The collection has been growing since 1973 and is made possible through the tireless work of generations of volunteers and, more recently, dedicated and skilled staff members. This is a community archive in every sense of the word: it chronicles a community, it is made possible by community donations of materials and funds, and is cared for by countless community volunteers. And on that note: the collection is what it is because ordinary people donated material, time, and labour to the project. If anyone reading this has any material of any type related to LGBTQ2+ history, please don’t just throw this out—send it to The ArQuives! It’s a registered charity, so you can potentially receive a tax receipt for your donations and you’ll be helping future generations understand LGBTQ2+ history. 

Original poster for GATE drop-in office hours, c. 1970s

How do you feel about where we currently stand in supporting LGBTQ2+ rights in Canada?

CJ: There are some reasons to celebrate where we currently stand in supporting LGBTQ2+ right in Canada, but there are many, many more reasons to be vigilant and remain committed to imagining and working toward a queerer and more just world. LGBTQ2+ people in Canada are much more likely than the general public to report mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. And if we focus in on particular ways of being LGBTQ2+, it gets even more scary: trans people are significantly more likely than cis people to seriously contemplate suicide or be street-involved or homeless. 

I also think that, too often, we think about LGBTQ2+ rights in limited or limiting ways. We have to keep in mind that anti-Black violence is anti-queer violence, and that anti-Muslim violence is anti-queer violence, and that colonial processes and anti-Indigenous violence are anti-queer. These political movements need to be connected because they are necessarily connected in how we live our lives. When disabled people and working class communities need to fight for recognition and belonging and fairness, they are fighting for LGBTQ2+ rights because so many of us belong to those communities as well. As always, we should return to the words of Audre Lorde when thinking about rights-based endeavours and battles for fairness: in “Learning from the 60s,” published in Sister Outsider, she writes that “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.” 

NE: I think there has been some meaningful change to LGBTQ issues in Canada, which Out North traces. However, I also think there are serious limitations to the way LGBTQ rights are often seen as distinct or disconnected from other struggles, especially anti-imperialist ones. It’s really significant that, as the result of LGBTQ organizing over the last few decades, many queer people benefit from the right to sexual and bodily autonomy through the Canadian state. But this is also the state that denies many Indigenous people the same rights, especially women, as the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls made clear in 2019. It is also the same state that enacts violence against people elsewhere—Palestinians and Yemenis, for instance--by selling arms to Israel and Saudi. To be truly internationalist, LGBTQ movements in Canada must also oppose imperialism in their organizing, something that often gets lets out of the mainstream conversation.

TWO: The Homosexual Viewpoint in Canada Vol. 5, 1965

What LGBTQ2+ books and authors would you recommend to my readers?

CJ: Great question! I’ve got three books on the go right now that I’m really enjoying. First is Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993. The level of detail and care that she put into this book is incredible. Second is Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters—a novel that is so wonderfully written I can barely put it down. And, finally, I’m working through James Romm’s book The Sacred Band, which details the true history of an elite military unit in the 4th century BC that was comprised of 150 pairs of male lovers. The idea behind the force was that every soldier would fight harder and more honourably if their lover was beside them on the battlefield. 

I’ve also spent time this summer with some great books published a little closer to home. Gemma Hickey’s Almost Feral is a great memoir by a hugely important LGBTQ2+ social activist based in Newfoundland. Rebecca Rose’s Before the Parade gives beautiful history to the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community in Halifax in the 1970s. Also: anything written by Kai Cheng Thom is worth reading; fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s books—she does it all beautifully. And Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed, which was published in 2018, recently won the 2021 Canada Reads competition, so if you haven’t read it yet get on it! 

NE: I agree with Craig about Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby — really a delightful read! I also loved Dionne Brand’s What We All Long when I read it a few years ago. I thought it captured the nature of contemporary queer friendship so beautifully. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, while heart-wrenching at times, will always be my favourite. Feinberg’s writing, along with Joan Nestle and Minnie Bruce Pratt’s, was so pivotal to me as a young queer person.

Halloween Party in Saint John, NB, 1966. Photographer unknown

Craig Jennex is an Assistant Professor of English at Ryerson University and a scholar of LGBTQ2+ culture and politics, queer and feminist theory, and popular music studies. He is currently writing a book on the role of popular music (with particular attention to disco and womyn’s music) in the gay and lesbian liberation movement in Canada. He is co-editor (with Susan Fast) of Popular Music and the Politics of Hope: Queer and Feminist Interventions (Routledge 2019).

Nisha Eswaran is an academic and writer whose research focuses on British empire, South Asian nationalisms, and queer history. She holds a PhD in English Literature in the field of Postcolonial Studies from McMaster University in Hamilton. Her writing has appeared in Postcolonial Text, South Asian Review, The White Wall Review, Jamhoor, Kajal, and Briarpatch. 

Out North: An Archive of Queer Activism and Kinship in Canada is available for purchase at Indigo. Check GoodReads for additional retailers.