A look back at Pride's humble origins, and what it meant to march and take back the streets.
On December 22, 1967, then-justice minister Pierre Trudeau made his infamous speech in favour of amending Canada’s Criminal Code to mitigate laws against homosexuality. “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” Trudeau said. “What’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the Criminal Code.”
By 1969, Trudeau’s amendments were made, formally decriminalizing homosexual acts between two consenting adults 21 or older in Canada.
Just two years later, Pride had its first official get-together—a small picnic at Hanlan’s Point, an event minuscule by comparison of today’s Yonge Street parade. On August 1, 1971, a small group, organized by activist group Toronto Gay Action (TGA), gathered for a Gay Day Picnic. It was the start of something much larger.
“It was just a happy event with people having a good time swimming, playing or just laying out in the sun,” a clipping from the activist rag Guerrilla read. According to the news brief, a few hundred people from neighbouring cities as far as New York City and Detroit came to show their support.
Parkdale-High Park MPP and Queen’s Park LGBTQ critic Cheri DiNovo was among those in attendance. Her memory of the day is spotty, but she remembers being in a small crowd with her girlfriend. “Back then, the queer rights movement was big and vocal,” DiNovo recalls. “And we had lots of fun.”
Left: 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.
Amy Gottlieb, founding member of the Toronto Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee, echoes DiNovo’s sentiments: “[The picnics] were fun and celebratory [but] were not engaged in protest and they were not engaged in what our struggle was about,” she says.
Among others in attendance with DiNovo were Glad Day Bookshop’s Jearld Moldenhauer, The Body Politic’s Brian Waite, and author and activist James Dubro.
Later that month, on August 28, 1971, TGA gathered at Parliament Hill to lobby for “true equality” in a demonstration that came to be known as “We Demand.” The gay rights movement in Canada, by that time, had been in full swing for two years.
Toronto celebrated its inaugural Pride Week from August 19-27, 1972, organized by TGA and the Community Homophile Association of Toronto. “Its purpose is to reaffirm the ideals, which found expression in Canada’s first gay demonstration held last in Ottawa at this time,” read the official programme.
Events planned for the week were not too unlike those we see at modern-day Pride: film screenings, art festivals, panels and dances, all culminating in a march—this time, not down Yonge Street, but beginning in Queen’s Park and making its way to the federal government building, then on Richmond Street. In keeping with tradition, a picnic on the Toronto Islands continued.
In 1973, despite efforts by organizers, then-mayor David Crombie could not officially declare Gay Pride Week because “the policy of the city declaring special days and weeks was under review,” according to a brief in The Body Politic. Despite efforts throughout the years, Pride Week would not be officially declared until 1991. In the 1990s, Pride became a major economic and cultural force in the city, and attendance grew from 25,000 to 750,000.
Torontoist had the chance to speak with Gottlieb about the origins and meaning of Pride, and what today’s festivities lack.
Gottlieb: In terms of thinking about 1981 and why it occurred at that date. It was late June of 1981 and it was to mark the anniversary as a rebellion, and see ourselves in a situation where we would have to define ourselves as gays and lesbians. We were up against the right wing and their morality campaign of cleaning up Yonge Street. It was anti-gay and lesbian and and there were police attacks on both the black community and South Asian community. A number of high-profile black men were killed at the time, unarmed, and we were struggling against the police also.
It did not matter what your thoughts were on what the Body Politic published but [the raids] were about defending our freedom of our press and our right to gather where we wanted to gather and it was about taking pride in our lives and how we chose to live our lives.
The bath raids were massive and they just happened in February of 1981 and [the backlash] was a massive resistance to that. Those raids really backfired for the city and the police and what occurred was a massive explosion of queer visibility and resistance.
There were 1500 people at Grange Park and we marched from there,d it was to be both celebratory and about resistance against these kinds of activists, it was organized by Gay Liberation Against the Right Everywhere (GLARE) they were the central organizing group and I was a member of Lesbians Against the Right and the Right to Privacy Committee; there were about 12 of us.
So that was the context. We really saw ourselves as aligning with others who were facing similar police repression, and when we marched, we stopped at 52 Division and yelled “no more shit” and “fuck you 52!” And there was also Albert Johnson, an unarmed black man who had been murdered by the police. His widow Lamona Johnson spoke at 52 division, and Michael Riordan, and Lorna Weir and there was this range of people who were being persecuted, and we aligned ourselves with these people.
That is not to say that we did not want to party and be flamboyant but at the same time we saw ourselves in alliance with these people and a few years later the anti-apartheid committee took up the struggle for lesbian and gay rights in South Africa and the anti-apartheid struggle was linked with gay and lesbian liberation that was how we saw ourselves when we organized that first Pride.d
The 1982 documentary Track Two captured the upheaval of the bathhouse raids, and the ensuing reaction from the LGBTQ community.
It is now a minority of groups at Pride who make these connections. Pride today is mostly about corporate visibility. Throwing things at the crowd and dancing—which I love—but the the political message becomes drowned out with the exception of a few places. Because I am a teacher I march with the TDSB contingent and it is about creating positive and equitable spaces in our schools, which is a very important message. So there are those pockets of resistance but if one was to just watch Pride, I don’t think people would get those messages.
I still think there are lots of people who are in unsafe situations either at school or work and we are still fighting about whether children can learn about queer families in schools and the whole notion of sexuality education and to be able to think about desire; that struggle is still in play. It may be that in an urban context people feel more comfortable today compared to 34 years ago. Yes, things are better but does that mean that everyone is safe and free from harassment? No. We have won protections in terms of same-sex benefits and in the unions and workplace but that does not mean that it is still safe, and if you leave an urban context things change drastically. We live in this little bubble sometimes in Toronto and other major cities. I don’t think we have won as people; there are racialized communities that are under attack.
We are not just queer—we intersect with all other communities with sexuality, race, class and gender identity. And at the core of understanding what it means to be queer, we intersect and are queer in other things; it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
I think it is important to have an inter-generational 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.
Community organizing is very important and movements like Idle No More and #BlackLivesMatter have queer people involved in them and for me I consider myself an ally and I engage in those struggles. People need to figure out if they think Pride is a place to do that and if it is a place of political contestation. I like the energy at Pride but I find it odd because there are more people on the sidelines than there are people marching.
With files from Jamie Bradburn.
The interview with Gottlieb has been slightly edited for clarity and length.