The 10-day World Pride festival is in full swing in Toronto. This is the first time this international event has ever been held in North America. The celebration honours the history, courage, diversity and future of gay communities throughout the world – but also strongly emphasizes the importance of human rights concerns of all kinds. We all need to thoughtfully consider what it means to live safe, free and joyful lives without fear of persecution or censure.
Things have certainly changed in the world since the days of the Stonewall riots of June 28, 1969 – the spark that ignited the whole Gay Rights / Gay Pride movement – but the changes have not been nearly as great as they could have been. Although there is now more sexual openness and equality for most people, violence and oppression still exist – and not just in far-flung “backward” parts of the world – right here in cities like Toronto. Despite the annual parades and marches violence is still a daily factor in many people’s lives. It still requires a great deal of courage to declare yourself openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, two-spirits, queer, asexual or anything else that might conflict with 17th century Puritan sexual morality.
Back in the summer of 1971 – totally oblivious to the New York riots of 1969 and totally unaware of the mass protests that were to come following the Toronto bathhouse raids of 1981 – I lived in a section of Toronto not particularly known for its tolerance or acceptance of alternative life-styles. It was a violent community filled with underemployed people – some desperate to escape their circumstances but many resolved to remain forever in the under belly of society. Known as Corktown, Cabbagetown or Regent Park, in those days the neighbourhood was a place where the “respectable folk” of Toronto wouldn’t be caught dead, unless they had “shady business” to do. Of course there were a lot of nice people living in Regent Park – hardworking, honest people just hoping for a break in their lives – people that watched out for each other and the neighbourhood kids. And yet there really were nasty people around that it was best to stay away from.
Aside from individual nasty people, there were whole streets and blocks kids were warned to avoid for various reasons. And we whispered to each other about what might be going on in those areas. For example, Toronto’s “Red Light District” was within Cabbagetown’s borders – just along Dundas Street between Sherbourne and Jarvis. And there were notorious pick up joints and criminal hangouts like Spot One, Norm’s Open Kitchen and the New Service Tea Room. But the worst place of all, we were told, was the St. Charles Tavern at Yonge and Wellesley.
If a kid was dumb enough to walk past that place alone, even in broad daylight, the story was that he might be snatched off the street, dragged into the back room and have all sorts of unspeakable things done to him by sexual deviants and perverts. The St. Charles was probably the best known gay bar in Canada at the time. It was frequently raided by the police because in those days there were all sorts of possible crimes connected with homosexuality. Strange as it might seem today it was, at that time, against the law for a man to wear women’s clothing, so the police could just stop a man in the street on suspicion and search him. If he was found to be wearing women’s underwear, or something other than white cotton boxer shorts, he could be arrested or just plain beaten up.
Regent park tough guys might also hang around these places with the intention of passing the time by beating up a few “queers” or “faggots.” And the police were never too concerned about investigating such crimes. As I said, it was not a section of Toronto particularly known for its tolerance or acceptance of alternative life-styles.
I lived on the southern border of Regent Park around Queen Street east of Parliament – and all these “no go zones” were more west of Parliament and north of Queen – far from my stomping grounds. But that didn’t matter to the haters and fear mongers. The patrons of places like the St. Charles Tavern were a threat even to the low lives of Regent Park.
There were, of course, cases in which a certain type of person might wander into Regent Park with immoral intentions. Perhaps they thought the people in my community were easy prey. I, myself, was confronted several times by deviant individuals and literally had to run away screaming for help. And perhaps some were that particular sort that actually wanted to be beaten up. In Regent Park they got their wish and these people did not make return appearances and certainly did not live in the community.
Now, I’m describing all this because there was a particular young man who did live in the neighbourhood and who used to ride his bicycle along Queen Street towards Parliament. There was no doubt in the mind of anyone who saw him that he was heading for one of those well-known dens of iniquity. How did we know? First, he was a thin, haughty looking youth, who proudly rode his bike down the centre of the street with his head held high and had rainbow tassels streaming off his handle bars. The rainbow was not yet recognized as the symbol of gay pride but even then we knew what it meant. Boys DID NOT decorate their bikes with frilly tassels. And if that wasn’t enough, he wore puffy sleeved, brightly coloured shirts with a long lavender scarf around his neck that fluttered out behind him in the wind. As far as I know, he was never accused of doing anything other than being “queer.” He never tried to hurt anybody. Kids weren’t afraid of him. But his appearance and mannerism was enough to make him the subject of scorn.
Now, people said things as he rode by as you might imagine. He was laughed at and openly mocked; an easy target for the most childish of insults. Yet, what stands out most for me was the way he held his head up: proud and defiant. Sometimes I would see him riding by with black eyes and bruised face; sometimes with bandages. As I said this was not a tolerant neighbourhood. And seeing his bruises, some people mocked him even more as if he somehow deserved to be beaten. Sometimes people claimed to know the guys who beat him up and would smile as they spoke of it.
I don’t know who that young man was. I don’t know his name. I don’t know what happened to him. He rode his bike along Queen Street all that summer: rainbow tassels streaming off his handlebars and his lavender scarf blowing in the wind. He rode with his head held high, seemingly indifferent to the abuses hurled at him and the violence he endured. Was he brave? Was he courageous? Or was he just stupid? I don’t know.
More than 40 years later I still remember that man and wonder what his life was like. And I think about all the other men and women of that time who chose to be defiant and stand up for the simple right to be themselves. They were not deviants, perverts or sexual predators – they were just people with different desires. It takes courage to stand up for your sexual preferences today but it must have taken ferocious bravery to do so back then. Imagine what it would be like to have your whole life be a protest against intolerance. More than just marching in a parade once a year or waving a rainbow flag – it was living in constant rebellion. Imagine a world where you could be beaten up for wearing a puffy shirt or even killed for holding hands with someone of the same sex. Not in some far off Middle Eastern country where we think all intolerance now resides – but right here at home – places like Rome, Jerusalem, London, Toronto, Madrid – these are cities where World Pride has been held and will be held in the future – the intolerance and hatred that man felt in 1971 still exists in all those cities and in other cities around the world. And the courage it took for that man to ride his bike with its rainbow tassels is still needed today.
World Pride starts with the Gay community where perhaps courage and organized protest is still needed most. But it extends to all people who wish to express themselves freely, creatively, artistically, romantically and joyfully but cannot because of the fear, ignorance and intolerance of the dominant forces of a community. Is it possible for people to live safe, free and joyful lives without fear of persecution or censure? I hope so. But we must all stand together – men and women; gay and straight; rich and poor – we must declare loudly and openly that the peaceful pursuit of love and fellowship is the right of all human beings in all nations at all times.