During the 1970s, crowds gathered on Yonge Street on Halloween to engage in homophobic revelry.
Gathering in the Church-Wellesley Village on Halloween is a longstanding Toronto tradition. Closed for several blocks to house the mass of humanity descending upon the neighbourhood, Church Street allows revellers to display their costumes for all to see. It’s a spectacle that draws admiring onlookers, especially photographers capturing the most creative or well-made ensembles.
There was less goodwill on display during the 1960s and 1970s, when onlookers congregated on a nearby stretch of Yonge Street at Halloween. Back then, people lined Yonge between College and Wellesley to jeer drag costume ball attendees. The mob came ready with eggs, ink, and threats.
Several bars along Yonge between College and Wellesley, such as the Parkside Tavern and the St. Charles Tavern began catering to homosexuals by the 1960s, even if their heterosexual owners allowed police to nab clientele. Halloween offered a loophole where, for one night a year, it was fine to flout laws prohibiting men from dressing as women. At other times of the year, it wasn’t unusual for men in drag to be hauled by police down to Cherry Beach and beaten up. This gave rise to costume balls on October 31 which allowed participants to publicly display their sexuality. The parties could be lavish affairs—during Halloween 1969, the August Club at 530 Yonge offered a ball with prizes, buffet, and champagne for $12.50 a head. As the decade ended, the balls drew plenty of onlookers along Yonge Street who, according to the Globe and Mail, “trooped downtown to watch the procession of fabulous female-creatures-who-aren’t.” The paper also observed that the crowd “seemed to regard it as a sort of sophisticated Santa Claus parade.”
The spectacle provoked mixed feelings among some in attendance, as Tony Metie’s account in the debut issue of the gay journal The Body Politic indicates. Metie had gone down to Yonge Street incognito, bringing along a female friend to watch what ensued:
Coming as I did from a town where the very thought of a bar catering exclusively to homosexuals would have driven the local populace to prepare nooses and stakes, the sight of thousands of people gathered to watch men walk the streets openly in female costumes blew my mind. A mixture of emotions was stirred within me. I felt a sense of elation at this blatant display of homosexual culture; it was the first time I had ever seen gay people revealing themselves publicly as gays. When the crowd gasped at some particularly stunning drag queens, I felt a strange sense of pride in being a gay person. But then I would become aware of the jeers and contemptuous laughter, and another part of me would feel ashamed. I realized that the straights were laughing at me, the part of me the drag queens represented. Then I would hate the drag queens. They seemed to be satisfying the straight belief that all faggots were limp-wristed and effeminate. And I knew this wasn’t true; after all, I wasn’t effeminate, was I?
Another early Body Politic piece by Hugh Brewster highlighted the tensions at play:
As soon as the parade is over in front of the St. Charles and the drag queens have gone inside, the mood of the crowd quickly becomes surly and vicious. Gangs of tough adolescents egged on by their girlfriends go looking for “queers” to beat up. The police have an increasingly difficult time controlling the crowds. Ink is thrown and faces get smashed. Last year one sixteen year old in semi-drag was tied to a post and left there until morning. Each year the situation becomes more ugly and potentially explosive. Halloween is on its way to becoming a confrontation between a large gay subculture and a city that pretends it doesn’t exist.
By 1971, police control was required to hold back a hostile crowd estimated up to 8,000 people. While traffic crawled along Yonge between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., side streets, which offered too many opportunities for bashing, were closed off. The sidewalk for the block around the St. Charles Tavern was guarded by police who, according to the Star, allowed in “only admitted and obvious homosexuals.” Members of the University of Toronto Homophile Association passed out leaflets pleading for understanding.
But the egging and jeering continued.
Anxiety was high in 1977 in the wake of that summer’s sexual assault and murder of 11-year-old shoeshine boy Emmanuel Jaques in a Yonge Street body rub parlour, which raised public ire against homosexuals. Community members and politicians, including Mayor David Crombie,fearing the worst urged police to crack down on the mob instead of looking the other way when attacks occurred. Members of the Gay Alliance Toward Equality and the Metropolitan Community Church created Operation Jack o’Lantern to offer escorts to anyone feeling afraid of being assaulted. Most patrons of the St. Charles decided to enter via the back door—those who risked the front faced the usual egging.
Up to 140 cops were busy that night, arresting 40 people for various misdemeanours. Seizures included 15 dozen eggs which ended up as breakfast at the Fred Victor Centre and the Salvation Army. Some of those eggs landed on Deputy Police Chief Tom Cooke’s car. “One young goof was charged with public mischief when he tried to hit a gay, missed, and smashed his fist through an unoffending window,” observed Globe and Mail columnist Dick Beddoes. “Comes under the heading of taming an oaf.”
People continued to join the spectacle, urged by media which hyped the Halloween mob in advance. Those heading downtown thought it was innocent fun. “It’s great, because everyone’s so friendly, right?,” a 21-year old woman eager to toss eggs told the Globe and Mail in 1979. “Except if you’re a faggot—that’s different.” There was a sense of excitement watching the homophobic mean-spiritedness of it all, including chants of “kill the queers.” Out of an estimated crowd of 5,000, police arrested 130. Most taken into custody were hauled away for breaching the peace, which translated into detention until the party was over without earning a criminal record. One police superintendent called the mob “a sad-looking bunch” which stood for six hours doing little but tossing eggs at each other, while observing that the 300 attendees at the St. Charles ball “were inside having a great time.”
As preparations for Halloween 1980 began, a Body Politic editorial urged a stop to the madness:
The events of October 31 are a civic disgrace, and should be a source of shame to every citizen of the city. Every citizen, every elected official should share every gay person’s dismay at having to face, each year, a night of humiliation and hate. A night that is passed over in silence, that has drawn no criticism, no condemnation, that has not moved one single elected official to say ‘This is appalling and disgraceful. This must be stopped.’ It is in the interests of the entire city of Toronto that the city lose its reputation, both here and abroad, for allowing a night of anti-gay bigotry unparalleled in any other city in Canada.
Police contemplated blocking off the St. Charles with a convoy of garbage trucks, but realized that idiots would damage them. Instead, metal barriers were erected along the east sidewalk. Media outlets, especially radio stations, received letters from police and city councillor Allan Sparrow urging them not to publicize the evening. Local merchants were urged to reserve eggs for regular customers. The Westbury Hotel (now the Courtyard Marriott Toronto Downtown) closed off 120 rooms overlooking Yonge Street. As Halloween occurred during a municipal election campaign, local candidates condemned the violence. “It was perfectly clear,” activist and council hopeful George Hislop noted, “that the entire community just wouldn’t tolerate suburban punks coming downtown to get their jollies—at our expense.”
The tactics worked. Those who showed up expecting to engage in violence were disappointed. “This place sucks,” one person told The Body Politic. “I came down to see somethin’ happen.” Police prevented people from stopping, resulting in a fraction of the previous year’s arrests.
A Body Politic headline declaring that the “Halloween hate-fest comes to end” proved accurate. Continuing efforts by the community and police curtailed the egg tossing and maintained the peace in 1981. There were still some jeering yahoos, and the Toronto Sun couldn’t resist making snarky comments (“It’s a special night for these homosexuals, the people who dress up every night of the year”), but there was a strong sense the annual onslaught was drawing to a close.
While crowds continued to come down to the neighbourhood on Halloween, they shifted to Church Street, with cameras replacing eggs as their weapon of choice. The attitude shift was noticed by the Globe and Mail’s John Bentley Mays in 1996, who described the scene as having “all the menace of a neighbourhood block party.”
The antique stereotypes of what gay people on parade are supposed to look like seemed long past—along with the sense that this was a party just for gay and lesbian folks. From where I stood, the fancifully attired were matched just about one-to-one with straightly dressed, snap-shooting tourists, your basic suburban moms and dads with the kids, and other regular Torontonians in a holiday mood. Our downtown Halloween this year, in other words, represented a certain way of using the streets quite different from the old one. It wasn’t about one community firmly displacing another for a few hours, in a spirit of defiance and self-definition. The evening was about as happy, tolerant and middle class as a multicultural carnival in Mississauga.
Additional material from the November-December 1971, November-December 1972, December 1977-January 1978, November 1979, December 1979, October 1980, December 1980-January 1981, and December 1981 editions of The Body Politic; the October 31, 1969, October 28, 1977, November 2, 1977, November 1, 1979, and November 6, 1996 editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 1, 1971, November 1, 1977, November 1, 1979, and October 21, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star, and the November 1, 1981 edition of the Toronto Sun.