by Gordon Nore
One Sunday in the summer of 1994, 21-year-old Kevin Beaulieu was rushing from his job in the suburbs to get his first taste of Toronto’s annual Pride celebration. “The parade was the thing,” he recalls. “It’s a momentous thing when you decide to come to Pride when you haven’t been living openly. I remember getting out of work quite late. I hopped in a car and rushed downtown to see this. But when I got there, it was the tail end of the parade. I was so excited and disappointed. I tried to run down Yonge Street and see what I missed.”
A first for North America
Twenty years later, Kevin Beaulieu is the Executive Director of Pride Toronto, which this year hosts WorldPride. Selected by an international group of Pride organizers known as InterPride, Toronto’s is the fourth WorldPride site and the first in North America. The numbers are simply staggering: Beaulieu says this year’s Sunday parade has 275 registered entries, with an estimated 7000 marchers; 2000 volunteers for the whole festival, up 500 from last year; an office staff expanded from five to ten; and 12 board members. The previous year’s operating budget was $2 million. This year’s expenditures will be closer to $4 million, when considering in-kind donations from corporate sponsors and other donors. Pride Toronto 2013 drew an estimated 1.2 million visitors to the nine-day festival. Kevin’s team this year is preparing for 2 million visitors. Not counting events prior to WorldPride, the festival site will cover 25 city blocks, which include ten free-to-attend open-air entertainment venues.
There is also the Dyke March, held on the Saturday, June 28th, which has been a staple of Pride Toronto since 1996. This year’s Trans** Pride begins with a rally on Friday, June 27th, followed by a march, now in its fifth year at Pride.
“The heart of the celebration of WorldPride,” explains Beaulieu, “is a human rights conference at the University of Toronto, June 25th thru 27th. It’s founded in the ongoing struggle here and around the world. It will bring activists and thinkers from over fifty countries around the world.“
Stonewall Riots spurred Toronto activism
Pride celebrations in Toronto weren’t always so vast, but they certainly were enthusiastic. Gay activist and veteran journalist Gerald Hannon isn’t quite sure what prompted him and others to organize Toronto’s first march of approximately 100 people back in 1972. It might have been the emerging Pride movement in New York City, a legacy of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village. It was the early hours of Sunday, June 28th, after the NYPD brought uniformed officers and paddy wagons to round up the assorted gay men, lesbians and drag queens of the Stonewall Tavern. Unexpectedly, as many observers have recounted, something snapped among Stonewall found-ins and onlookers, and two evenings of rioting in late June would spark a worldwide movement.
Hannon, a former Ryerson professor and co-founder of The Body Politic magazine, remembers, “Everyone was bubbling over the novelty of coming out and being public. We had a community center on Cecil Street, (which was home to the then Community Homophile Association).” In addition to the march, which began at Nathan Phillips Square, “We had an art show. We had coffee houses. We arranged dances.”
The march was partly political. “The prime political issue of the time,” Hannon recalls, “was the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Ontario Human Rights Code, because people could be fired and kicked out of their apartments for being gay.”
Advocating for safe social spaces
“The prime personal motive was safe social environments.” Gay bars and clubs in those days, typically straight-owned, were still being raided. Found-ins, even if they knew their rights, were fearful of asserting them.
Safe social spaces would continue to be an issue for queer Torontonians for many years – coming to a head with the 1981 bathhouse raids, known as Operation Soap. One-hundred-and-fifty police officers of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Department descended upon four bathhouses on February 5th, 1981. Armed with crowbars and sledgehammers, police smashed locks and doors to private rooms. Some 300 men were arrested in what had been the largest mass arrest in Canada since the invocation of the War Measures Act during the 1971 FLQ crisis. Toronto Sun newspaper editor Peter Worthington published the names of arrestees – many of them likely closeted from family, friends and co-workers.
“Everything changed at the moment,” says Hannon. “It was our Russian revolution. We didn’t know that would be the case. We met in the morning of February 6th at the offices of the The Body Politic. A lot of people thought we should do something.” Hannon made a flier on the typesetting machine. Three thousand people turned up to a rally the next night. Four thousand protesters marched from Queen’s Park to 52 Division on February 20th. A Gay Freedom Rally was staged on March 6th, where speakers included Margaret Atwood and NDP MP Svend Robinson. That year, Pride Toronto was incorporated.
Seeking equal rights
While Kevin Beaulieu was trying to catch up with the 1994 Pride Toronto march, 21-year-old Albertan Cheryl Dobinson was in it. Newly out, Cheryl recalls it very specifically as a political march, rather than a parade. “It was Bill 167 that was quite a unifying theme around then,” she recalls. “There were all these people with signs. People just showed up. I carpooled with strangers to get there.”
Bill 167 was the Equality Rights Statute Amendment Actof 1994, which would have given same-sex couples many of the same rights as different-sex common-law couples. Although a matter of party policy, then-Premier Bob Rae called a “free vote” in the Provincial Parliament, leading to the bill’s defeat and sparking outrage among queer and allied Ontarians. A class-action suit by four Ontario couples would force a reversal from the Mike Harris government in 1995.
Dobinson’s activism and enthusiasm for Pride has continued to this day. She has been conducting research on bisexual health for a decade and is the Director of Community Programming and Research for Planned Parenthood Toronto. A veteran of the Saturday Dyke March since 1996, Dobinson has been active in organizing Toronto Bisexual Network’s Pride events.
Andrea Houston has been a journalist for 15 years and a familiar sight at Pride events. Carrying a microphone with a camera operator trailing her, she has dashed fearlessly between floats and marchers on the move to cover the spectacle. Her work has appeared in The Toronto Star and Globe and Mail newspaper, NOW and Toronto Life magazines, Daily Xtra, and on radio station AM640, to name a few.
Houston’s first Pride was in 2000. “I wasn’t really out then,” she says. “I was progressive and lefty. Pride was when I saw what the queer community was really about – beyond the party. It was a celebration of resistance. At the time we didn’t have same sex marriage, so that was top of the mind for me.”
Houston considers carefully the question of whether Pride has become less political and more celebratory, less edgy and more commercial: “It’s what we’ve worked for, so I don’t want to use the word offensive. We have every right to a big-ass party. But when I see banks and corporations encroaching on this, it makes me uncomfortable. When you see the TD boys dancing on floats – and they are beautiful boys [laughs] – we don’t see TD girls or TD trans people. It’s a very singular idea about what it means to be queer.”
“If you make it to one event at Pride,” says Andrea, “Make it the Trans March – which is the purpose of Pride. We don’t have Bill C-279,” which would amend the Canadian Human Rights Code and the Criminal Code to include gender identity. “Our rights aren’t completely won until they’re won everywhere and for everyone.” Houston marched as the Honoured Dyke at Pride Toronto 2012.
Remembering the struggle to get here
Mandy Goodhandy and Todd Klinck, co-owners of Club 120 on Church Street, have been long-term celebrants at Pride, as well as activists for sex-positivity and the rights of sex workers. Mandy, a transsexual entertainer, comedian, and author, has made Toronto her home for thirty years. Her first Pride was in the late eighties, and her fans today might be surprised to know that she experiences anxiety in crowds:
“I was on a float put together by Club Colby. I dreaded being involved, but once the parade starts moving, and you see all those people looking proud and being supportive, you can’t help but get carried away with emotion. You remember what the struggle was like getting to this point, and even if just for the time length of that parade, you feel safe and proud of not just yourself, but the people attending that parade – that don’t give a damn what people think of them.”
Mandy, like many marchers, draws from the energy of the crowd: “It’s important the people who lead and march in the Pride Parade, remember that it is not just about them; it is about all those brave and excited people who wave and cheer from the sidelines. We need to be clapping and waving for them, not just the other way around.”
She and business partner Todd Klinck have, for many years, marched with the staff of their club and members of TNT!MEN. TNT stands for Totally Naked Toronto – a men’s group which hosts a number of social events and whose members were pivotal in getting Hanlon’s Point recognized as a clothing optional beach.
Todd Klinck was the winner of the Nineteenth Annual Three Day Novel Writing Contest, a Genie-nominated screenwriter, journalist and former sex worker. Todd’s first Pride was in 1991, when he was seventeen. Despite having a “supportive, feminist mom,” Todd, like many young queers, felt isolated. “Until you see and meet and talk to other queers, that you aren’t alone isn’t tangible. Attending an event like Toronto Pride with thousands of queers from all walks of life had a big impact on my confidence. I came back to Windsor elated and excited for my future.
Klinck feels it’s important for different groups to support each other. “We started a tradition amongst the staff and friends of the club to march in the parade as a contingent of allies, not just queers. The positive energy being directed at the marchers from hundreds of thousands of spectators is overwhelming.”
Among this marching contingent have been Todd’s and Mandy’s straight male club security staff, often joined by their female partners. In 2010, Klinck and Goodhandy were Parade Grand Marshalls carrying a banner supporting the decriminalization of sex work. “And it’s incredible marching with TNT,” he adds, “Because no matter what the right wing media say, the vast, vast majority of the spectators love to see TNT – the cheers of support are awesome.”
Support from family and friends vital
Any discussion of allies to Toronto’s queer LGBTQ communities is not complete without PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays) and the past-President of its Toronto chapter, Irene Miller. Moving to Canada from Scotland, Miller’s first apartment in Toronto was above Quo Vadis restaurant at 375 Church Street, the neighbourhood now known as The Village. Her first Pride celebration was 1978.This was the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade, an event that was made historic being the first time the rainbow flag was displayed, and for being the last time City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone would march. Both fell to an assassin’s bullet later that year.
In 2001, Irene’s son Raymond, a senior in high school, would announce at the dinner table that he had a boyfriend. Irene recalls, “…me asking, ‘What’s he like?’ and [husband] Gary asking ‘What does he do?’ We wanted to meet his boyfriend. That Raymond was gay was unimportant.”
Miller’s involvement in PFLAG came later, after meeting several of Raymond’s friends and seeing queer youth kicked out of their homes. In 2006, one of these friends came to live with the Millers, and the couple became involved in PFLAG to learn “how to support someone who is not your own child, to help them feel good about themselves when their own family is uncomfortable with them.”
Irene and Gary have other fond memories of Pride: There was 2004, when Raymond surprised his parents and sister Crystal when he jumped out of a limo in the parade to greet them. In 2013, when Irene marched as Grand Marshall, her family accompanied her.
“I have never needed our gay son to be straight” she insists. “I do think society in general has more to learn about diversity and that allies can help make change happen when they are visibly and vocally supportive at home and in the workplace. I love both my gay and straight kids and am proud of them for being who they are.”
WorldPride 2014 runs from June 20th to the 29th in Toronto.
WorldPride 2014 Links
*LGBTTIQQ2SA is an acronym used to represent a broad array of identities such as, but not limited to, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, intersex, queer, questioning, two-spirited, and allies.
**Trans is an umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum. It includes, but is not limited to, those community members who identify as transgender, transsexual, Intersex, third gender, two-spirit, genderqueer, genderfluid, gender independent, transvestite, non-binary, and bigender. Source: WorldPrideToronto.com
For the purposes of this article, the acronym LGBTTIQQ2SA is further abbreviated to LGBTQ or the umbrella term “queer,” except where individuals have indicated how they prefer to be identified.
Gordon Nore is an educator, writer and queer activist living in East York, Ontario, with his wife Blanche and several dogs.
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Really enjoyed this history of activism in Toronto! What an honour to host the world pride events. Thanks!
Carol Phillips, Richmond Hill
It’s nearly impossible to find knowledgeable people in this particular subject, however, you
sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks.