An Oral History of Toronto's Pride Parade

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An Oral History of Toronto’s Pride Parade

Reflecting on Pride's beginnings and its evolution.

A crowd enjoying Gaydays. The Body Politic, October 1978.

A crowd enjoying Gaydays. The Body Politic, October 1978.

On a warm summer day in August 1971, dozens of gay and lesbian activists headed to the Toronto Islands to celebrate a gay picnic, the first iteration of Pride in the city. The gathering was very different than the corporate party that Pride is today: political at its core, the group assembled to demonstrate gay solidarity just two years after then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau decriminalized homosexuality.

The picnics eventually became annual celebrations. It was only a decade after the bathhouse raids of 1981 that the City officially recognized Pride.

Among Pride pioneers are Tim McCaskell, Cheri DiNovo, Brian Mossop, Eve Zaremba, Gerald Hannon, Amy Gottlieb, Ken Popert, Rinaldo Walcott, and Peter Zorzi.

Below, the nine reflect on the evolution of Pride—from that first picnic to the mega block party it has become today.

Amy Gottlieb (founding member of Lesbians Against the Right, Gays and Lesbians Against the Right Everywhere and the Toronto Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee): The first [official] Pride was the first celebration was organized in conjunction with the marking of the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots [in 1969], which is why we now celebrate Pride at the end of June. But there were other gatherings since 1971: something called gay days at Hanlan’s Point.

Tim McCaskell (Toronto AIDS activist, member of the Body Politic collective): There was one [gathering] in 1971, a number in ’72, and I don’t think there was anything in ’73, and I came out at the one in ’74. Then nothing happened until after the bath raids in ’81. When a lot of people talk about Pride they obliterate the ancient history and talk about ’81 on.

Gerald Hannon (journalist, member of the Body Politic collective): I’ve been in every one since ’72 essentially. That one I remember well, including the Hanlan’s Point crazy, youthful fooling around. Building a gay and lesbian pyramid. People on backs and on top of each other. It was fun.

Peter Zorzi (founder of Toronto Area Gays): I was a street messenger in downtown Toronto in 1971 when I discovered gay liberation, and I met my lover, Charlie, at a Toronto Gay Action [activist organization] meeting in July of that year. In the 1970s when we took part in Pride events it was very much with a feeling of kinship with the people we were among, a ragtag group sharing a sense of mission. We all wanted a future where people would not have to deal with the things we’d had to deal with.

A crowd enjoying Gaydays. The Body Politic, October 1978.

A gay picnic goes to Hanlan’s Point. Appearing in Guerrilla magazine, this photograph captured an event in August 1971 that was a precursor to the Pride that we know today.

Cheri DiNovo (Queen’s Park LGBTQ critic, MPP for Parkdale-High Park): It wasn’t as diverse, but in many ways it was as if not more radical movements existed back then, because just like Black Lives Matter, it wasn’t a huge group of people who were active around queer issues back then. There was the Community Homophile Association of Toronto [activist organization], which was kind of more mainstream and stodgy and we were the young kids back then and we just thought they were way too conservative for us. But we were always kind of the more radical end of the queer resistance movement, people who weren’t afraid to lose their jobs, be out, thought queer was better than straight, and heralded that. People who think that we were running around hiding, no, my god, we were like, outrageous in the seventies. Look at the music and the culture and the fashion of the day, the clubs of the day. Queer culture was booming in the ’70s in urban America and Canada, but its political wing—the influence we had politically, to change laws— we didn’t have nearly as much of.

Zorzi: The Pride [celebrations] in the 1970s took place along with all the other usual cacophony. The parades themselves, when they did happen, were more likely to be referred to as marches, took place on Saturdays, when there were more people around downtown to witness them, and were scheduled for August, to mark the presentation on Parliament Hill in August, 1971 of our demands to the country.

McCaskell: The ’74 one is the first one I was at. I’ve heard there were maybe as many as 75 people, but I think we were pushing 50. And it walked from Allan Gardens over to Queen’s Park. We walked on the sidewalk, there was no permit or anything. As far as I know, it was just a bunch of people walking along the sidewalk with signs. The world was quite different then. You could get away with all sorts of stuff.

Demonstrations in those days, political stuff, were not usually targeted. What was being targeted were gay magazines, washroom arrests, liquor license violations in bars. But generally, that early period, from ’70 to ’78 or so, the community was so small it was pretty much under the radar.

Eve Zaremba (Toronto lesbian trailblazer, novelist): Except when out of town, I was there at most Pride Day marches in the ’70s and ’80s. To me it was the one day when we could forget differences and celebrate what we have achieved. It was still manageable and local. You would meet friends on the march or among the spectators, maybe have a beer and talk.

McCaskell: It was like doing something public around an identity that had previously been all about not being noticed. Like being in the closet is going unperceived, right? To be out publicly was seen as this radical gesture in itself.

1974 Pride. Photo courtesy of Peter Zorzi.

1974 Pride. Photo courtesy of Peter Zorzi.

Mossop: The whole idea back then was this coming out strategy. The idea that we’d free ourselves by persuading people to come out of the closet so everyone would know someone who was gay, and then all the myths would evaporate. Which is more or less what happened, but in the process of that going on, as people came out of the closet the community came to have the same complexions of society as a whole. It was no longer a leftist thing.

There was a good and a bad: the good thing is that attitudes towards homosexuals have changed remarkably since I was a young man but for those of us who were on the left and associated gay liberation with the left there’s a certain sadness to it, but I think inevitability. It couldn’t have been any other way.

McCaskell: But there was not an easy relationship between LGBTQ communities and police at all. You have to consider that decriminalization only happened in ’69. So ’71 is only two years later, so it was still considered this criminal class by the police and they can joke about doing anything they want and nobody’s going to do anything about it.

DiNovo: It took the police to kind of back off and let us march in the streets. They were actually pretty good—they didn’t create problems, they just kind of ended up escorting us anyway, though it wasn’t permitted. They didn’t make a big deal about it. That’s sort of the way that Pride developed to where it is today.

Ken Popert (CEO of Pink Triangle Press): That particular sequence of Prides lasted for three years, and then there was a lapse. Now, of course, the bathhouse raids occurred [in 1981] and it drew a bunch of people, many more people, into the gay and lesbian movement and Pride became a very large event at that time.

It looked large to us at the time because we were used to seeing only a few hundred people and now there were several thousand but of course that would seem rather small to us now. But, of course, the event has changed considerably in its purposes and in its nature.

1981 Pride. Photo courtesy of Peter Zorzi.

1981 Pride. Photo courtesy of Peter Zorzi.

Gottlieb: The bath raids were massive, and those raids really backfired for the City and the police. What occurred was a massive explosion of queer visibility and resistance.

McCaskell: It wasn’t really around Pride so much but around the bath raids there was really a conscious and considered attempt at making connections with other groups who were being harassed by the police and of course the Black community was very much a police target in those days. Albert Johnson had been killed and so Lemona [Johnson, his widow] spoke at the second 81 demonstration.

Gottlieb: That was the context we really saw ourselves as aligning ourselves who were facing similar police repression and when we marched, we marched and stopped at 52 Division and yelled “No more shit” and “Fuck you 52!”

Hannon: That first Gay Pride Week it seemed kind of crazy to me that we could go from having nothing to a whole week! But it actually worked! There was a demonstration, there was about 200 people, there was an art show, there was a seminar, a panel that brought people up, and it was really exhilarating because it was so unexpected. It seemed to be happening at the speed of light, you know? Going from…just a year or so before that I was more or less an ashamed homosexual…suddenly I was helping organize rallies, it was a breathtaking time.

Brian Mossop (York University practitioner-researcher, partner of Popert): The Pride as it exists now is nothing at all like what it was back then. Then it was part and parcel of the political movement. I mean, it isn’t like we didn’t have any fun, or dress up or anything like that, but it was clearly part of that. It certainly wasn’t a tourist event, nobody came to look at us. There were no floats. There was just a truck with a sound system.

McCaskell: I started buying the Body Politic on the sly. It was Canada’s leading gay liberation magazine, and it ran from 1971 until 1987. I had come back from South America and was trying to figure out how to come out. I knew that this paper existed, so I would sneak into stores and buy it and hope nobody saw me and actually take it.

In the magazine, I’m reading and I began to be a little more comfortable with this, recognize that there was kind of politics here, because I’d been involved in anti-war politics, that kind of stuff. I saw in this paper an ad for a Gay Pride March, August 17, 1974, starting at Allan Gardens. I thought, “Okay, I don’t know how to work in a bar but I’ve been to lots of demonstrations. That’s kind of familiar to me.” So I went down, kind of hung back between some trees, started to check this out, and they seemed to be kind of unthreatening. As the group started to move out, I kind of rushed over and picked up some sort of sign and off we went. I was only 22 at the time. We marched over to Queen’s Park, listened to the speeches, marched back over to Allan Gardens.

Rinaldo Walcott (the director of the Women and Gender Studies program at the University of Toronto): I used to go to Pride and sit on the sidewalk or a low wall just south of Alexander Street and watch the Pride Parade as it concluded. That would have been in the late 1980s. I still remember drag queens walking barefoot with their very tall heels in their hands after the parade along Yonge Street ended on Church Street. The crowds were smaller then and there were fewer vendors and more time to just mill around and dance in the street. It was more like a big block party then as I recall.

Hannon: There was a different story for everyone you’ll talk to, but I think most everyone realizes that at some point it had to be public. The privacy was part of the horror of it. It made it harder to meet people, harder to befriend people, harder to find boyfriends. It’s all so different now.

Popert: I think about how much experience young gay men and lesbians and other queer people have these days with participating in the public demonstrations. But when there are only a hundred people but it’s not nearly as exhilarating as when you’re surrounded by thousands of people and so it required an amount of steely determination. It was not primarily intended as an entertainment or a fun event, though certainly we tried to add fun to it because of who we were. But really, it took a bit of nerve to participate in those first few Pride celebrations, so that was a big difference.

Walcott: I don’t see the Pride Parade as rooted in social justice today. I see it as a fun parade that is primarily about its commercial value to the city. Indeed I can’t see how Pride can be silent on the Israeli-Palestine question at this time or the global refugee crisis. Both of these social justice situations require queer attention because the lives of queers are caught up in them. If we really believe that queers are everywhere then queer politics must be broad and capacious. Pride is big in people numbers but small in its politics. I think pride today pays lip service to social justice which is not dissimilar from other large, mostly white organizations in North America.

Gottlieb: I think it is important to have an intergenerational conversation. I find that some people feel that things are way better and we don’t need to struggle and there are other young people who see lots of struggle particularly around gender identity and trans issues.

DiNovo: Times have changed. It’s a lot safer now than it was then, there’s no question about that, to navigate the streets of the city in any way, shape or form.

Popert: Now, as you can see from the current programme, it’s primarily…well, it looks to me like a stage for international—by which I mean America—entertainers and that’s because by and large the economics of Pride have changed, it’s become more of a revenue generator to pay for the hotels in the city.

I’m not necessarily saying that as a criticism because as long as it retains some sense of its original purpose, I think it can still be described as political. I still believe that’s the case because as we know, as recently as two or three years ago, City Council was trying to cut off funding to Pride—or some politicians anyway—with some flimsy excuses.

Hannon: It’d take a lot to get me out marching these days. I’ll wander the streets and look around at all the commercial outlets that are set up. I feel no personal, emotional connection to it at all now.

Walcott: I think each generation should work hard to make itself irrelevant to the the one just behind it. To leave the upcoming generation more than enough space to dismantle and build exactly what they want and need. If the generational divide is real then I think it requires more generosity on both sides.

Popert: I think it is still a very political event. We have to ask ourselves, “What would happen if we pulled Pride this year?” I think when we imagine Toronto without Pride, I think it gives you a very good idea or notion about how it is still a statement and therefore a political event. You can make a statement and still have fun doing it. That’s part of the genius of Pride.


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