Celebrations, protests, and community action in the 1970s that made Toronto's Pride possible.
It was a simple poster, one that asked people to bring food, drink, and music to Hanlan’s Point on August 1, 1971. Around 300 people followed the poster’s directions to what was billed as “Toronto’s first gay picnic”—the first of a series of events held throughout the 1970s that served as precursors to the current annual Pride celebration, established in 1981.
The organizing of the picnic grew from the gay liberation movement that was rapidly developing in Canada during the early 1970s. As Tom Warner notes in his book Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada,
In the short period between 1970 and 1974, the new ideology blossomed on several fronts; breaking through isolation and loneliness; rejecting the notions of sin, sickness, and criminality that previously defined homosexuality; fighting against oppression, discrimination, and harassment; asserting pride in same-sex sexuality as good and natural; engaging in aggressive public advocacy for social and legislative reform; and building both a community and a culture based on a commonly shared sexuality. Visibility and organizing became the objectives through which liberation would be attained. “Out of the Closets and into the Streets,” “Gay Is Just as Good as Straight,” and “Better Blatant Than Latent” were among the rallying cries. It was an amazing time of exuberance, optimism, astonishing innovation, and sometimes breath-taking courage—characterized by impatience and a willingness to confront all oppressors.
One of the first catalysts for the creation of this movement was the decriminalization of homosexuality for adults 21 and over under a reformed federal criminal code. Introduced by Minister of Justice Pierre Trudeau as part of an omnibus bill in December 1967, the reforms were among those that provoked his famous quote: “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Two months after the legislation came into effect in August 1969, an ad placed in the Varsity by Jearld Moldenhauer resulted in the formation of Toronto’s first post-Stonewall homosexual activist group, the University of Toronto Homophile Association. The group’s constitution stated that it was “dedicated to educating the community about homosexuality, and bringing about social and personal acceptance of homosexuality.”
Over a year later, the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT) formed to provide social services to the gay community. It also offered assistance to anyone arrested or harassed by police, who still viewed homosexuals as “incipient criminals.” Groups with a stronger activist mandate, such as Toronto Gay Action and the Gay Alliance Toward Equality, soon emerged. While male-dominated groups tended to focus on human rights issues, female-dominated associations looked more at creating spaces free of homophobia and sexism. This period also saw the fall 1971 launch of the Body Politic, a publication whose collective (which evolved into Pink Triangle Press, current publisher of Xtra) aimed to mobilize the community to fight its oppressors.
The first Toronto event dubbed “Gay Pride Week” occurred from August 19 to 27, 1972, and was timed to coincide with the anniversary of decriminalization. Based out of CHAT’s office at 58 Cecil Street, the festivities were listed in the Globe and Mail’s “Around Toronto This Week” section. On opening night, CHAT director George Hislop read supportive letters from Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis and City alderman William Kilbourn. He also read a note from an aide to Mayor William Dennison indicating there would be no official declaration. “Since the mayor refused to acknowledge 10 per cent of the citizens,” Hislop told his audience, “I’ll do it for him.” Film screenings included Kate Millett’s documentary Three Lives, which bored Star critic Clyde Gilmour; he declared that the film proved women had “as much right to make a dull, amateurish movie as any group of males” (the New York Times was much kinder). Other events included panel discussions, a picnic, and a 200-person march to Queen’s Park to demand recognition under the Ontario Human Rights Code (which wasn’t achieved until 1986). The week was, according to the Body Politic’s Hugh Brewster, “a greater test of our gay pride than one could have possibly foreseen.”
The Gay Pride Week of 1973 coincided with similar events across the country. All called for the various provincial legislatures to protect sexual orientation in their respective human rights codes. “By publicly demonstrating pride in our sexuality we assert our right to live that lifestyle we choose,” observed a Body Politic editorial, “not as a grant of liberal largesse, but as a matter of course.” Two months later, Toronto’s city council became the first in Canada to ban discriminatory municipal hiring based on sexual orientation.
Pride-style events continued off and on throughout the rest of the 1970s. The largest was 1978’s Gaydays, which was conceived as a positive celebration of the community after a series of controversies, heightened by a 1977 tragedy. In July of that year, the sexual assault and murder of 12-year-old Yonge Street shoeshine boy Emmanuel Jaques by three men contributed to a hostile climate for homosexuals. An article in the Body Politic’s December 1977 issue, “Men Loving Boys Loving Men” also prompted an increase in mainstream media articles equating homosexuality with pedophilia, and prompted a police raid on the Body Politic’s office, the aftermath of which kept lawyers busy for years. Newspaper editorials argued against “aggressive homosexuals.” An article that appeared in the Star in July 1977 argued that “homosexuals should be guaranteed full civil rights, but with reservations to guard against the promotion of homosexuality.”
And a visit by American anti-gay activist Anita Bryant to the Peoples Church in North York—organized by Christian fundamentalists Renaissance International—prompted North York Mayor Mel Lastman to consider a councillor’s suggestion that Bryant be given an honorary medal for her activism, but the idea was vetoed. The gay community rapidly organized a rally at St. Lawrence Market on January 14, 1978 (the eve of Bryant’s appearance), and a march to Nathan Phillips Square that drew around 1,000 people. As one marshal put it, “Anita Bryant probably doesn’t know it, but she’s doing us a favour.” The next day, a group protested outside the Peoples Church.
In April 1978, representatives from several gay organizations formed a group called Liberated Energy to run Gaydays. The aim was to appeal to a broad range of people by marketing it as a social event instead of a political one, and to demonstrate that gays and lesbians could mix together. “I wanted any half-closeted lesbian wandering through Queen’s Park to feel that she had something to come out for,” noted organizer Val Edwards, who also belonged to the Lesbian Organization of Toronto. “Liberated Energy drew out a lot of people who have never been politically involved … It especially got people to do a lot of public things, leafleting, postering—things which can be considered pretty daring for people just coming out.” Promotional efforts spread as far as New York City, where flyers were passed out during that city’s Pride celebrations.
Running from August 23 to 27, 1978, Gaydays included an opening gala, panels, concerts, and a picnic at Hanlan’s Point. A day-long fair at Queen’s Park featured booths for 35 local gay organizations. People who had arrived early to set up booths but then planned to leave to avoid being seen at the event wound up staying the entire day. St. Lawrence Market hosted what was billed as “The Biggest Gay Dance in the History of Toronto,” which drew 1,400 people and turned more away. The dance’s drawing power was demonstrated by a midnight raffle for a trip to San Francisco, which was won by a guy from Detroit.
Gaydays received little coverage in the mainstream press, apart from a vicious piece by Sun Queen’s Park columnist Claire Hoy. The tone of the piece was set by its title (“Fight this perversion”) and subhead (“Gaydays are sad days for Metro”). Hoy, who was never kind to homosexuals at the best of times, lashed out: “Why they would celebrate their degeneracy is difficult to ascertain, unless perhaps you feel that if you surround yourself with sick people you may begin to convince yourself that you’re normal.”
Asked if Gaydays would return the following year, organizer Gordon Montador reflected, “We didn’t want to create an institution, we just wanted to have a festival.” Another organizer, Harvey Hamburg, believed the event made “our community’s mental health much better than a year ago.”
The good feelings were short-lived. The community was the target of anger and ridicule from social conservatives during the 1980 municipal election—Mayor John Sewell’s support of the gay community proved a factor in his loss to Art Eggleton. The next year was marked by an event sometimes called Toronto’s Stonewall—the police raids conducted on four bathhouses on February 5, 1981. The outrage over the 286 men charged during “Operation Soap” provoked angry protests that demonstrated the community wouldn’t accept any more abuse. Further raids in June 1981 prompted violent clashes between protestors, police, and harassers. Calls for an end to police bigotry and intimidation grew louder.
In the midst of this, a Lesbian and Gay Pride Day was arranged for June 28, 1981. The date was chosen to be more in line with international celebrations. Held in Grange Park, the six-hour event was advertised as “an afternoon of fun and frolic.” Though lingering fears caused by the raids made some entertainers shy away, around 1,000 people showed up for music and dancing. The accompanying march, led by the Amazon Motorcycle Club, drew 500 people. During a brief pause in front of 52 Division, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence performed an exorcism on the station, drawing looks of disbelief from the guards. Thanks to the decision of the event’s organizers, the Lesbian and Gay Pride Day Committee (LGPDC), to proceed with annual celebrations, 1981 is currently treated as the first official edition of Pride.
There were complaints from neighbours around Grange Park when LGPDC sought a permit for 1982. One letter sent to city council noted that participants were “too noisy and their actions are confusing our children who are at a learning age of what’s wrong and what’s right.” Alderman John Sewell briefly wavered in his support for the location, arguing that Pride, being a regional event, deserved a larger space like Queen’s Park. “One does not win friends by foisting on a community an event which is too large for the facility,” Sewell wrote in a letter to the Toronto Gay Community Council. In the end, Sewell and fellow Ward 6 alderman Gordon Chong supported the permit, which was approved by council in a 14 to 6 vote. Attendance for the June 27 event doubled.
Pride continued to grow, moving to King’s College Circle in 1983, and then to its current heart on Church Street in 1984. The fight for equal rights was far from over, but Pride had arrived as an annual Toronto tradition.
Additional material from Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada by Tom Warner (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002); the November-December 1971, Autumn 1972, Autumn 1973, February 1978, October 1978, July-August 1981, September 1981, and May 1982 editions of The Body Politic; the August 21, 1972 and January 16, 1978 editions of the Globe and Mail; the August 24, 1972, June 15, 1977, July 22, 1977, May 21, 1982, June 21, 1998, and June 16, 2005 editions of the Toronto Star; and the August 25, 1978 edition of the Toronto Sun.