The 10 biggest moments in LGBT Toronto in the last 50 years
To celebrate Toronto Life’s 50th year, we’re counting down the biggest Toronto moments of the last half-century. This month: a ranking of the milestones, raids and parades that mattered most. Disagree with our choice for number one? Have your say at the bottom
THE VAZALEEN EFFECT 2000
The party to end all parties
10 The late artist Will Munro knew how to throw a party. Peaches, Nina Hagen, Vaginal Davis and scores of other artists played his raunchy Vazaleen bashes, which unapologetically dragged gay nightlife out of the Village and united every corner of queer Toronto: punks, drag queens, goth kids, art freaks and closeted observers.
THE PINK PAPER 1971
The spunky, smutty Body Politic was born
9 The first issue of the tabloid billed itself as a “gay liberation newspaper,” printing manifestos, agitprop and lewd cartoons. The publication’s rebellious streak provoked constant controversies—none as hostile as the raid, arrests and six-year legal battle over writer Gerald Hannon’s scandalously sympathetic profile of pederasts, “Men Loving Boys Loving Men.”
Sex, drugs and Queer as Folk
8 Porn, AIDS and every conceivable sexual position—nothing was off-limits on Queer as Folk. The revolutionary series was set in Pittsburgh but filmed almost exclusively in Toronto (the characters’ go-to bar was even called Woody’s). It was honest and subversive, providing a window into the realities of gay life (and sex).
IT TAKES A VILLAGE 1970s
The arrival of Church-Wellesley
7 The 519: The city opened the 519 Church Street Community Centre in 1975. It quickly became an HQ for LGBT groups, a gathering ground for queer youth and home to Yuk Yuk’s comedy club, where both Jim Carrey and Howie Mandel performed.
The Barn: Once a religious bookstore, the Barn became the Village’s wildest, sweatiest, most beloved bar in 1976. The place was shabby and weathered, but the soundtrack was loud and the parties were legendary.
Glad Day Bookshop: Glad Day Bookshop American Jearld Moldenhauer ran the country’s first LGBT bookshop out of his apartment and a backyard shed before settling at Yonge and Wellesley in 1970. It was the Village’s de facto literary hub.
Buddies in Bad Times: The non-profit theatre company helped launch the career of perennial provocateur Sky Gilbert, its co-founder and original artistic director, and still provides a stage for adventurous, queer-centric art.
GAY HAVEN 1977
When Canada opened its doors to queer foreigners
6 Until 1977, Canadian immigration law barred LGBT people from settling here, categorizing them alongside “prostitutes…pimps or persons coming to Canada for these or any other immoral purposes.” George Hislop, Toronto’s foremost gay-rights activist, helped convince the Department of Immigration to repeal that provision, effectively turning Toronto into a sanctuary for gay refugees.
THE AIDS EPIDEMIC 1982
The virus that shook the world
5 The first cases of AIDS in Canada were reported in 1982. Within five years, more than 2,000 people had been diagnosed with the disease. Most politicians were unsupportive: when Jack Layton asked city council for $2 million to fight the disease, councillor Tony O’Donohue said, “[I don’t] want to blow taxpayers’ money trying to change the lifestyle of people who are promiscuous.” The community ended up taking control of their own fate, forming their own organizations like the AIDS Committee of Toronto.
THE BIRTH OF PRIDE 1981
The heated protest that morphed into a parade
4 A month after the bathhouse raids, 1,000 protesters flocked to the St. Lawrence Market, where NDP MP Svend Robinson—who would later become the first openly gay member of parliament—denounced the raids, and Margaret Atwood quipped, “what have the Toronto police got against cleanliness?” At the time, the so-called Gay Freedom Rally seemed like one among many protests. It turned out to be the first Pride event. Thirty-five years later, the march is an LGBT touchstone, a city-sanctioned spectacle and this year, for the first time, a month-long celebration.
NO PLACE FOR THE STATE 1969
Trudeau gave gays the prime ministerial thumbs-up
3 When the Trudeau government tabled Bill C-150, the House of Commons debated over one point: the decriminalization of homosexuality. Critics called it “a communist plot to prevent reproduction,” while supporters argued that psychiatry, not prisons, should be the answer to the “disease” of homosexuality. Still, the bill foreshadowed a wave of shifting attitudes—not least of which came from Trudeau himself, who had defended it by saying, “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”
CANADA’S STONEWALL 1981
The bathhouse raids galvanized a closeted community
2 On a cold February night, 200 cops grabbed sledgehammers and crowbars, stormed four downtown bathhouses and arrested more than 300 men. In response, 3,000 gay men exploded onto the streets, shouting obscenities at 52 Division, smashing police cruiser windshields and throwing their bodies against the doors of Queen’s Park. Until that moment, most gay Torontonians had kept their sexuality closeted and their behaviour underground. The raids spawned a community of activists and an unstoppable movement.
THE FIRST GAY WEDDING 2003
The Michaels made history
1 Vows. Rings. Kiss. Done. North America’s first legal same-sex marriage was decades in the making, but it looked more like a shotgun wedding. Immediately after the Ontario Court of Appeal sanctioned the union, crown attorney Michael Leshner married his long-time partner, Michael Stark, in a courthouse cloakroom, joined by a small audience of family, friends, judges and janitors. The couple became the cause’s perma-grinning, Garfunkel-haired poster boys: they marched in the 2003 Pride Parade, their mugs made international news, and their union anticipated the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage two years later. Now there are 21,000 married gay couples in Canada.