“I’ve watched so many queer spaces disappear”: How Torontonians feel about the scrapped development plans for Hanlan’s Point

“I’ve watched so many queer spaces disappear”: How Torontonians feel about the scrapped development plans for Hanlan’s Point

Protesters explain why they pushed back against the city’s decision to build an amphitheatre on the island

In 2020, the city began designing the Toronto Island Park Master Plan, a framework to upgrade the island’s infrastructure, address flooding and better accommodate its 1.5 million annual visitors. As part of the plan, it was considering building a formalized event space on the lawn at Hanlan’s Point. If approved, the new space would feature a naturalized amphitheatre and access to a power generator, making it easier to host big events. 

But, just as the plans were about to be finalized, the city faced some serious pushback from members of the queer community, who worried that the development would encroach on their space and potentially put them in danger. Last night, during a meeting at The 519 on Church Street, the city decided to reverse course, killing the proposal due to public opposition. We chatted with meeting attendees to find out why they showed up and how they feel about their win.

Cheri DiNovo, United Church minister and former MPP

“I came tonight to make sure that queer spaces stay queer spaces and that they’re not sold out for the almighty dollar. Hanlan’s Point has been a place for queer people to gather since the ’50s. My friends and I were there in 1971, for the first Pride. We were the young radicals. Hanlan’s is a beautiful ecological place. We don’t want yet another stadium for yet another concert venue; there are lots of other venues in this town. We know what happens when you host events on beaches—it destroys them.

“It’s good that they’re changing the plan. They’re doing it because of people like us showing up and using our voices. We need that area protected, both environmentally and historically. It’s still a great place to go cruise, be naked and have fun.”

Dennis Findlay, retired baker

“In the ’70s, I went to Hanlan’s Point two or three times a week. Now that I’m 76, I don’t go there often. I’m not a beach bunny. I’m far too white—I would burn to a crisp. The islands are not a place to bring crowds of people for an event. When you have a big festival, the ferries get overloaded and people misbehave and destroy the natural environment. The noise disturbs the people who live on the island and those visiting the beaches. Smaller festivals are fine, but permanent infrastructure would mean that for-profit organizations would no longer have to spend money to get electricity out there.

“The city said it’s changing course, but I don’t trust them. I’m sorry, but I’ve been working around the city long enough. We fought the cops in 1981. We looked after ourselves during HIV. We are looking after ourselves again. You have to be persistent because the city says one thing and then does another. We don’t want any nonsense, like them saying, ‘Oh, we’ll walk this back’—then later the plan shows up again. Remove it and don’t bring it back. The community never asked for it. The only people who want it are business people who want to make money. They can do that on their own dime.”

James Dubro, crime writer

“Back in the ’70s, Hanlan’s was one of the top places to go and meet other people—cruise, relax, hang out. I went every weekend. If the police ever came by to make sure people weren’t naked, which we were from time to time, or drinking alcohol, which we were from time to time, we had a little system to alert one another. Occasionally, they would ticket someone, but we got away with a lot, especially considering how homophobic police were back then.

“I haven’t been to Hanlan’s since Covid, but prior to that, I was going a couple of times a month. They shouldn’t even think about putting a concert venue on the island. It’s always been a wonderful place to go and relax. There’s no reason for any commercialization beyond a hot dog stand. There are plenty of other places in Toronto to have concerts. It’s great that the city changed its decision. I hope they stick with it. People are really upset—we came out to oppose the plan in the middle of a blizzard. Some of us are hardy from the old days.”

Javier Davila, teacher

“I’m here to acknowledge the rich queer history of Hanlan’s Point. It’s also important to acknowledge that the peninsula was first claimed by the Mississaugas of the Credit. The Toronto Islands are Indigenous land. If anything, it should be the Mississaugas of the Credit who are directing any decisions about what happens to them. I’ve been going to the island for about 30 years. It’s where I’ve built community and felt a sense of belonging. It’s where queer people have found intimacy. It’s been a refuge away from the city.

“An event space on the island would lead to more policing and more security, which could increase violence against Black, Indigenous, queer and trans people. I don’t know if they will actually kill the plans. I don’t trust the city. People spoke up against the increase in the police budget, but they didn’t listen to that. Community members and medical experts come together in support of more access to warming centres, but the city didn’t listen to that. The plan for Hanlan’s is an ongoing process of colonization and extracting profit from the land at all costs. So, if they say they’re stepping back, I believe it’s only to quell disruption and protest. I can assure you that queer people and Indigenous people will stand up to protect it no matter what.”

Eric Karl Blank, hair stylist

“I’m at Hanlan’s Point a lot. Starting in April, I go two or three times a week, until Thanksgiving. I’ve been living in Toronto for almost 12 years. I’ve watched so many queer venues disappear because of commercialization, gentrification, condos rising and clubs shutting down. Hanlan’s is the birthplace of Pride, a beautiful oasis, a chance to escape the city. There are many reasons why it’s special to so many people. Losing its unique quality would be criminal, especially if the city is looking to turn a profit from nature yet again.

“We’re also looking at this from an environmental point of view. Take, for example, the piping plover, an endangered bird species that nests on Hanlan’s point. Building a giant event space will encroach on their home, making it harder for them to live. I don’t trust the city when they say they’re killing the proposal. If there are people pushing back against it, maybe it will get delayed by a few months. But, at the end of the day, people are just going to want to keep making money.”

Tim McCaskell, retired education worker

“I’m a long-time queer resident of Toronto who has used Hanlan’s over the years. If you invest in a full-time concert venue, then, in order to recoup your capital, you need people there as much as possible. Otherwise, you’ve wasted all of that money producing something that nobody uses. And these aren’t necessarily going to be queer-organized events.

“You could end up with conflict between the beachgoers around Hanlan’s, the queer community and whoever is attending whatever event may be happening at the venue. In 2021, a queer person was attacked near Hanlan’s. We shouldn’t create more opportunities for that kind of conflict by bringing together two groups of people that wouldn’t necessarily come together otherwise. If the city is walking the proposal back, that’s a real victory. If we hadn’t been pestering them like this, I think the concert venue would still be part of the plan.”

Raylah Moonias, art hobbyist

“My concern is how the proposal could destroy a pristine part of the island. I’m worried about the effects it could have on the birds and the animals. It’s unfortunate that capitalism means the city would put a concert venue wherever it wanted. I like the islands as they are. I had a wonderful time with a friend when we visited recently. I don’t see why they can’t just have events on the mainland. Killing the plan sounds like a good idea.”

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.