Out of the Closets, Into the Streets: Toronto’s LGBTQ History Walking Tour

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Out of the Closets, Into the Streets: Toronto’s LGBTQ History Walking Tour

Toronto's queer history isn't all in the Church and Wellesley Village.

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The Pride Outside the Village walking tour listens to historical tales on the final stop. Photo by Scott Dagostino.

The Pride Outside the Village walking tour listens to historical tales on the final stop. Photo by Scott Dagostino.

Flanked by a Shoppers Drug Mart and a Starbucks, the corner of King and Yonge doesn’t seem like a pivotal spot for the LGBTQ community in Toronto. It’s many blocks away from the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood that’s been its hub for decades now, but on a breezy Saturday afternoon earlier this month, it’s the meeting spot for a walking tour designed to show that downtown Toronto has been a very queer place long before there was a Village.

Activist and former teacher Dennis Findlay is the board president of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, which has teamed up with Heritage Toronto for these tours. As a group of about 25 men and woman gather on the corner, Findlay flips through his sheets of prepared notes.

Findlay co-ordinated the Legal Defence Committee of the Right to Privacy Committee as a response to the police raids on gay bathhouses in 1981. He not only knows his history, he’s a vital part of it.

The crowd is a lively mix of curious young people, professional queers, and bemused seniors, one of them a veteran writer and activist attempting to stay anonymous. Surely he must know all this history already? “I’ve forgotten most of it!” he laughs, “It was the 70s, you know!”

The King Edward Hotel in 1919. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1231, Item 1129.

The King Edward Hotel in 1919. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1231, Item 1129.

Findlay leads the group eastward to the King Edward Hotel, Toronto’s first luxury hotel. It was opened in 1903 but it was around the middle of the century that the hotel quietly but actively encouraged a gay clientele at its bar, Findlay explains. These dapper gentlemen had money and good manners, a winning combo, until their gay head bartender was poached by the smaller hotel down the street.

“At this point, we’re going to move to Yonge and Richmond,” Findlay announces, “and I’m going to tell you about the lesbian bank robbery!” His delight is infectious and that story is indeed a fun one, though Allison Bain, the new executive director of Heritage Toronto, gasps at the robber’s name. “She’s a real estate agent now!”

Bain has been joining recent walks, explaining how “all of our walking tours were initially prompted by volunteers who would contact us with a great ideas for a tour and then we worked with them to make it happen.” The LGBTQ walking tours began in the year leading up to WorldPride in 2014. “It’s one of the few programs that we do in partnership with another organization and that’s why we charge for this tour,” she says. “Part of the proceeds go to support the Archives. They’re an amazing partner.”

Dennis Findlay leads the Pride Outside the Village tour. Photo by Scott Dagostino.

Dennis Findlay leads the Pride Outside the Village tour. Photo by Scott Dagostino.

Microphone in hand, Findlay leads the crowd north and reveals that the beautiful old building at 20 Richmond Street East, now home to Confederation Life Insurance and a Subway sandwich location, was formerly a live music venue called the Saphire Tavern in the 60s. Its most legendary performer was the great black trans soul singer Jackie Shane. Findlay stops to note that Shane’s biggest hit, “Any Other Way,” is now also the title of a new book “that is really worth reading if you want to learn more about the gay history of our community.”

Bain notes that Heritage Toronto is “really looking to continue to diversify our programming and start speaking about all the different communities in Toronto. Heritage isn’t just about the past, it’s about building an compassionate future that’s inclusive … it’s not that George Brown wasn’t a fantastic guy, but his is certainly not the only story of Toronto,” she laughs.

The Saphire Tavern in 1972. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 17, Item 22

The Saphire Tavern in 1972. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 17, Item 22

Stopping in front of the Old City Hall courthouse at Bay and Queen, Findlay tells the crowd about the court cases after the infamous bathhouse raids in 1981, but also how, long before then, the southwest corner was a mingling point for closeted Bay Street business, rent boys, and straight trade. These men would gather in the hotel bars that, until 1947, were the only premises allowed to serve alcohol. Findlay quotes one liquor inspector who noted that “the beverage rooms seemed to be a meeting space for young men with feminine characteristics and possibly sex perverts.”

At the final stop at 201 Church, just south of Dundas, Findlay discusses the former Community Homophile Association of Toronto and he and the organizers receive a round of applause from the crowd.

“I found it really interesting,” says Amanda Knoss, 33, at the end of the tour. She was impressed at how far back Toronto’s queer history actually goes. “The 1940s, the 50s … the stories seem so far away, but then we stop at a building it actually happened in and the architecture really connects you with history.”

The tour lasted an hour and a half. The next tour takes place August 24 at 6:30 p.m. at King and Yonge streets (northwest corner). It’s 
$20 for general public, $14 for members; registration required.

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