Why Toronto didn't officially proclaim Lesbian and Gay Pride Day until 1991.
When Mayor Rob Ford refused to participate in Pride-related events in 2011, it was, as Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee put it, “an embarrassment for a city that proclaims its diversity to the world.” Ford also reopened old wounds, recalling predecessor Art Eggleton’s refusal to lend support. But Art Eggleton had taken things one step further than Ford—during his tenure from 1980 to 1991, he had refused to proclaim Lesbian and Gay Pride Day, even though his office marked Harold Ballard Day and Walk-a-Dog-a-thon Day.
Eggleton’s reaction to the gay community in the aftermath of the 1981 bathhouse raids foreshadowed his handling of Pride. Eggleton told a provincial committee that the Ontario Human Rights Code should be amended to prevent discrimination based on sexual preference. Questioned further, Eggleton explained, though, that he believed that homosexuals “shouldn’t be allowed to thrust or force their sexual orientation or sexual inclination on other people” and that promoting their lifestyle should be grounds for dismissal. When a report on relations between the police and the gay community appeared later that month, Eggleton feared recommendations such easing arrests for sex in public places would “suggest special status for the gay community.”
Few were shocked when, starting in 1985, Eggleton refused requests from Pride organizers to proclaim Lesbian and Gay Pride Day. He reaffirmed his beliefs when city council’s executive committee recommended a proclamation in early 1989. “It is what I consider a personal matter,” he told the Star. “It is not appropriate for the naming of a day.”
On April Fools’ Day, the Star gave Eggleton a dart for his proclamation refusals, noting his comfort with recent declarations of days honouring notable contributors to Toronto’s cultural fabric like American comedian Red Skelton and the Muppet Babies:
This kind of silly hypocrisy would be funny if it didn’t have such a dark side. Gays have long been discriminated against. They are still victims of random violence. Yet by his continued obstinance, the mayor serves to reinforce the narrow views that foster needless ill will in the community.
Eggleton responded via a letter to the editor. He blamed Muppet Babies Day on an unnamed former Metro Toronto chairman, while Skelton was cited as an entertainer beloved by Torontonians. He defended his record of promoting anti-discriminatory human rights legislation, but reiterated his “private matter” excuse.
City council debated the matter throughout the spring of 1989. Letters and public deputations were a mixed bag: Pro-proclamation sentiments, such as those from Pride organizers, noted the event offered an opportunity for those across the rest of Ontario to gain support from fellow gays and lesbians. Other submissions strained credulity—letter writer Shirley Ratcliffe, for example, complained that she was both offended by the public celebration of sexual preference and concerned that declaring June 25 as Pride Day would mar a treasured personal moment. “June 25 was a very special day in my life 18 years ago as it was the day I gave birth to my daughter,” she wrote. “It was the happiest day of my life and now to think it may be possibly ruined.” Complaints about the date came from the Korean War Veterans Association of Canada, who used June 25 to memorialize that conflict.
After the executive committee voted 3-2 in favour of a proclamation, the matter moved to city council on June 1. Councillor Jack Layton framed the debate as a human rights issue:
The simple question to ask is this: would any other group coming forward be refused? The guidelines (very informal) indicate that religious and commercial events would be excluded. The Lesbian and Gay Pride Day is not one of these. Rather, Pride Day is a statement that it should no longer be necessary for homosexuals to hide in the closet for fear of discrimination. It is a statement of victory over years of unacceptable treatment. Of course the City should be saluting this achievement. If City Council votes against this request, people will be left to conclude that the only reason the event is denied its proclamation is discrimination. Not only this, but it will legitimize discrimination by others once again.
When Layton commented on the declaration of Purebred Dog Week, councillor Tony O’Donohue asked if he would have separate days for gay and straight pooches. O’Donohue also criticized Layton for promoting such a divisive issue, as there were “better things to discuss.”
Though the vote was 9-5 in favour of proclamation, there was a hitch. Councillor Betty Disero voted for the motion solely to reopen the matter at the following council meeting—under council rules at the time, one had to vote in the affirmative to pull such a trick. She claimed her actions were made on behalf of councillor Chris Korwin-Kuczynski, who was unable to attend the meeting but wished to state his opposition.
When council reconvened on June 15, the key vote was councillor Kay Gardner. Usually part of council’s progressive faction, she opposed the proclamation. Her decision was a stressful one. “Perhaps I’m wrong,” Gardner noted, “but deep in my heart, maybe it’s because of my religious education, I think whether you’re homosexual or heterosexual, have a mistress or a lover, it’s a personal matter.” Pressed by reporters, she indicated that “maybe next year I’ll vote for it.”
Eggleton noted he wouldn’t proclaim “Heterosexual Day” either. Korwin-Kuczynski claimed that the gay community in his Parkdale ward was embarrassed by the fiasco—“They want to get on with their lives and want to be left alone.” Onlookers jeered that response.
Layton continued to lead the defence. “He wore his heart on his sleeve,” observed the Sun’s Christie Blatchford. “It was apparent—by his flushed cheeks, the anger in his voice, his evident disappointment afterwards—that he meant every word.” In the end, the declaration was defeated 8-7.
Pride officials and gay activists swiftly filed a discrimination complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Realizing it wouldn’t be dealt with in time for Pride (it was dismissed the following year), a lawsuit was filed against Eggleton and the City. The case was dismissed by the Supreme Court of Ontario on June 23 on the grounds that the Pride parade would proceed with or without a declaration. Eggleton’s response was the creation of Equality Day. To be held every January 31 (the date the City’s equal opportunity policy was implemented in 1977), the day would be an inoffensive examination of all forms of discrimination, starting with sexual. Activist Kyle Rae noted some people were so upset that they were making effigies of Eggleton. “I’m not sure what they are going to do with them,” he told the Globe and Mail.
Pride Day rolled along as planned, drawing over 25,000 people. Jokes about the lack of a proclamation drew cheers from the crowd. As promised, on January 31, 1990, Eggleton presided over Equality Day, which featured displays from community groups in the City Hall rotunda. A group of protestors supporting a proclamation stood in Nathan Phillips Square before interrupting the mayor at a concluding reception.
Council finally supported a proclamation in the fall of 1990 as part of a package of anti-discriminatory measures (including adding lesbian and gay issues to the school curriculum), which passed by a 9-5 vote on November 13. Councillor Nadine Nowlan added an amendment that allowed council to make the proclamation instead of the mayor. Eggleton defended his continuing opposition by claiming he had never declared days for minority groups, although he had proclaimed Ukrainian Week and Jewish Community Centre Month earlier in the year. When news broke, Woody’s put up a marquee thanking council.
When 1991’s Pride festivities rolled around, Layton read the proclamation at the opening ceremony. Eggleton refused to attend. “I didn’t proclaim it,” he told the Star. “I didn’t feel it was necessary.” The following year, June Rowlands became the first mayor to sign a proclamation, though the honour of being the first mayor to attend the parade went to Barbara Hall in 1995.
When Rob Ford skipped Pride in 2011, Eggleton was asked for his thoughts. Eggleton said of Ford that “he had to do what he thinks is the right thing to do.” Reflecting on his own experience, the former mayor suggested that few knew what to make of the event and that, despite the human rights issues involved, Pride back then “seemed more about fun and frivolity.” He admitted that if he held office now, he would sign the proclamation.
Additional material from the June 2, 1989, June 16, 1989, June 24, 1989, June 26, 1989, June 23, 2011, and June 24, 2011 editions of the Globe and Mail; the June 8-14, 1989 edition of Now; the September 9, 1981, September 26, 1981, March 29, 1989, April 1, 1989, April 15, 1989, June 2, 1989, February 1, 1990, July 1, 1991, and July 1, 2011 editions of the Toronto Star; the June 16, 1989 and November 14, 1990 editions of the Toronto Sun; the November 23, 1990 edition of Xtra; and the Toronto City Council Minutes from 1989.