Queer West - Serving West Toronto, Ontario


 


Our History


Queer West Community Network

History of Gay Toronto and QueerWest.org

alexander park in toronto artwork mp. pare, toronto ontario

Alexander Park in the Church St. gay village, during Pride Toronto's event Alternaqueer June 2007. Photo by M. Paré

Nota Bene Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives was not used as a reference source.

See Also: History of gay festivals in Toronto 1964 to 2011

© Copyright 2017 Gay West Community Network Inc.

An indepth study about queer west Toronto was done in co-operation with Gay West Community Network Inc. (Queer West) by Catherine Jean Nash, Professor Brock University titled "Queering neighbourhoods: Politics and practice in Toronto Full Text


The City of Toronto’s population is now estimated to be 2,791,140, according to a Statistics Canada report released in February, 2013. Toronto is now the fourth largest municipality in North America after Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles. Statistics Canada 2012 estimated population of Metropolitan Toronto is 5,941.5 Million.Toronto is the capital of the province of Ontario, the center of Canada's financial industry, and the home of the largest concentration of Canada's cultural institutions, including three universities. The exact LGBT population of the City of Toronto is NOT known.

LGBT Canada Demographic Resource links

The 10% figure commonly used is a completely unscientific guessestimate . According to the 2011 Census, there were 64,575 same-sex married and common-law couples in Canada that year, up 42 per cent from 2006 and double the number in 2001 when Statistics Canada started tracking them.

New 2012 poll reveals landscape of gay Canada: National Post July 6, 2012 (Added to history file on November 30, 2012 to help students doing research)

For diversity, Toronto has no rivals: over 100 languages are spoken and over 200 cultural groups are present, including the largest gay and lesbian community in Canada.

Early History

The city was founded as York in 1793 and settled by Loyalists fleeing the newly independent United States. During the War of 1812, York was raided and pillaged by U.S. forces in 1813, leaving an enduring anti-American attitude. The city name was changed in 1834 to Toronto ("where there are trees in the water" in Mohawk). In the 1870s, the Industrial Revolution began to transform Toronto: between 1871 and 1891, the city's population tripled, and between 1891 and 1911, it doubled.

Toronto's gay history begins soon after its founding, when a successful merchant and justice of the peace, Alexander Wood, was accused of having misused his position to investigate the genitalia of young men. A similar scandal in 1838 involved George Herchmer Markland, the Inspector-General of Upper Canada (Upper Canada was renamed Ontario upon Confederation in 1867).

Buggery had been illegal from colonial times, and this prohibition was included in the Consolidated Statutes of Canada in 1859. The Canadian Criminal Code introduced the crime of "gross indecency" in 1890; and in 1892 a "bawdy house" law was passed to discourage prostitution.

Nevertheless, as Toronto grew, the city acquired more visible signs of gay activity. For example, by the turn of the twentieth century, the glory holes at Union Station, Toronto's main train station, were considered noteworthy in the memoirs of Gordon Hill Graham.

The Growth of a Subculture

The surreptitious nature of the gay subculture endured through the 1950s. However, by World War II, Toronto had a well established network of parks, laneways, bathhouses, and bars where men searched for other men for sex: Queen's Park, Allen Gardens, Sunnyside Beach, the YMCA.

Toronto's police were vigilant, and arrests for gross indecency were made of clerks and barbers, machinists and bookkeepers. During the 1950s, even private parties were not safe from police raids.

Homophobia was given public expression each Halloween, when a mob gathered in front of the St. Charles Tavern on Yonge Street in order to jeer and pellet patrons with eggs and rotten fruit, especially drag queens (the police stopped this harassment in 1980).

Despite this difficult atmosphere, by the 1950s there was not only a full panoply of laws used to restrict homosexuality, but also a growing gay and lesbian community in an increasingly diverse Toronto.

Lesbian History

While there is little evidence for Toronto's lesbian history before World War II, by the 1950s, lesbians gathered at the Continental Bar. As the feminist movement grew in the 1960s, lesbians worked within women's organizations, such as The Women's Place. There were few proponents of lesbian separatism.

The first national lesbian conference was held at the Toronto YWCA in 1973, and The Toronto Women's Bookstore opened soon after and ceased operations in November 2012. In 1977, the Lesbian Organisation of Toronto (LOOT) was established as an umbrella organization open to all lesbians but ceased its activities in 1981. In 1984, Lesbians of Colour was formed.

New Attitudes

The first attempt to put homosexuality in a positive light was carried out by Jim Egan, who submitted articles and letters to such tabloids as Toronto's True News Times in the 1960s. The Maison de Lys, the first club where gay men and lesbians could go for same-sex dancing, opened in 1961; and the first organized, positive discussions of homosexuality occurred in the mid-1960s at the Music Room, a gay club. Such efforts were the beginnings of an attempt to build Toronto's own gay culture.

In 1969, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau decriminalized consenting sexual acts between people of the same sex, issuing his famous dictum that "the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation." The Stonewall Riots in New York City happened that same year in reaction to police harassment of the gay community there.

Gay Political and Cultural Organizations

Gay political life began with the establishment of the University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA) in 1969, joined by the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT) in 1970 (CHAT died in 1977; the university group continues to this day).

These early homophile groups were replaced by organizations advocating gay liberation, such as the Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE) of Toronto. The national voice of gay liberation became The Body Politic, established in Toronto in November 1971 and lasting until 1987.

In 1972, Glad Day Bookshop, Toronto's first gay book shop, opened and is still active. Buddies in Bad Times, a gay theater company, was established by Sky Gilbert in 1977. Gay artistic collectives, such as ChromaZone and JAC, arose in the early 1980s.

The community's infrastructure gradually diversified to match Toronto's multicultural nature. For example, in 1977, the Toronto Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf began, followed in 1980 by Gay Asians of Toronto (GAT). Zami, the first Canadian group for Black and West Indian gays and lesbians, was founded in 1984.

In 1981, George Hislop became the first openly gay candidate for city council, although he was defeated. The area in which he ran for office included the intersection of Church and Wellesley streets, where Toronto's old traditional gay viilage is located.

Resistance to Gay Activism

Gay activism was met by resistance from the government through police raids. The growing bathhouse culture experienced increasingly more frequent raids, culminating in a simultaneous raid on four bathhouses on February 5, 1981. Over 300 men were arrested as found-ins and twenty more as keepers under the provision of the bawdy house law. It was the largest mass arrest in Canada since the Quebec separatist crisis.

The rage set off by these raids resulted in the first mass demonstration by the gay community on the evening of February 6. In the subsequent trials, most accused were judged to be not guilty. As a result of the unexpected reaction, the municipal government commissioned a report that recognized Toronto's gays and lesbians as a community. Arnold Bruner's "Out of the Closets: Study of Relations Between the Homosexual Community and the Police (Report to Mayor Arthur Eggleton and The Council of the City of Toronto)

Other community institutions also came under fire: Canada Customs seized shipments of books and periodicals from Glad Day Bookstore, even though many of the titles were sold openly in other book shops. Glad Day survived, but the harassment continues to this day.

Despite these attempts at repression, Toronto's gay community came out of this struggle with a powerful sense of itself, a stronger infrastructure, and recognition by the municipal government.

Toronto's city government has included sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination policies since 1973. The Toronto Public Library Board granted benefits to same-sex spouses in 1989, and the municipal government followed in 1992; the Toronto Board of Education released a gay-positive curriculum guide in 1992. Toronto's mayors have proclaimed Pride Day since 1992. The City of Toronto even gave Buddies in Bad Times Theatre its own building.

The AIDS Crisis

However, a new challenge arose in 1982 with the appearance of the first cases of AIDS in Toronto. Building on the activist infrastructure already in place, a new set of institutions developed to address the needs of people with AIDS.

These institutions were dominated and controlled by the gay community. The AIDS Committee of Toronto was established in June 1983, and it gave a liberationist bent to the struggle for AIDS prevention and research in Toronto.

Again, Toronto's multicultural nature influenced the community's response. The city's Native community was served by Two-Spirited People of the First Nations while the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention was established to meet the special needs of its community. Toronto took its own distinct road in combating AIDS: The baths were not closed, sex was accepted as a given, emphasis was placed on safer sex.

The Struggle for Equal Rights

Having achieved recognition from government, Toronto gays and lesbians went on to fight for equal rights. The Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO), established in 1975, fought to include sexuality under the protective clauses of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

However, the 1990s "We are Family" campaign implicitly contradicted the liberationist vision that earlier dominated Toronto's gay life. This direction culminated with the first gay marriages at Metropolitan Community Church in 2001 and their sanction by the Ontario Court of Appeals in 2003.

In 1995, a key legal ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada found that while sexual orientation wasn't specifically mentioned in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they could be "read in." The next year, the federal government amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to include sexual orientation.

Toronto's gay and lesbian community is now recognized as an integral part of the city's fabric. Toronto's glbtq community has gone from being a hidden subculture to a power base in politics, the economy, and the arts.

Gay Villages in Toronto, Ontario

"Toronto's gay ghetto moved around in the early 1970s, it was on Spadina Avenue; later Queen St., east of Spadina, Parliament Street in the early '80s; and Church & Wellesley by 1992." In fact there is no gay village in Toronto. "There remained some confusion in 1992 about what to call the gay neighbourhood east of Yonge Street: Church & Wellesley (accurate if not very snappy); The Village (favoured by those business types); or simply The Ghetto." wrote Rick Bébout, Toronto author www.rbebout.com/bar/1992a.htm

"A glossy tourist guide produced by Tourism Toronto touts the city’s gay district as “a celebration of life, diversity and…"shopping." Toronto’s so called only gay village has depoliticized and re-conceived as a tourist attraction. The gay business class is empowered vis-à-vis the local state while the political grievances of severely marginalized queers are put on the back burner. The village at Church and Wellesley is not a gay neighbourhood but a theme park for the Rainbow Flag. Pride Toronto celebrations were originally about building a movement, a day to build community organizations and to get people involved in political campaigns. For the last 15 years Pride planners, along with local officials and business elites, seem much more concerned with reorganizing the event to bolster the local tourist industry." Writes Professor John Grundy in Staging Queer Difference: Marketing Diversity in Toronto (July/August 2004) http://canadiandimension.com/articles/1971 (link correction March 21, 2012)

Gay Toronto Tourism

The establishment of the Advisory Committee on Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Issues in 1999 gave reason to hope things might change for vulnerable queers in Toronto. Mandated to advocate on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the advisory committee provided Toronto’s queer constituencies with a rare voice in the newly restructured municipality. Yet the under-resourced committee proved to be quite powerless, and before shutting down, began collaborating with Tourism Toronto to market the city’s old gay neighbourhood at Church and Wellesly as an identity-based entertainment district and tourist destination.

Toronto 's marginalized queers find a new homes

Part of Toronto's fast growing gay population, began splitting away from the traditional gay village in the late 1980's some joining their queer brothers and sisters in the east end (Leslieville) and majority moving to the west end Toronto City Wards 14, 18 and 19. A network of communities where the Gay and Lesbian community is completely and seamlessly integrated without having to be isolate or group themselves in one neighbourhood. This new non city designated queer village is more of an attitude than an identity; new and radical, and has a thriving underground gay scene. The residents are a mix of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and hetrosexual gay friendly. Toronto's queer west village is not so much a part of the city as a collection of small villages; Little Italy, Little Portugal, Parkdale Liberty Village, Queen West (Soho), Roncesvalles Village and recently in old Brockton village triangle on Dundas West.

Queer Life in West Toronto

The late Toronto gay businessman George Hislop (June 3, 1927 – October 8, 2005) old enough to recall not only an 85 cent entry fee at the Oak Leaf on Bathurst Street but, in his Swansea childhood west of High Park, the Mineral Baths as "The Minnies," George spent his life learning it. On the gay circuit, limited as it long was, and in the much wider gay world he helped create, teaching it. It is a subtle knowledge, the sort gay men also have of parks that appear, to the everyday wanderer, devoid of erotic life. Hislop past away in the Fall of 2005

Bathhouse Culture

There were swimming baths (in their own category by 1940: "Bathing Beaches & Pools"): The City Free Baths east of Parkdale, 1889 to 1911 (likely swimming: it was on the lakeshore); the High Park Mineral Baths commonly known as the Minnies, across from High Park at Bloor Street and Gothic Avenue, listed from 1907 to 1960, By 1922 there was Sunnyside, the famed amusement park at the head of Humber Bay, open until 1955, its Bathing Pavilion splendid accommodation for swimmers long unhoused. Few local baths have seen such a clear shift in their intended clientele.

The Oak Leaf Steam Baths 216 Bathurst St.Bathurst north of Queen -- opened as the Oakview, likely by 1939 -- has long served immigrant men, many Jewish: a piece on it, as an icon, in the December 2001 issue of Toronto Life was titled: "Who gives a schvitz?" Yet gay men have long schvitzed too, even if, as R M Vaughan wrote, the closest thing there "to a gay liberation pink triangle is a Dorito mashed into the carpet." Or to the Modern at 392 Spadina, by 1969 there for 30 years; the Ideal, 471-473 Dundas West, 20 years there by 1969; the Sanitary, at 410-412 Bathurst Street, 1933 to 1968.

These men were gay. They had gone to these baths looking for other men. Knowing they would find them; knowing they might have sex with them, maybe right there. But these baths were not, ostensibly, gay baths. The Oak Leaf Steam Bath at 216 Bathurst Street went out of business in May 2015, due to a legal dispute between owners, it had been in operation for 75 years.

Bush Queens (Park Sex)

For the last 40 years there has been only the cottaging and anonymous cruising. In the public parking lot on the west side of the Argonaut Rowing Club on the Lakeshore or  the wooded area on the west side of Trinity Bellwoods park, south end of High Park and Budapest Park on the Lakeshore (Sunnyside) Dufferin and Crossways mall washrooms, where closeted homosexuals and married bisexual men go for sex. Public sex is still a very risky proposition because it is still basically illegal. There's a chance of becoming HIV, and there has been some park bashings over the years, mostly unreported, Police and Community harassment. Kenn Zeller a teacher at Western Technical School, was kicked to death in High Park in 1985 by local homophobic teens. Evidence at trial revealed that, the five teenagers had agreed to go to the park to "beat up a fag". The events were made into a play called "Steel Kiss".

The Suburbs

Mississauga, Peel region,  just west of Toronto had a successful gay & lesbian social, political club 1976-1992, called G.E.M. - Gay Equality in Mississauga, they met at the Unitarian Hall at Highway 10 & and South Service Road where they held monthly dances. G.E.M. attracted many from the LGBT community in the former Borough of Etobicoke now part of West Toronto and downtown Toronto.. Another LGBT social club sprang up in Etobicoke, between 1991-1994 called GALA West, Gay & Lesbian Association West. In 1992-1994 there was a Metropolitan Community Church located in Mississauga, called M.C.C. Chrysalis with Reverend Marcia Perryman as pastor. Reverend Perryman later went on to set-up a new MCC in Barrie Ontario. There was a gay dance bar that opened 1992 in Port Credit called Buttons, later changing it's name to Go West (Opening as western styled honky-tonk lesbian bar) was located 105 Lakeshore Road, just past Highway 10, and went out of business in 1995.

West end Queer Culture

The original neighbourhood focus existed in the Queen West area in the late 1960s, where known gay bars (called "beer taverns" at the time) and coffee houses formed a social fabric. No formal group formed until 1992 when the Gay and Lesbian Association of Parkdale was founded and met weekly at The Rhino Bar and Grill, 1249 Queen St W monthly dances were held on third floor in Skylight Room. .The lesbians in the group were the social activists. The men more interested monthly dances and house parties for guys under 40. Since there was no formal structure, to the group it folded in 1997. A new gay and lesbian social club formed on October 7, 2000, Calling themselves Temenos West, (Temenos meaning sacred space), the ten member group started meeting in a room at Emmanuel Howard Park United Church (Now called Roncesvalles United) 214 Wright Avenue at Roncesvalles.

The Group left the church because they didn't want to be just a church group, changed group name to Gay West Community Network on January 1st. 2001 and moved operations to a building in Brockton Village Neighbourhood (Ward 18). serving Parkdale-High Park, Brockton and Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhoods. Gay West began hosting community events such as Pride Toronto West which later became Queer West Fest a ten day arts festival, public discussion groups (Java Knights), board games for gay seniors, film festival, poetry nights (Smash Words Festival) a bicycle club, alternaqueer concerts and a neighbourhood resource web site. etc.

Many westenders, didn't want to down to go to Church St gay village, all the time. The question most often asked was: Why couldn't we have, something similar in our own neighbourhood?

In October 2007 a three member committee was formed (J.Collautti, B.Dunn, M. Pare) . An ad was place in community papers, seeking Board Members. Thirty people applied interviews were done at Rhino Bar and Grill on Queen St W.. The committee chose ten of the people, for an interim Board. Many meetings were held between October 2007 and March 1st 2008, deciding the direction for Gay West Community Network. Should it be a 519 type community centre or something else?

Incorporation Objectives: To produce performing arts festivals and events for the purposes of educating and advancing the public’s understanding and appreciation of performing arts and to educate artists through participation in such festivals and related workshops.

It is now known as, Queer West, Legal name: (Gay West Community Network Inc.) incorporated on April 7, 2008 as not for profit Ontario Charity. A nine member Board was elected and new Bylaws approved on April 28, 2008. Minutes of Incorporation Board meeting The nine Founding Directors were; C. J. Nash (BrockU), B. Dunn, M. F. Pare, J. Collautti, N. Fuks, S. Betz, W. Kenndy, G. Estsphan and K. Grafingr

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