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Toronto plays host to one of the largest Pride events in North America, and this year the world is coming to join the celebration as WorldPride, a 10-day festival across the GTA, kicks off June 20.
From the first Pride in 1971 to the first same-sex weddings in 2001, here is a look at some of the key moments in the city's queer history.
1971: First Toronto Pride
Before the first Dyke March (1996) made space specifically for queer women, before the first Blockorama (1998) staked out the role of Black and Caribbean LBGTQ communities, before the first Trans March (2009) – there was the first Pride. While the official anniversary is recorded in 1981, in fact the first celebration in Toronto was held on Aug. 1, 1971 with a picnic at Hanlan’s Point. Organized by the Community Homophile Association of Toronto and Toronto Gay Action, it brought together 300 celebrants with flags and banners, including a lace tablecloth banner proclaiming: “Canada the True, North, and Gay.”
1977: Emanuel Jaques
On Aug. 1, 1977, police found the body of a 12-year-old shoeshine boy named Emanuel Jaques on the roof of a body rub parlour on Yonge Street across from the then-new Eaton Centre. He had been raped and murdered. The crime mobilized what became known as the Shoeshine Boy Protests and ignited a push for the cleanup of the Yonge Street strip’s sex industry. Although the men eventually convicted had little connection to the local gay community, their crimes were widely described in the press as a homosexual killing and created a backlash, with a petition circulating within days headed: “Stamp Out Gays and Body Rubs.”
“Reports on the murder tend to emphasize that homosexuals were involved. … It links in people’s minds that this is homosexual activity,” warned George Hislop, director of the Community Homophile Association and the object of death threats when the story broke.
1979: Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
Buddies, as it is affectionately known, is the largest and longest-running queer theatre company in the world. It was founded by Sky Gilbert, Matt Walsh, and Jerry Ciccoritti, and over the years it has nurtured Canadian artists such as Ann-Marie MacDonald, Atom Egoyan, Daniel MacIvor, Pretty Porky and Pissed Off, R. Kelly Clipperton, and Kitty Neptune. The theatre is, in its own words, “unapologetically political, fiercely pro-sexual, and fundamentally anti-establishment.” Its company has produced many award-winning plays; it has also hosted sex dungeon parties and club nights – it is truly a unique queer Toronto institution.
1980: George Hislop runs for city council
George Hislop was a pioneering activist who organized the first gay rights demonstration on Parliament Hill, founded the Community Homophile Association of Toronto and was the champion who won survivor pension benefits for gays and lesbians. Mr. Hislop was also the first out LGBT person to run for City Hall in the country and the first LGBT candidate for any political office in Ontario. He beat out Jack Layton for a nomination for city councillor, but was ultimately defeated by Dan Heap.
1981 and 2000: The bathhouse raids
On Feb. 5, 1981, in a raid called “Operation Soap,” Toronto police officers surged through bathhouses in the Gay Village, smashing doors with crowbars and sledgehammers and hurling epithets at the citizens they were rounding up. The resulting arrest of more than 300 men was the largest mass arrest in Canada since the 1970 October Crisis. But where the queer community had uneasily tolerated police interference in the past, these raids marked a turning point for the community – the beginning of a nation-wide LGBT rights movement that was inspired by previous civil-rights and liberation movements.
Eighteen years later, but grounded very much in the sexual and political ideals that sprang from the 1981 protests, queer women began to hold semi-annual bathhouse events in Toronto. On Sept. 15, 2000, police officers raided the fourth of these events. When the women-only party was in full swing, five male police officers, allegedly checking for liquor violations, spent more than an hour searching the multilevel complex. There were 355 participants, in varying states of undress gathered at the time. The resulting legal complaint by some of the bathhouse organizers resulted in Justice Peter Hryn staying the charges against two of the organizers and comparing the officers’ entry into the club to a strip search. The police were forced to pay $350,000, issue an apology from the five officers who conducted the raid, and a commitment from the force to beef up sensitivity training for its 7,260 members.
1988: AIDS Action Now!
AIDS Action Now! was the brainchild of legendary scholar, gay-rights activist and former ACT chair Michael Lynch. From the first signs of the epidemic, Mr. Lynch was writing for The Body Politic, urging the gay community to protest and wage all-out campaigns against a glacially slow response from a government that saw this as a “gay disease.” By the mid-1980s, AIDS Action Now! dedicated itself to direct action, pushing for access to experimental drugs and anonymous testing, denouncing government inaction on AIDS (Brian Mulroney was a favourite target), and demanding access to health care for HIV-positive prisoners. Today, with treatment widely available in no small part thanks to AIDS Action Now!’s early work, the group focuses on new forms of discrimination, such as HIV-non-disclosure.
1994: Defeat of Bill 167
Ontario’s first gay and lesbian rights bill would have provided most of the same rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples in the province, extending employment, inheritance and insurance benefits to same-sex counterparts. Introduced on May 19, it narrowly passed first reading, but was defeated on second reading on June 9, by a vote of 68-59 when Liberal opposition leader Lynn MacLeod, who had first supported the bill, voted against it. When the bill was defeated, LGBT activists in the gallery protested and were ejected by OPP officers who had donned latex gloves. At that summer’s Pride March, parade-goers staged the largest LGBT political action in Canadian history – 50,000 marchers wrapping a pink ribbon and forming a human chain around the legislative assembly.
1998: Mayor Mel marches
Leather men whooped, topless women waved and drag queens blew kisses at him. Mayor Mel Lastman, the millionaire senior from the suburbs, was the unlikely star of the 1998 Pride Parade. “I cannot justify saying I’m the mayor of all the people in Toronto if I don’t participate. How can I walk in one parade and not walk in another one?” Mr. Lastman asked before the march. Doug Kerr, WorldPride Human Rights Conference co-chair, saw this as a symbolic turning point for the city: “LGBT communities had overwhelmingly supported [Barbara] Hall in 1997, the first post-amalgamation election. That Lastman, a suburban somewhat conservative-ish old guy who didn’t get our votes, would join the downtown queers in their parade sent a positive message across the city and maybe even the country … I remember thinking that we were turning a corner towards a more inclusive city.”
2000-2006: The Vazaleen dance parties
For six years, hedonistic, political and community-oriented revellers came together under one “army of lovers” banner at Vazaleen (later changed after copyright infringement cautions) dance parties, primarily at Lee’s Palace.
The creation of artist/activist Will Munro, his vision was to rip out the stitches that bordered LGBTQ communities. Before Vazaleen, it was rare for queer event to transgress the Church-Wellesley Gay Village, or mix ages, genders, sex, orientation, political ideologies, and music genres. “Everything I do in nightlife is a critique of mainstream gay nightlife,” Mr. Munro said in a 2003 interview. Vazaleen featured a dizzying number of acts while showcasing some of the best emerging talent of the era: The Hidden Cameras and Peaches owe their early exposure to Vazaleen.
Jan. 14, 2001: Same-sex weddings
With 850 spectators, including 60 representatives of the media, and tight security, Rev. Brent Hawkes of the Metropolitan Community Church presided over a double same-sex wedding of Elaine and Anne Vautour and Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell. Defying assault by a woman who jumped up from a front pew, Mr. Hawkes married the same-sex couples by using the Marriages Act, which stipulates that a marriage licence can be issued if the banns are published on three successive Sundays without anyone raising a valid objection (in fact there were objections from conservative Christians on the second and third occasions, but they did not site legal reasons). There were other cases before the courts that were brought forward by individuals, but Metropolitan was the first church in Canada to seek the ability to marry its congregants through the banns. “A same-sex marriage simply doesn’t meet the definition and as such we’re not going to be certifying it,” said Ontario Registrar-General Bob Runciman in response to the registering of the weddings. This initiative, in a Riverdale church, was a key contribution in the early fight that would pave the way toward legalizing same-sex marriage in Canada.
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