Big Gay Night 2024. For many, the nights are a second chance to attend the prom they never had. Wiley is third from the right. Photo by Ness Devos.

The Queer Joy of CJ Wiley

It’s leap day, Feb. 29, in Toronto and there’s magic in the air at Lula Lounge. A 10 Things I Hate About You themed prom is taking place complete with live music, a photo booth, and to pay tribute to the iconic late-’90s romcom, many attendees are wearing their finest ’90s-inspired formal attire.

The event is part of Big Gay Night, a concert series hosted by local musician CJ Wiley that showcases queer and trans artists in Toronto. Launched in 2022, Wiley has curated Big Gay Nights at venues across the city that have included performances by acts like shoegaze band Zoon, rock duo Partner, folky artist poolblood, and Shania Twink, a Shania Twain cover band that includes Wiley, Dani Nash, Kate Palumbo, Lydia Persaud, and Christine Bougie. Each Big Gay Night has sold out.

When I speak with Wiley the week before the first Big Gay Night of 2024, they are busy juggling last minute event planning, but their excitement seems to outweigh their stress. As Wiley explains, the popularity of Big Gay Night speaks to the demand for more safer spaces for 2SLGBTQ+ people.

“When I was emerging into the Toronto music scene as a queer person in my early 20s, there wasn’t any space dedicated to queer and trans artists,” explains Wiley. “So I decided that maybe I could be the person to help create space for people like me.”

“I was also inspired by queer events in the city that I had seen going on like Queer Wine Night and Everybody Flirts Queer Karaoke. I’d go to these events and I’d see that there was a really high demand for safe spaces,” they add. “I did a mentorship once with Stefanie Purificati who is an absolute boss of a booking agent and she gave me some advice: ‘If the space isn’t available, make the space yourself.’”

For Wiley, the Big Gay Night prom at Lula Lounge is also a celebration of “No One Like U,” their new breezy garage-rock single produced by Winnipeg’s Boy Golden and co-written by Toronto singer-songwriter Charlotte Cornfield. Tying the night together, Wiley will also premiere the song’s music video, a queer recreation of 10 Things I Hate About You.

Big Nay Night 2024. Photo by Ness Devos.

“What I try to do with my music is make it fun,” Wiley says. “I want to bring joy into people’s lives but at the same time, I’m trying to stoke conversations that are important but in a way that makes it accessible to everyone. I sing about gender identity, grief and loss, different types of relationships, queer love, and the expansiveness that it brings into people’s lives.”

Wiley grew up in Port Bruce, Ontario, and moved to Toronto to attend high school. They spent time hanging out with musicians, getting drunk, and singing Modest Mouse and Radiohead songs. At 17 years old, they bought their first guitar. But for many years Wiley struggled with a drug addiction that made focusing on their music career difficult.

“From about 15 to 24 years old I was always really passionate about music but I don’t think I had the capacity or the support to really take it seriously,” explains Wiley.

Once in recovery, Wiley started their first official music project, the bluesy rock band Prancer. “I recorded a bunch of songs with all of my high school friends and then the pandemic happened and I ended up realizing that it wasn’t the kind of music that I wanted to put out into the world,” they note.

“I then started CJ Wiley which is very much me,” adds Wiley who released All Our Love, a twangy collection of rock tracks, in 2022. “I think a lot of people during the pandemic really had time to sit back and think about who they are and how they want to be seen and that’s how I felt about my music.”

Wiley also cites Boy Golden’s 2021 psych-country debut record Church of Better Daze as having a huge influence on their sound, noting, “I realized that’s the kind of music I want to make. Uplifting music that’s fun and makes people feel good.”

After pandemic lockdowns, Wiley went to see Boy Golden (a.k.a. Liam Duncan) play in Toronto and the pair met. They kept in touch and eventually headed into the studio together where Duncan recorded and produced Wiley’s forthcoming LP due out later this year.

“Working with [Duncan] has been incredible. What an amazing person, an incredible producer, and musician. I respect him even more now that I know him. I think he’s going to be a Canadian legend,” says Wiley, who describes their new songs as a mix of ’90s grunge, Sheryl Crow’s laid-back Americana vibe, and Courtney Barnett’s tongue-and-cheek wit.

Back at Lula Lounge, Wiley’s dream of creating a space where 2SLGBTQ+ audience members and artists can support each other is a reality. For many, this Big Gay Night event is a second chance to attend the prom that they wish they could have had — a place where they can finally be themselves.

“It’s been a year and a half [since the first Big Gay Night] and it has been just incredible. People who come to Big Gay Night can expect lots of fun and lots of flirting and to be introduced to a lot of very talented queer and trans musicians, some playing their first show ever,” says Wiley. “We need spaces to come together, to celebrate each other, and to have fun.”

In Wiley’s new song “No One Like U,” they sing, “nobody has the same effect on me as you do/there’s no one like you.” A similar affirmation can be heard in the crowd as someone admires their date’s outfit and asserts, “you look so…you!”

This article appeared in the 2024 May/June issue.