Re-Imagining Childhood Favourites

Queer Representation in Literature and the Big-Screen

Hurrying down Toronto’s Church Street, I suddenly stopped midstride.  Looking down, I smiled, as I saw my feet placed firmly on the rainbow crosswalk.  After years away, I was finally home.

Life in Toronto is often hectic, expensive, and at times, extremely lonely.  Many Torontonians, including myself, leave for various reasons, but a large number always make our way back home.  As any resident of “the 6ix” will (loudly) let you know: there is nothing like life in the city.  Toronto may not be as friendly as Calgary, as beautiful as Yellowknife, or as energetic as Halifax, but we have one thing that sets us apart from other major cities; Toronto is home to Canada’s largest queer community, and boasts the world’s oldest LGBTQ+ bookstore, Glad Day Bookshop.

Toronto’s Oldest LGBTQ+ Bookstore

For many young queers coming of age in the big city, Glad Day Bookshop will always be a part of our own personal histories as well.  This Toronto institution has shaped who we are and how we live as a community.  For many, this is where we found our families, where we found answers, and where we came to escape.  Glad Day Bookshop, along with our “Village,” played a central role in shaping our identities, allowing us to find a sense of safety in an unforgiving world.

Located at 499 Church Street, Glad Day Bookshop is also the city’s oldest surviving bookstore.  First opened in the in 1970s by Jerald Moldenhauer, who realized that queer literature was simply unavailable in Canada, Glad Day Bookstore has since raised generations of Torontonians.  Over the years, the bookstore became one of Toronto’s premier queer hubs, fighting Canadian censorship laws of queer material along the way.  After April, 1985, when parliament increased censorship laws, Glad Day continued to appeal to customs seizures of censored and seized books and magazines.

Moldenhauer received over 400 of these seizure notices, but persisted and launched several lawsuits against the Canadian government in his fight against censorship.  A full gallery of historic photos of the bookstore, as well as Toronto’s queer community can be seen on Moldenhauer’s website.

In 2015, Glad Day launched Naked Heart, the largest LGBTQ+ literary festival in the world.  Each year, the Festival presents workshops, panels, discussions, and performances.  Today, the independent bookstore continues to create a welcoming environment for the queer community, believing in “story, representation and freedom of speech.”  Various queer books can be found, including poetry, theory, drama, zines, magazines, new releases from local voices, and—pre-pandemic—events, such as book launches, drag bingo, queer trivia night, and dance parties held every Friday and Saturday nights.

In other parts of Canada, Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium located on Davie Street in Vancouver’s queer Village has been in operation since 1983.

Queer Representation on Screen

Seeing oneself represented on the shelves of a bookstore and in literature when the default is not to be is an indescribable feeling.  Similarly, the now defunct Queen Video carried a variety of queer cinema in its collection of over 40,000 titles, allowing a generation of Toronto’s queers to find representation in the days before Netflix.  For today’s younger queer community without access to bookstores and video rental sites, especially those living outside of major cities, streaming sites often remain their only source of representation.

Unfortunately, often queer representation in literature and on-screen is presented as dehumanizing stereotypical depictions or as foils to the protagonist.  For many queer characters, there is no positive outcome, with many long-suffering characters encountering violent ends in longstanding tropes.  This was particularly evident in a 2016 list compiled by Autostraddle, which featured 212 lesbian and bisexual characters—and how they died.  Prominent examples included far too many suicides, gunshot wounds, stabbings, beatings, and explosions.  Often these types of depictions as disposable characters translate into real life, with large numbers of the queer community facing violence.

This was also seen in GLAAD’s most recent 2019’s Studio Responsibility Index, which “maps the quantity, quality and diversity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) characters in films released by eight major motion picture studios” to increase “fair, accurate and inclusive” queer representation.

The report revealed that although queer-inclusive representation is at its highest, at 18.6%, representation of non-white queer characters dropped significantly from the previous year, as well as the total lack of transgender characters.  In addition, queer-inclusive roles were also significantly smaller than previous years.  More than half of queer characters only had less than three minutes of screen time, with a majority of less than one minute.  For example, of nineteen Walt Disney Studios films, only four were considered LGBTQ-inclusive, while Warner Brothers fared even worse with three out of twenty-one films.

Attempts at Inclusivity Met with Outrage

Despite these worrying statistics, in recent months, there have been increased attempts toward inclusivity.  However, outrage has accompanied this representation, especially when it comes to childhood favourites.  For example, recently, the creators of SpongeBob Square Pants have revealed the possibility of the beloved Sponge’s queerness—to the rage of critics.

As social media’s meme generators have begun circulating outrage over the sexualization of cartoon characters for children, I am left wondering why queerness is inextricably linked with sex, when heterosexual characters do not elicit the same response.  I question why queer representation and visibility is increasingly deemed a political agenda, while heterosexual imagery is the simply the default.  Sex was the furthest thing from my mind while watching cartoons as a child, but I was fully aware of whom I wanted to marry one day.  And it was never the prince.  Perhaps my earlier years would have been a bit easier if I had seen someone like myself represented in a positive light, even if in the form of a Sponge, reassuring me that there were others like me.

This debate is strikingly similar to a past controversy when critics exploded over the casting of Halle Bailey, a Black actress and singer, as The Little Mermaid, insisting that the fictional mermaid must be white, disregarding generations of little Black girls who have not historically seen themselves represented on screen.  A similar type of backlash took place in 2016 when a Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermoine Granger for the London play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  I am elated to see a queer Sponge, as I am certain millions loved to see themselves in Ariel and Hermione.

Future Outlook

I am thankful to have spent my youth up in the relative safety and anonymity of a large city where I had access to a larger queer community, until I left.  During my years in the far north of Ontario, in Alberta, and in British Columbia, I realized that, in a way, Toronto had sheltered me despite homophobic attitudes from my immediate diasporic community.  For many queer Canadians, especially those in small towns, homophobia, transphobia, often coupled with and inseparable from racism and ableism, remain an everyday reality.  Often, books, movies, and television shows remain the only escape from everyday reality.  And although positive representation in media has slowly increased and today’s technological advances make community building and activism increasingly possible, much of the queer community remains outside of the narrative, including much of the overlapping BIPOC, trans, and disabled queer communities.

Nevertheless, for many, places like Glad Day Bookshop remain a home bringing queer characters to life, while cartoons like SpongeBob create a sense of belonging.  The newest generation may feel validated to finally see additional, and at times, positive representation, but it is important to remember that it has been here all along in our fairytales and in our myths.  It was simply hidden.  We remain thankful to historians, academics, and even bookstores that continuously strive to uncover erased queer history, and those who struggle for future, equitable representation, and a safer world for the entire queer community.