Pride Month: Queer History in Toronto

As Pride Month nears its end, our team will continue to publish original content to educate and celebrate pride. This article takes a look at the queer history of Toronto in the form of a timeline of important dates and occurrences.

Toronto’s legacy of being progressive and community-oriented is deeply intertwined with the contributions and history of its queer community. The established timeline ranges from 1947 to 2020, covering some of the most significant moments for Toronto’s queer community and its allies. Read below to learn more!

Toronto’s Queer History – A Timeline

1947: John Herbert, part-time drag queen and Eaton’s employee is arrested in Toronto for being dressed as a woman in public. He is sentenced to 4 months in a reformatory. He is later arrested several more times, and his experiences of abuse in prison served as inspirations for some of the plays he would write later on in life.

1964: Canada’s first gay-positive organizations are established – ASK in Vancouver, and GAY in Toronto.

1969: The first meeting of the University of Toronto’s Homophile Association (UTHA). UTHA is the first post-Stonewall queer organization, and the first of its kind formed at a Canadian university. UTHA worked to educate the community about homosexuality and combatting discrimination in an effort to encourage acceptance. Eventually the group became the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT).

1971: Toronto’s first “Gay Day Picnic” is held at Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Island on August 1st, as a fundraiser to send activists to Ottawa for a 2nd anniversary march marking decriminalization.

Figure 3, 4 & 5 – Gay Day Picnic Hanlan’s Point

1972: On July 9th the 2nd annual Gay Picnic is held as part of a series of events for the first ever Gay Pride Week. The week includes a film night, festival, dance, rally, and a march to Queen’s Park. Also in 1972 a cable community channel in Toronto called Maclean-Hunters airs Coming Out – Canada’s first TV series of LGBTQ+ issues.

Figure 6 – First Gay Pride March

1973: Pride Week is August 17-26th; organizers ask Mayor David Crombie to recognize the event, and ask permission to march on Yonge Street, but both are denied.

1974: Pride Week is August 17-24th, and includes a Pride Picnic on Ward’s Island, a theatre night, and church service at Metropolitan Community Church. More than 100 people march from Allan Gardens to Queen’s Park in an effort to include sexual orientation in the Ontario Human Rights Code.

The mainstream press reports on the events for the first time, with the Globe and Mail misreporting numbers of those involved, and in the mood of the event, characterizing demonstrators as “beating a hasty retreat.”

Figure 9 – The Brunswick Four

Also in 1974, 4 lesbians (Adrienne Potts, Pat Murphy, Sue Wells and Heather Elizabeth) perform “I Enjoy Being A Dyke” at Toronto’s Brunswick Tavern at open mike night. Their rendition of the song caught the attention of the bar’s owner who asks the 4 women to leave the bar. Upon refusal, they are arrested and later referred to as The Brunswick Four.

1976: The Cabbagetown Group Softball League (CGSL) is founded with 4 co-ed teams. The Lesbian Organization of Toronto (LOOT) is formed by a group of activists in an effort to provide lesbians and feminists a safe space in the community for support, culture and politics.

Figure 10 – Cabbagetown Softball League

In 1976, no Pride events take place, but the 4th Annual Gay conference for Canada and Quebec is held in Toronto.

1977: LOOT opens a community safe house. The same year teen Emmanuel Jacques is raped and murdered on Yonge Street, and a significant backlash is levelled against the city’s gay community.

1978: American anti-gay activist Anita Bryant visits the Peoples Church in North York. The gay community quickly organizes a rally at St. Lawrence Market on January 14th (the eve of Bryant’s appearance) and a march to Nathan Phillips Square, drawing over 1,000 people. The following day a group protested outside of the Peoples Church.

Figure 11 & 12 – Anita Bryant Protests Toronto

1980: Unfortunately, LOOT closes its community house and organization on May 1st.

1981: 4 bathhouses in Toronto are raided by the Toronto Police Service in “Operation Soap” where 306 people are arrested, the largest mass arrest to occur in the City’s history. Extensive property damage is inflicted by police, and the names of those arrested are made public by the police and local media. The following day, a major demonstration is held at Yonge and Wellesley by hundreds of Toronto’s queer and ally community members, closing down the street. Activists start working, and the group Gays & Lesbians Against the Right is formed.

Figures 13, 14 & 15 – Protest sign/ Police force/ Arrest

The event is now considered to be one of the most crucial turning points in Toronto’s queer history, as an unprecedented show of community mobilization taking place to protest police conduct. One of the marches during this mass mobilization is now widely recognized as the first Toronto Pride event, legally incorporating the day. On June 28th, at Grange Park 1,500 people celebrate, despite the politically-charged atmosphere throughout the year.

1983: Pride is held on June 26th at King’s College Circle, University of Toronto, due to previous complaints from Grange Park area residents. Over 3,000 people show up to celebrate.

1984: For the first time, Church Street is closed and people dance in the streets.

1985: The first AIDS walk is held, with a walk up Church Street, with 50 attendants. Alternatively, Pride attracts over 8,000 attendees for festivities in Cawthra Park, even though Mayor Art Eggleton refuses to proclaim Pride Week.

1986: Again, Mayor Art Eggleton refuses to proclaim Pride Week, yet this year, over 10,000 Torontonian’s celebrate in Cawthra Park. The first Pride Committee is established to organize the event, and for the first time, the Pride program and logo focuses on AIDS.

Figure 16 – AIDS Protest 1986

Despite the AIDS pandemic inducing mass hysteria and creating divisiveness for those with the disease, corporate sponsors support Pride for the first time and help meet organizers to meet the growing expenses of the event.

1987: Sexual orientation is officially included in the Ontario Human Rights Code. For the 3rd year in the row, Mayor Eggleton refuses to issue a proclamation, and yet again, even more people attend Toronto Pride (15,000).

1988: Unsurprisingly, for the 4th year in a row, Mayor Eggleton refuses official proclamation. Regardless, 20,000 people show up, and Pride Day gets its first parade.

A group of activists hold a public meeting at a Toronto high school, demanding better healthcare and access to medication for those living with HIV. This activist group becomes AIDS Action Now! (AAN), doing street demonstrations and direct political action used by the LGBTQ+ community in the aftermath of the bathhouse raids (1981). Additionally, a temporary Memorial is installed in Cawthra Park.

AAN holds landmark demonstrations at Toronto General Hospital to protest the drug trials that were playing “Russian roulette” with AIDS patients, delaying the release of a Pentamidine, a life-saving medicine already tested and approved by the FDA.

1990: For the 6th year in a row, Mayor Eggleton refuses to proclaim Pride Week. After proclaiming “Official Muppet Baby Day,” the Pride Committee files a discriminatory complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Toronto’s City Council votes to officially proclaim Pride Day, and then recants. Unfortunately, the Ontario Human Rights Commission rules against the Committee, who is now left with $10,000 in legal fees.

Figure 20 – Muppet Babies

Anyone else confused by Eggleton’s love for Muppet Babies?

1991: The Toronto City Council proclaims Pride Day for the first time! 80,000 people celebrate. In November, openly gay candidate Kyle Rae wins a seat as City Councillor for Ward 6.

Figure 21 – Kyle Rae

1992: The Supreme Court rules that under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Canadian Human Rights Acts, that queer individuals cannot be excluded from entering the Canadian Forces. The federal government does not appeal the ruling. This year, over 120,000 people attend Pride events.

1993: Over 150,000 take part in Toronto’s Pride Day. The parade begins at Carlton Street at Church, moves over to Yonge, up to Bloor, and back over to Church. The Metropolitan Community Church holds services in the morning at Maple Leaf Gardens.

1994: The Church Street Business Association lines Church Street with permanent rainbow flags. At the Pride March, marchers staged the largest LGBTQ+ political action in Canadian History, with 50,000+ people wrapping a pink ribbon and forming a human chain around the legislative assembly. Overall, 400,000 people come to celebrate.

1995: The Pride Committee collapses in February due to a mass resignation of a majority of the Board of Directors in a vote of non-confidence against the board itself. However, a new committee is formed and within 15 weeks manages to organize Toronto and North America’s largest Pride Day to-date with over 650,000 celebrants.

New Police Chief David Boothby allows 4 lanes on Yonge Street to close for the parade, which takes over 3 hours, and MPs Svend Robinson, Bill Graham, and Mayor Barbara Hall speak on stage and walk the parade.

1996: This year, 750,000 people celebrated during Pride Day and throughout the 3-hour parade. The first ever Dyke March is held with a turnout of 5,000, even with police projecting an attendance of 50. The Pride stag runs for 2 days, at 11 hours each, featuring queer music. The City of Toronto and the Pride Committee study Pride’s economic impact and how that over $46M is spent by Pride tourists.

Figure 22 – Dyke March Toronto

1998: Blockorama is created by Blackness Yes!, an organization formed by a collective who saw a need for Black and Caribbean representation at Pride. Blockorama is a space at Pride Toronto that showcases Black queer and trans history and creativity through musical performances and dance. This year Transgender Day of Remembrance was established in response to the murder of Rita Hester.

Figure 23 – Rita Hester

2000: In September, 5 police officers raid Pussy Palace, a woman’s bathhouse event in Toronto. The raid and charges brought against the Pussy Palace organizers were condemned by the LGBTQ+ community, with the Pussy Palace Panty Picket Protest occurring on October 28th outside of police headquarters. Protestors underwear and posters with sayings such. as “Sluts can’t be shamed” and “Peeping @ Panties”.

Video 1 – Pussy Palace Picket Protest

2001: For the first time, the City’s Official Proclamation of Pride Week includes bisexuals, transsexuals and transgendered persons. With over 850 onlookers, including 60 media representatives and tight security, Reverend Brent Hawkes of the Metropolitan Community Church presided over a double same-sex wedding.

Figure 24 – Metropolitan Community Church Double Same-Sex Wedding

2002: On January 31st Judge Peter Hryn declared that the 5 male officers in the Pussy Palace Raid violated the Constitutional rights of the women attending the event.  It was his opinion that women were entitled to a safe place to explore their sexuality without the imposition of men. He went on to compare the raid to a strip search, and that it was “one of the clearest cases” of inappropriate law enforcement.  All charges were dropped, the Police were forced to pay $350,000 and issue an apology from the officers who conducted the raid. In addition, the force was to commit to “beefing up” sensitivity training for its 7,260 members.

2009: This year brought with it the debut of “Project Parade”, partnering art students and creatives with community groups in the artistic direction of parade entries. This platform provides a showcase for creative talent and fosters ties with the community.

As well, the first Trans March in Canada is organized during Toronto Pride. While not officially endorsed by Toronto Pride, the march attracts about 100 participants.

Figure 25 – Trans Pride Parade

2012: Decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal strikes down several laws relating to sex work, effectively decriminalizing prostitution in the province.

2014: WorldPride parade is celebrated in Toronto, where over 12,000 marchers take part in the first ever WoldPride parade in Canada, and the 4th worldwide.

Figure 26 – WorldPride Toronto

2016: The Trans March in Toronto breaks the record for the largest trans march in the world! Black Lives Matter (BLMTO) is asked to be the honoured group leading the march. In the middle of the street at Yonge and College, BLMTO asks marchers to sit down and occupy the intersection, giving speeches on the importance of fighting for marginalized communities, and speaking in memory of those killed at the Pulse Nightclub that year in Orlando, Florida. The Trans March then continues to the festival grounds at Allan Gardens.

2017: Pride staff reaffirm that police are by no means barred from participating in the parade, but are simply being asked to not march in uniform. At a Pride Committee general meeting in January 2017, the organization’s members vote to affirm that police would not be permitted to march in uniform. Following this, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders announces the organization’s withdrawal of participation in the parade (however, they would still hold their annual Pride reception and raise the rainbow flag at police headquarters). This decision causes the Toronto City Council to debate withdrawing its funding for Pride 2017. However, on June 19th, Saunders publicly indicated that Toronto officers who wanted to attend this event were not permitted to do so in uniform.

2018: In October 2018, Pride Toronto announces that Toronto Police are granted permission to march in the 2019 Pride parade. However, months later, members of the Pride Committee change their previous votes and once again, police are unable to march in uniform.

2020: With the world in various states of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Toronto Pride 2020 is digitally-based as in-person events are barred. Instead, online events and performances are occurring.

Figure 29 – Digital Pride

2021: With this being our 2nd Pride being celebrated during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pride Toronto was better prepared. This years Pride “Phygital Festival” is an immersive online experience, with a number of live stream events and performances, including a look back at the 90s through music, poetry, and dance.

Happy Pride Month! We hope you liked this article and learned something new about Toronto and its queer history!

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