The ArQuives created The Brian King Fabulous Researcher Fund in 2016 to honour the memory of former volunteer Brian King, one of the original Flashback Gala creators. Brian’s enthusiasm and devotion to the organization are legendary. The Brian King Fabulous Researcher Fund enables researchers outside of Toronto to travel to The ArQuives to conduct research.

The thought of sifting through archival documents for a PhD might conjure a stuffy image for many, but Emma Awe, recipient of the Brian King Fabulous Research Fund, is proving that this work is anything but stuffy — and that it can offer a window into the lives of some really cool people.

Awe’s PhD research surrounds punk queer zines, examining how they contribute to queer radical politics. Their work is taking them from Ottawa to The ArQuives, where they’ll have the opportunity to find and read a ton of these zines, many of which offer an insight into the life and experiences of queer and trans people in the 80s, 90s, and even on to today.

Zines, which are typically self-published small-circulation documents and publications, have played an often-unacknowledged role in the advancement of many marginalized communities over the years, especially the queer and trans communities in the late 20th century. Many of these zines were (and are) a way of disseminating information about upcoming protests, tips for keeping oneself safe from violence, and personal accounts of the experiences of everyday people. They played an important role in keeping communities in contact with one another and maintaining a record of progressive movements, long before the dawn of social media.

Awe found their love for zines as a product of their time in feminist studies, queer history classes, and other academic pursuits, combined with their love of old periodicals. Zines themselves are a perfect blend of these worlds, acting as a vehicle for queer and trans people of the past to express themselves in print at a time when they weren’t able to do so in the mainstream.

Awe explains that “queer people, feminists, women — all these marginalized communities — have been so excluded in media and struggle to see themselves represented.” As a result, these groups’ use of print media like zines has been a way for their members to, as Awe states, “see themselves reflected” and “feel affirmed,” while also having an opportunity to “find their community, rally together, and start a little collective.”

Zines, in particular, are very anti-establishment, and some of the more radical publications of the past explicitly sought to exist outside of mainstream publishing. This allowed them to say what they wanted, and not have to appeal to mainstream censorship or dilution. Furthermore, the ease of making and distributing zines (one just needs some imagination and a photocopier, and maybe some stamps and envelopes), allowed for them to be made by almost anyone. This means there are zines in The ArQuives from many different places and people, including unexpected sources like rural Canada.

As a result of many zines’ desire to be outside the mainstream, part of Awe’s research is finding these zines to study them in the first place, as they can be extremely elusive. They explain that many of them are intentionally difficult to find, as they were meant to be sort of underground and not easy to locate. This makes modern day research into them frustrating, but for Awe, also a bit thrilling. While The ArQuives’ collection is “extensive,” according to Awe, some of them “purposely evade” or “want to hide.” Part of their research trip to The ArQuives is seeking out some of these more elusive zines that don’t surface in an initial search or obvious places.

“Zinesters were sometimes deliberately trying to play and be fun and confusing — sometimes the numbering of issues will change, or somebody decides they want to change the title [for] one issue, and I sometimes find I’m trying to figure out and see the story, and that’s always fun.”

While queer, radical zines can often take the form of informational documents, of sorts, for organizing the community and rallying for protests and change, many of them were focused on other parts of queerness and identity politics of the past. Many zines that catch Awe’s interest, for example, offer information for trans people on how to safely express their gender, like DIY tips for “passing” or keeping oneself safe from violence. Some talk about violence that queer and trans people experienced, sometimes in very graphic or shocking detail. Some zines are sexual in nature, expressing images of intercourse or pornography, providing a chance at liberation for people who couldn’t typically express their sexuality in such a way. Others may simply function as a sort of diary for an individual, creating a zine as a way of discussing their day to day life with friends.

Awe explains that these personal-diary-like zines can be a fantastic source for studying the experience of the queer and trans people who came before us. These zines offer a look through someone else’s eyes for a brief moment in time — telling us about what it was like to be a member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ world at another time in history.

“It feels like I’m connecting to someone, and I never take that moment lightly or for granted. I’m thankful to the creator; I get to pop into their world for a second.”

They explain that finding and reading a zine is more like a “meeting” with the writer, and that it’s important to think of it that way, rather than treating zines like a cold, lifeless document. These zines are written by people, many of whom are likely still alive, and they’re extremely intimate.

“I’m often thinking ‘Why this person? Why this story?’” Awe believes the context is extremely important, and it must be considered outside of one’s own perspective.

“We’ll never know all of the story. Any historical account that we’re reading is just someone’s version, someone’s story; I have all these pieces and I’m building a story from them. [But], it’s only a piece, because we don’t know what they were like, what they were feeling.”

For Awe, zines made by the radical queer punks that came before us are like windows into their lives, an important piece of the mosaic that makes up our history. But, zines are not only a product of the past, and still serve an important purpose for queer and trans people of today. Though social media has replaced zines in some ways, many, many people still make and trade their own zines, keeping the art alive and as punk as ever.

Outside of their PhD research, Awe teaches artistic classes to students, helping explore queer and trans histories. They also offer digital classes on zine-making, publish historical studies on queer movements and important figures, and work closely with various organizations and institutions to keep queer history alive, and importantly, make it accessible and interesting. You can check out more of their amazing work on their website, and read more about the Brian King Fabulous Researcher Fund here.

By Michael Ott