A look at how Pride exploded in size in the 1990s.
An indication of how much Toronto’s Pride celebrations grew during the 1990s: crowd estimates for the 1991 parade ranged from 25,000 (police, mainstream media) to 60,000 (Lesbian and Gay Pride Day Committee). By 1999, that figure rose to over 750,000.
The 1991 parade was the first to be officially proclaimed by the city. Over the ongoing objections of Mayor Art Eggleton, city council voted the previous fall to recognize the growing event. Its approval aligned with a growing sense that the LGBT movement was going mainstream. In a pre-parade profile of activists across the country, the Globe and Mail noted a joke making the rounds that provided a new definition for S&M: “Scarborough and Mississauga.”
Shortly before the parade, the Metro Toronto Police Services Board announced that it would recognize gays and lesbians as a community entitled to policing that was sensitive to its needs, a turnaround from treating such people as sources of drug abuse, sex work, and perversion. “It’s an important step,” declared board chair Susan Eng. “We have come of age and are starting to do what we should have been doing for a long time.”
Eng was among the civic officials and politicians on hand when the proclamation was read prior to the start of the parade on June 30, 1991. Since Eggleton refused to read the document, the duty was performed by councillor Jack Layton. The parade was nearly derailed when it was discovered the permit indicated a 1 p.m. launch instead of 3 p.m. as scheduled. Police reportedly insisted on moving the time to 2 p.m. as a compromise, or else the event would be shut down. While the procession was only supposed to shut down the northbound lanes of Yonge Street, the crowd spilled onto the southbound lanes, effectively closing the entire road. Elsewhere, gay-centric businesses offered entertainment and free meals, and Ryerson’s CKLN debuted live radio coverage of events.
Flash forward to 1999. Having exploded in size, the parade was now front page news. The Star depicted Mayor Mel Lastman, who’d expressed reservations about attending the year before, gleefully joining councillor Pam McConnell in super-soaking council colleague Kyle Rae. Even the Sun covered the festivities with a limited degree of respect, calling no-show Fred Phelps (who had threatened to disrupt Pride) “a hate-filled nutbar.” As eye put it, the party atmosphere surrounding Pride led to attendees “tripping on a two-day, non-stop, feel-good sensory overload” regardless of their sexual orientation. “If you’re not doing drugs, your face hurts on Monday from the perma-grin.”
Eye also published a suburbanite’s guide to the celebrations, offering advice such as “Woody’s is not a Cheers-themed bar owned by Woody Harrelson.” Some of those coming in from outside the core may have been teenagers drawn by the debut of youth-centric events, such as Fruit Loopz held at Buddies in Bad Times. Seeing teens march along didn’t impress some standing along the sidelines—the Star reported a 50-year-old parent from Peterborough who, when she saw 16-year-old Tina Mollison wander by, told the paper “Just look at that innocent child. What does she know about love and sex, about lesbianism? The parade glamourizes it.” The paper caught up with Mollison. “Parents should give us respect,” she noted. “We know what we want and we know how to go out and get it.”
Not everything was rosy. A few weeks before Pride, police twice raided the Bijou “porn bar” at Gerrard and Church, leading to charges against 12 patrons. The arrests, along with undercover checks of bar operations, were a reminder that the attitudes which had fostered the bathhouse raids of 1981 were not dead. There were also complaints by some veteran activists that Pride had gone too corporate, diluting its political messages in the name of vendors and corporate sponsorships that offered mainstream respectability.
Additional material from the June 17, 1999 and June 24, 1999 editions of eye; the June 29, 1991 and July 1, 1991 editions of the Globe and Mail; the June 29, 1991 and June 28, 1999 editions of the Toronto Star; the June 27, 1999 edition of the Toronto Sun; and the July 12, 1991 and June 25, 1999 editions of Xtra.