Pride IS Political: Historic Photos of Queer Toronto
Stonewall: Celebrating 50 years of activism
Another Pride week has come and gone in Toronto, and this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the beginnings of the Gay Liberation Movement. For this special occasion, I decided to do some digging into the Toronto Star Photograph Archive to see what I could find on Toronto’s queer history over the years. I had always known that pride was a political affair, but the number of events I uncovered in the archive was shocking. We might forget our history in the week-long party that is Pride today, but it took years, generations, and not a few lost lives along the way to get to where we are now. Here is just one narrative of that story, as told through the archives.
"Toronto the Good"
Colonial Canadian law inherited its foundations from Great Britain, where, since 1533, sexual relationships between men had been outlawed and punishable by imprisonment (this changed with the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain in 1967). In 1842, the first two Canadian men charged with a homosexual offence were sentenced to prison time for “sodomy,” a catch-all term that referred to a wide variety of sexual offences. This law remained in effect for over 100 years, when the last man was imprisoned in 1965 for private, consensual relations with other men.
Views on gender in Britain and Canada at this time created a discrepancy in the experiences of lesbians and gay men. Women were usually charged with offences relating to prostitution and lesbian relationships were mostly ignored. Toronto doubled down on its so-called “morality laws” after the installment of the moral crusader William Holmes Howland as mayor in 1886. I recommend exploring this era that coined “Toronto the Good” – it is a history both appalling and intriguing.
Turn of the Century and Changing Views of Homosexuals
The 20th century saw more overt expressions of identity along with heightened legal persecution. The first openly gay magazines emerged in Montreal in the 50's, and there were also small organizations forming in the United States who were networking and protesting against the treatment of gays on a very small scale. But at the same time, homosexuality was listed as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1952, lending a medical authority to the persecution of gay people and paving the way for traumatic conversion therapies.
Even with decriminalization on the horizon, the relationship that the LGBTQ community had with the police became intensely antagonistic. In 1947, an Eaton’s employee and part-time drag queen was arrested after he was attacked by a group of men in a public park. It was not uncommon for gay men to seek the aid of police, only to be arrested themselves on those “morality laws” charges. This man’s name was John Herbert, and he became the playwright known for Fortune and Men’s Eyes which was inspired by his experience in jail as a gay man. This is actually the most published Canadian play to date and has been produced in over 100 countries.
The Age of Surveillance
From the 1960's, this dynamic with local police and the RCMP intensified, especially in Toronto and Ottawa where strong queer scenes were developing. The 60's marked a period of intense surveillance of both civilians and government and military employees in which the police attempted to track those suspected of being homosexual. Suspicious behaviours could include dressing contrary to one’s assigned gender and visiting businesses that other suspected homosexuals frequented.
Changes in society’s views on women and gender, and especially the women’s movement, meant that lesbians and trans people were also swept up in these surveillance practices. The police developed the infamous method of “entrapment” deployed against gay men – this is when police in plain clothes would go to spaces where they believed gay men congregated to find sexual partners, posed as civilians, and then arrested those present or those who solicited the officers. These police practices would cause an explosive reaction in the LGBTQ community in the following decades.
"Any Other Way" During the Civil Rights movement
As this era of surveillance was unfolding, the famed R&B singer Jackie Shane was debuting her single “Any Other Way” in Toronto, which explicitly referenced a theme of homosexuality. Shane was born in Nashville and was assigned male at birth, but she never identified as a trans woman, instead choosing to keep an open secret about her gender as many people did at that time. Jackie Shane is an example of how queer culture was building and developing out in the open in Toronto even as police activity became more violent. In that way, it mirrored other liberation movements like the Civil Rights movement unfolding in parallel in the United States. Some of her frequent gigs were at the Sapphire Lounge and the Palais Royale. Shane died in February of this year, shortly after her first interview in 40 years with the CBC.
Out Come the Archives
In the years preceding the Stonewall riots, the issue of gay rights was emerging in public discourse. The first ever magazine to use "gay" in its title was published in Toronto – fittingly titled "Gay". In fact, the magazine only ran for 2 years before the lead editor was criminally charged for the magazine’s content. Issues of "Gay" are rare, but they can be found at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (now called ArQuives) on Isabella Street.
What was probably the most important LGBTQ magazine in Toronto was published in 1971, titled "The Body Politic". It covered an array of subjects from politics to public health to events to art and poetry. Microfiche of the magazine’s entire run is available at the Toronto Reference Library. It was based out of the Glad Day Bookshop which is now thought to be the oldest LGBTQ book store in the world. Pink Triangle Press, the publishing group, was also responsible for founding the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in 1973, and there is more to their story ahead.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the Night of the Christopher Street Riots
Four years prior to the first issue of "The Body Politic", Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau had introduced the Criminal Law Amendment Act which proposed to officially decriminalize homosexual relationships along with abortion and contraception. This was when he famously said that there was "no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." The Act became law two years later, on June 27th, 1969, when Trudeau was Prime Minister.
Does the date June 27, 1969 sound familiar? That very night, the first of the Stonewall riots broke out in Manhattan and carried on for 5 days. The reason why we celebrate Pride around the world on June 27 and 28 is because those are the days attributed to the riots. Stonewall is now considered the historic moment in American society when queer people of all kinds responded to police violence by fighting back, and after this moment countless organizations across North America formed for the advancement of gay rights including many in Toronto. While we have already noted that this was not the first time queer people had protested in the US, this is the historic event that has stuck with us.
What is the Stonewall Inn? Before the Gay Liberation Movement, queer people in the 60's had to congregate in places where they would be relatively protected from police interference and, ironically, this usually meant mob-owned bars like the Stonewall because the mobs purchased police protection through bribes. However, on June 27, NYPD’s First Division, which is different from the local precinct, conducted an unannounced raid and attempted to shut the bar down. This was not the first time a gay bar had been raided, but the story goes that this time, the patrons of the bar fought back and forced the police to barricade themselves in the bar. Eyewitnesses reported that police had their guns drawn but reinforcements arrived in time and no lives were lost. Some say that the funeral of Judy Garland earlier that day provided the emotional charge that triggered the revolt, but is it possible that Canadian decriminalization provided the galvanizing force to fight back?
Public libraries and the American Library Association React
Public libraries played a role in the Gay Liberation Movement right from the beginning. One year after Stonewall, the American Library Association formed the Task Force on Gay Liberation, now called the GLBT Roundtable. Some of their goals included building gay bibliographies, fighting job discrimination, and ending the Library of Congress classification of homosexuals under "abnormal sexual behaviour" and "sexual criminality," which they achieved almost immediately. The DSM followed ALA's example and changed their classifications in 1973.
Further Advancements are Hard-Won
Even after Canadian decriminalization, individual rights had to be fought for and won in court, often with multiple failed attempts. The right for a same-sex spouse to collect life insurance, the right to immigrate to Canada, the right to serve in the military, along with countless other issues were challenged in court. Quebec became the first province to incorporate sexual orientation into its Human Rights Code in 1977, and other provinces followed suit, some waiting as long as 2001 to do so.
"Toronto's Stonewall": The Bath House Raids and Arrest of "The Body Politic" Editors
The 70's and 80's saw some of the most explosive events in Toronto’s LGBTQ community. In 1978, the chief editors of "The Body Politic" were arrested on charges of "possession of obscene material for the purpose of distribution." Although it was eventually ruled that the contents of the magazine were not in violation of law, it resulted in a six-year legal struggle for the three men. What was most troubling was that, during the raid on the office, the subscription list was confiscated and kept by the police until 1985.
Then, in 1981, "Toronto’s Stonewall" happened after the February police raids on several men’s bath houses around the city. The purpose of the raids was to arrest the men inside soliciting or engaged in sexual activity. The use of force was highly criticized, and many community reports were published on how these raids reflected the ongoing targeting of queer spaces that similar straight-serving environments, like strip clubs, were not subjected to. This happened again in 2000, when women’s bath houses were aggressively raided by five male police officers. The Toronto Police eventually issued an apology for the women’s bath house raids.
AIDS Action Now! The Gay Liberation Front turns to AIDS activism
1981 was the same year that the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized that a new and deadly virus had emerged among the young gay male populations of North American cities. Gay men were the first group of people in North America to contract the virus on a large scale, but the widespread belief that it was relegated to gay men was false, and every person was susceptible. Because of its disproportionate impact on the LGBTQ community, many of the Gay Liberation Movement organizations that had sprung up turned to activism for AIDS research.
In Canada and in the US there were countless protests against what was seen as the governments’ inaction as entire social circles suddenly died from the disease. LGBTQ communities were so small that these deaths had an inordinate impact on them and it was incredibly devastating. Toronto activist groups like AIDS Action Now! helped promote safe sex and established needle exchange programs and shelters to protect vulnerable people. Women’s groups were also extremely active in lobbying, as the disease also affected sex workers and single mothers with children.
The First Parade and Continued Activism Beyond Stonewall
While the first official Toronto Pride Parade was born of the protests against the 1981 bath house raids, June 28th has been a day of celebration and activism from the first year after Stonewall. Pride has evolved into a massive celebration drawing 1 million people from around the GTA and around the world. But, Pride also continues to be an opportunity for continued activism beyond Stonewall.
In 2016, the activist group Black Lives Matter (BLM) disrupted the parade to deliver a list of demands to Pride Toronto. Some of these demands included self-determination for community groups, dedicated space for black queer youth, better funding for events dedicated to people of colour, prioritizing hiring of black transwomen, Indigenous people, and others from vulnerable groups, and most notoriously, the removal of uniformed police officers and floats from the parade. You can find the full list of demands related to the Pride Parade here.
The removal of Toronto Police from the parade has been the single most controversial issue around the event since its inception. A few city councilors attempted to pull funding from the parade in response to the ban, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford has publicly disparaged the decision. However, BLM and others argue that the antagonism the community has felt from the police has not been adequately addressed or even put to an end. The most recent police raid was conducted in 2017 on the Marie Curtis Park in Etobicoke, where around 60 people were apprehended and 89 charges were laid. All but one of the charges were not criminal in nature – they were by-law infractions. The operation was criticised as being heavy-handed and insensitive to the risks that closeted men face when charged with crimes associated with what are still dubbed "morality raids".
A Look Beyond and Further Reading
Marriage equality was gained in Canada on July 20, 2005. While we have made great strides since the days of imprisonment and sodomy convictions, we still have a way to go. Trans rights and recognition have been long overdue. Gender identity only received protection in Canada in 2017 and has been met with extreme resistance from some members of the population. If you are interested in LGBTQ literature and history, Toronto Public Library has several resources to explore. The Yorkville Branch has a dedicated Pride Collection and there is a new reading list available.
The Toronto Star Photograph Archive has the photos featured in this blog plus many more, and you can view them digitally on our website or in-person at the Special Collections Department, fifth floor of the Toronto Reference Library. The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, now known as the ArQuives, is located at 34 Isabella Street in Toronto’s village.
The New York Public Library has put together an exhibition and reading guide for Stonewall 50.
Recommended Reading List:
- Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer
- The Stonewall Reader (also available as an ebook)
- Report on Police Raids on Gay Steambaths
- Marvellous Grounds: Queer of Colour Histories of Toronto
- Queering Urban Justice: Queer of Colour Formations in Toronto (also available as an ebook)
- The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation