Still Fighting: LGBTQ2 Rights at 50
4 min

What five new films can teach us about the past 50 years of LGBTQ2 activism

The NFB-produced shorts explore what’s been gained and lost in our communities

Credit: NFB/Tiffany Hsiung; Francesca Roh/Xtra

In 1969, with the passage of Bill C-150, the Canadian government made sweeping changes to the Criminal Code, including the repeal of laws against certain kinds of gay sex. This 50th anniversary, and that of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, has sparked celebration, reflection, protest and reckoning on the state of LGBTQ2 rights and communities. How do we tell our complex and complicated histories when so much of our past has been hidden? Whose stories count? What can we learn from our pasts to help us work together more effectively and build more sustainable communities and movements?

To address these questions and others, National Film Board of Canada (NFB) producer Justine Pimlott asked five LGBTQ2 filmmakers from across the country to each make a five-minute film reflecting on contemporary queer lives and identities, and on what’s been both gained and lost over the past 50 years. The resulting project, Five@50, launched in Toronto on Nov. 12 at a public screening co-presented by the NFB, the Toronto International Film Festival and Xtra. (Editorial director Rachel Giese moderated a panel following the screening of the films.)

“As queer people, this kind of anniversary is an opportunity to reflect,” Pimlott explained. “For me, the impetus for Five@50 was to hear multiple voices reflect on where we’ve come from, and where we are 50 years after this anniversary. And whether it’s 50 years after C-150 or [the 150th anniversary of Confederation], there are mythologies around these sorts of anniversaries. We need to hear from voices in our communities [so that we don’t] perpetuate mythologies, but also to bring our various perspectives to these anniversaries.”

Though shot and edited separately, the five films—made by Michèle Pearson Clarke, Michael V. Smith, Thirza Cuthand, Vivek Shraya and Tiffany Hsiung—are very much in conversation with one another. They focus on queer and trans lives and visibility in the realm of the domestic (how should we shape partnerships and families?) and the public (how do we connect in bars, in cruising spaces, in real life and online?). And one, Cuthand’s Woman Dress, celebrates queerness and Two-Spirit culture outside of, and long predating, a colonial framework. All five works can be watched below.

Handmade Mountain

Handmade Mountain, Michèle Pearson Clarke, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Born in Trinidad and based in Toronto, Michèle Pearson Clarke is an artist, scholar and Toronto’s photo laureate. In Handmade Mountain, she examines the fight for marriage equality through an intimate dialogue with a circle of friends about her own marriage and divorce. “All my work is about grief and loss in some way,” she said. “When I was thinking about the last 50 years and my whole life in relationship to all the changes that have happened, [marriage] felt like an obvious issue to take up, because I was early to get married and early to get divorced.”

The Hook Up

The Hook Up, Michael V. Smith, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Kelowna, B.C., author and artist Michael V. Smith brings together four gay men of different generations in The Hook Up, to compare the culture of cruising before and after dating apps. One of his observations about the past 50 years is that there is now a greater space for a diversity of perspectives and voices in LGBTQ2 communities. “Here’s evidence of the evolution or the devolution of queer identity and queer stories,” he said. “We’re not just seeing a homogenous [depiction]. We’re seeing the real richness and vibrancy of what we can do as queer people in the world. And it’s thrilling. There’s huge magic happening right now.”

Woman Dress

Woman Dress, Thirza Cuthand, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

In Woman Dress, Thirza Cuthand’s Auntie Beth tells a story passed down to her about a Two-Spirit traveller and storyteller. Cree doesn’t have gendered pronouns, and Beth shifts between “he” and “she” as she relates how figures like Woman Dress were traditionally valued and respected. Toronto-based Cuthand, who is of Plains Cree and Scots descent and is a member of Little Pine First Nation, said that “progress is a really weird word for Indigenous people [because talking] about progress is a very colonial concept. I don’t really think so much about moving forward as I do about finding things from history that were lost and bringing them back and honouring them again.”

Reviving The Roost

Reviving The Roost, Vivek Shraya, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Vivek Shraya’s Reviving The Roost is an animated tribute to a legendary and now-defunct Edmonton gay bar, a space that could be both alienating and liberating. Shraya, an author, musician, playwright and artist based in Calgary, said that after living in Toronto for a number of years, she started to feel differently about her hometown. “As someone who has been so vocal about the ways that [growing up in] Edmonton was hard, I do feel a kind of debt to talk about how Edmonton shaped me in ways that I’m really grateful for,” she said. “I wanted to make a film about The Roost, because it was a gay bar that was iconic and something always went down at The Roost, which I think is true of how all gay bars were, especially in smaller towns. There’s something about being forced to be in a space with others who aren’t like you that just spawns a range of experiences.”

The Bassinet

The Bassinet, Tiffany Hsiung, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

For Toronto filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung, the titular bassinet becomes a metaphor for her ambivalence about the traditional trappings of heterosexual domesticity (marriage, kids), and the tension between her devotion to her longtime partner Victoria and her own internalized fears about being “too out” in her Chinese-Canadian family. Although her family has embraced her queerness, Hsiung said that the prospect of having a child made her reflect more on her identities. “It makes me feel like I may have to choose between my cultural upbringing and my love for Victoria and what it might mean for me to build a family with her,” Hsiung said. “How do you how do you balance the two? How do you balance the things that you were raised to respect and appreciate while also still being gay and proud?”