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The Pride flag is raised at Nathan Philip Square in Toronto in this undated file photo.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Community leaders, councillors and even some of his staunchest opponents are praising Toronto Mayor Rob Ford for his surprise appearance at an anti-homophobia event, his first public demonstration of support for the gay community.

Excitement rippled through the audience on Thursday when Mr. Ford materialized on City Hall's green roof, where a large crowd had gathered to raise the rainbow flag and mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Cheers, claps and whistles greeted Mr. Ford. "Way to go Mayor Ford!" someone shouted as he stepped to the podium.

"He's demonstrated to the city and to everyone else that the LGBT community is important to him," Kristyn Wong-Tam, Toronto's only openly gay councillor, said afterwards. "I'm extremely proud of the mayor. I think he received a very warm, very loving hero's reception, and certainly we hope to see him at Pride."

The appearance was an about-face for Mr. Ford, one that could mark a thawing of his frosty relations with gay Torontonians.

Mr. Ford was heavily criticized last year for refusing to march in the Pride Parade or attend a single event during Toronto's internationally renowned 10-day Pride festival.

This year, he's already said he'll skip the parade again to go to the cottage with his family, but he left the door open to attending other events in support of the gay community.

However, Thursday's flag-raising wasn't expected to be one of them – the mayor's office had already sent his regrets to the organizers, the Toronto chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

That's why the last-minute reversal was such a shock. Even councillor Gord Perks, who was supposed to read the proclamation in the mayor's stead, didn't know he was being replaced until "about 10 seconds" before Mr. Ford showed up.

"This year, things are going to be a bit different than last year," Mr. Perks told the crowd. "I'm not going to read the proclamation. It's my distinct pleasure to invite Mayor Rob Ford up to read the proclamation [for]International Day Against Homophobia."

Mr. Ford thanked Mr. Perks and stepped to the podium.

"I'd like to thank all my councillor colleagues for being here today, and, most importantly, you for being here and taking part in this absolutely fantastic day," Mr. Ford said.

After proclaiming that the "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirited and transsexual community, like all the communities, are welcomed, safe and valued in this great city we call Toronto," he listened to speeches from, among others, councillor Janet Davis, whose son is gay.

Mr. Ford wouldn't say why he changed his mind. He left the event about half-way through the speeches without answering questions from the throng of reporters that followed him until he returned inside.

Irene Miller, the president of Toronto PFLAG, said she was pleased the mayor found room in his schedule to attend.

"It matters because he is an elected official. It matters that all elected officials, in fact, show. Not just for PFLAG and our partners, but for the citizens of the city," she said. "I was just very happy, as PFLAG parents are every time someone comes round and joins us."

Ms. Miller said she would still love to see Mr. Ford at the Pride Parade.

Kevin Beaulieu, the executive director of Pride Toronto, said he, too, would welcome the mayor at any Pride event.

He called Thursday's appearance a good first step.

"It's hard for a lot of us, actually, to come to our first Pride … we recognize that it's not always easy. But when one does, that's a show of support and a show of solidarity and it should be recognized as such," Mr. Beaulieu said. "I think it's great that he made this gesture."

Councillor Adam Vaughan, usually a harsh critic of the mayor, also had kind words for Mr. Ford – but with a caveat.

"Good on him for showing up finally," he said. "I just hope that those people that used his inability to handle this issue quicker and better, I hope they realize that the rest of the city has no tolerance for that kind of intolerance."

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