An underlying thread stringing together all of Michael Venus’s projects is to create community by giving voice to and carving out spaces for artists, designers, and performers from the LGBTQ+ community of all generations. Never Apart in Montreal has done just that, as a cultural centre that celebrates emerging queer artists.
By Rebecca Kahn
Acting throughout the years as a vital part of LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual) communities of Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Hamilton, Windsor, and Detroit, Michael Venus lives somewhere in between – in between cities, in between baby boomers and millennial generations, and identifying as queer, which is a word that’s come to be all-encompassing for sexuality and gender identity that defies boundaries and norms.
As the Executive Director of Never Apart, you can see this in-between ideology come alive. He’s helped to create a space filled with people who are either queer or not, young or old, and artistic or trendsetting, but the big thing you can tell as soon as you walk in is that everyone is having a great time.
Seeing Michael Venus today, or as he’s known by his drag alter-ego, Miss Cotton, he’s confident, kind, and powerful, but he’s had to fight to get to this place in life. He tells us, “My journey started very young when I was 15 and knew there was a big gay world out there, growing up in a rural Ontario farm where I was an isolated teenager. So, I ran out to the world and started in search of that quest that brought me to Hamilton, Ontario, which brought me to a lot of LGBTQ people and activists and artists. And that’s kind of where it began, but then it really started coming together more so when I moved to Windsor, Ontario and started my art collective, the House of Venus, with my other friends. And that’s where we started creating community and putting on art events and that sort of thing.”
Since those humble beginnings, Michael has witnessed some big changes in the community and world. “With the advent of the internet and technology, we’re able to communicate with people from all around the world. It’s easier to see our strength in numbers. The laws have changed – we’re allowed to love who we want and marry who we want, especially here in Canada… In the last 25 years especially, we’ve just had so much positive change, but I would like to see a lot more change. There’s so much that needs to be done in Canada and beyond, so I just hope we can continue to make these leaps and bounds and create equality for all.”
While there’s more queer representation now, Venus tells me, “When I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of queer people in the media or people I could have as mentors because people in that age bracket that could have been mentors for me were dealing with the AIDS crisis. So, the philosophy with the House of Venus and what I’ve done is that if there’s not something in the world out there, then you’ve got to create it.”
He goes on to say, “We weren’t seeing the kind of events that we liked. We would visit New York and get inspired by the club scene there and the drag scene that was just blowing up. There was such a big movement in the ’90s, which started in the ’60s with Andy Warhol, these groups of people that create their own scene and chosen family, so that’s where we started it, just with the necessity of we’re not seeing anything like that. We did fashion shows and art events and theme parties in Windsor and Detroit area. And then in 1995, the three core members of House of Venus moved to Vancouver and then multiple other friends joined us and we met up with new people there, and we sort of took over the after-hours nightclub scene in Vancouver… We used clubs as a way to pay for our art, and we used the clubs to put on events. We wanted to be very inclusive – not just queer people but anyone that felt like a misfit or an outsider or just had a different perspective than heteronormative existence.”
Venus speaks of one of the first projects he was involved in that helped give space for all people to express themselves: “Wiggle, our wearable art festival, which we created 25 years [ago] this year – it’s been a spot where young artists, designers, performers, you know, where we can launch their careers and give them a safe space and recognize their talents and help promote them.”
Michael Venus, drag house “mom” of the House of Venus, organizer of Wiggle, and Executive Director of Never Apart, has accomplished a lot in his life. Particularly, Montreal’s Never Apart is home to things such as a blossoming queer community, with art exhibitions, an LGBT legend film series, and “Never Apart Inc., where we have our monthly online magazine where we have different trailblazers and pioneers within the queer community, as well as emerging artists. And now we have Never Apart TV, and I’m actually working on Season 4 currently, and what’s really exciting is it’s available on Out TV Canada and Out TV Go online. But more recently, this whole summer, Season 3 of Never Apart TV is airing on Air Canada, giving it a larger audience and more viewers, because we’re in the air now too, so that’s pretty cool.” He also tells us about “Color By Icons, which is a historical LGBTQ colouring book, which features 50 LGBTQ pioneers and trailblazers who have fought the fight for us, so it’s a really fun interactive way for children of all ages to learn about queer history, which is erased – it’s not taught in school.”
This space has a lot to offer to the community. “Never Apart is a nonprofit organization with our headquarters and galleries here in the Mile-Ex, which is a booming area full of queers and artistic types, and we began our mission in 2015, so we just celebrated our four years… We’re trying to create positive change and build community and make change through art and make a safe space and an inclusive space for marginalized people, but bringing also different crowds together because it’s hard really to create change if you’re just within your own subculture or group. It’s important to expand your circle of friends or people who would come to our events, but to have it be mixed. We want all people of all walks of life to come together and engage together. Because more and more, with smartphones and internet and technology, people aren’t actually coming together in the flesh. It’s easy for people to connect internationally through the internet and all of that, and that’s wonderful, but having a place you can actually come and see other people and discuss is a different topic. I think it’s really important to do that.”
Michael Venus works for more than just connecting people, though; he fights for change. “Especially with the political tune of what’s going on in the United States and with the UK… there’s a big scary right-wing thing happening, and we have to take to the streets, we have to work together on so many levels, not just in the queer community. We need to listen to the other communities and see who needs support and stand up for people and have a voice.”