Book club: Do you know these Canadian LGBTQ+ protagonists?
For Pride Month, Michael Erickson, co-owner of Toronto’s Glad Day bookstore, shares his favourite Canadian LGBTQ+ characters
By Michael Erickson
For a long time, LGBTQ+ love was not for public consumption—as Alfred Lord Douglas wrote in 1894, it was “the love that dare not speak its name.” At the time, homosexuality was a criminal offence that could be, and was, punished by a sentence of hard labour. (That’s what happened to Douglas’s lover, Oscar Wilde.) Eventually, the literary world caught up to real life and LGBTQ+ characters began appearing in print. But even then, most gay and lesbian book characters ended up dead or in the asylum. It wasn’t exactly the most positive or inspiring form of representation.
In fact, it wasn’t until the early ’80s that we began to see gay and lesbian protagonists live layered lives with love. Fast forward to today. In the past 10 years, we have finally seen some desperately needed diversity, with more LGBTQ+ books featuring a wider spectrum of race and culture as well as more books by trans authors. There is no way to completely capture the complexity of sexual and gender identity in Canada right now, but these are six of my favourite Canadian LGBTQ+ characters. Pick up a book and get to know them!
Dan Sharp is one of the most realistic and complex portrayals of a gay middle-aged man I’ve ever read. We first meet Dan, a Toronto private investigator, in Lake On The Mountain by Jeffrey Round. As he gets drawn into a murder case that’s too close to home, we see his many sides—caring father, street-smart detective, carnal lover, wounded child and nobody’s fool. But for all his hard edges, Dan Sharp is still filled with vulnerability, honour and the hope that one day he will be loved.
“The Narrator” is a trans Asian femme who defies labels, genre, reality and authority. She even defies being named. In Kai Cheng Thom’sFierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, we follow The Narrator as she unites with other wondrous trans femmes. This group of vigilante vixens use their magic, kung fu and quick wits to fight back against everything and everyone trying to kill them and keep them down. The Narrator will make you laugh, make you rage, break your chains and break your heart.
No one’s going to change Pen Oliveira, but Pen might just change you. In M.E. Girard’s debut and award-winning youth novel Girl Mans Up, we meet Pen, a butch tomboy with enough spirit and spunk to push back all the expectations thrust on her by her traditional Portuguese family and typical high school. Totally refreshing and rad, Pen packs a punch that wakes us up.
In Farzana Doctor’s novel All Inclusive, Ameera works at an all-inclusive Mexican resort, serving the tourists in the daytime and swinging with the tourists at night. Unapologetic, sexy and shameless, Ameera is a sharp woman fighting for a promotion—but her brazen bisexual encounters might be putting everything at risk, while her hidden family history is about to collide with her present.
Now a Canadian classic, Shyam Selvadurai’sFunny Boy takes us back to Sri Lanka in the 1970s and 1980s. The emotional, complex and universal gay coming-of-age story of protagonist Arjie Chelvaratnam also illuminates the specific, historic and intricate cultural and colonial landscape of Sri Lanka. Arjie is that softness we all have, wanting to wear pretty things and accidentally falling in love.
Perhaps an unconventional choice for this list, Geryon is my favourite gay character of all time. A novel in verse,The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson isn’t for everyone. Geryon is a boy who needs to hide his monstrous red wings but finds that the older Herakles loves all of him. In Geryon, you will remember the first time your heart was broken, the pain of loving someone for their intense beauty and the feelings of freedom and betrayal that come after you let yourself be vulnerable and honest. In Geryon we connect with the most raw and poetic parts of ourselves.