Will Munro’s untimely death last May from brain cancer at the age of 35 left a gaping void in Toronto’s queer and arts scenes, but now his memory is being honoured by a new award that is both a huge prize and challenge for queer youth.
“Will was a catalyst,” says Michael Erickson, a high school teacher and board member of the Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line, where Munro volunteered for a remarkable 14 years. As both an artist and the creator of events like the queer rock night Vazaleen and the amateur strip show Moustache, Munro “brought people together and encouraged them to take risks and become even more spectacular versions of themselves.”
That quality, says Erickson, is now one of the criteria for the Youth Line’s Spirit of Will Munro Award, an annual prize of $10,000 to be given to any queer youth (under 27) or youth-led organization with an event, project or business that uses the arts to create new community growth.
“It’s a great way to honour his memory and to continue to grow queer artists who will challenge boundaries and test limits, like Will did,” says Brandon Sawh, acting executive director of the Youth Line. “We’re hoping to get applicants from all across Ontario,” he says.
Sawh says the selection committee will probably consist of a few Youth Line board members, friends and family of Munro and perhaps other community members. “I’m hoping John Caffery will sit on the committee,” says Sawh. “He’s been our liaison with Will’s family and [has been] really influential with getting the word out.”
The frontman for the band Kids on TV, Caffery was a close friend of Munro’s and says, “Even if you never met Will, you’ve experienced his effect on this city… He created places for people to wave their freak flag and for outsiders and outcasts to feel welcome.”
Caffery was stunned when gallery owner and now Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam responded to Munro’s death with the idea for a large donation. “$10,000 every year?” he says. “That’s so generous; it’s incredible.” Feeling “raw and tender” at the time, he admits, “To be honest, my first response was to wonder why a politician would do this. It was an election year, you know, so I started looking at her history and asking around about her, and it became very clear that she really loved Will and the work that he did.”
“Will Munro was not only a great artist but a great Torontonian,” says Wong-Tam. “I loved the fact that he was so inclusive in everything he did.” Erickson calls it “synchronicity” that Wong-Tam approached the Youth Line about donating just as they were considering an award in Munro’s honour.
“I’m not a millionaire,” Wong-Tam notes. “Like everyone else, I have to work for a living.” But the more she thought about Munro and her own experiences as a queer artist and activist, she decided to go for it, setting up a trust and a will.
“This city’s been great to me, but there have been times in the past I’ve struggled to get financing for my own projects,” Wong-Tam says. “I thought, why not make it easier for the next generation if I can? $10,000 for a youth project could mean substantial seed money.”
While Caffery says he’d be pleased to be on the selection committee as Sawh hopes, Wong-Tam is happy to defer to the others.
“I’ve been invited,” she says, “but I trust the people at the Youth Line. I don’t necessarily need to have a say in the winner. When I give this donation, it’s without strings. It’s not the Kristyn Wong-Tam award, it’s the Will Munro award.”
It’s an attitude that very much reflects the man himself, says artist Lex Vaughn, who wrote about her longtime friendship with Munro in Xtra in January 2009.
“He’d hate this!” Vaughn laughs. “He’d change the name for sure. I mean, of course he was a promoter, but it was always about the art or the party. He didn’t do it for himself and he wouldn’t want his name on this, but,” she teases in a sing-song voice, “he can’t do anything about it!”
“It’s wonderful to see such extreme generosity done in Will’s name because, even though he could be a little grouch, that’s what he showed to people,” Vaughn says, insisting the $10,000 award go to a queer youth who can match Munro’s impressive artistic output and do-it-yourself community building.
“I’m proud of my little Willy,” Vaughn sighs. “He set a very high standard.”