'Grand Central Station for Toronto's queers of colour': The inside history of Dewson House
Activist and writer Makeda Silvera recounts the revolutionary history of the house for chosen family
Black Light is a column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people. This guest edition is an essay by writer Makeda Silvera.
Sitting here in this house, writing this piece, I can't imagine any other place I'd rather be.
The house sits tranquil and calm, far removed from the turbulence and passion it breathed in the 1980s. Back then, the house was both a home and a refuge for many of Toronto's queer Black, of colour and Indigenous young folks. We were all lesbians, some of us mothers. Among us there was one sensitive — and, I would add, tolerant — gay Black man who shared the home. At the time, we at Dewson House were making history. We had come together through different and difficult paths to live collectively as queers of colour.
The large house had a comforting and welcoming feel to it. It boasted a large wooden porch with an old garden bench, its red paint almost peeled off. They both looked upon a giant Norway Maple tree in front. Dewson House quickly became akin to Grand Central Station — a point of connection — not only for many of Toronto's queers of colour and those questioning their sexuality, but also those escaping hostile and isolated communities across Canada.
Back in those days, we were young, restless and rebellious. We were sick and tired of many of the things that stood in the way of reaching our full potential as persons: tired of the white LGBTQ community, tired of being seen as fantasy objects in bars and other social gatherings, tired of being treated as if we were invisible. We were also tired of white feminists' hypocrisy. Back then, if you had children, you were often not seen as a true lesbian. White feminists were unwilling to acknowledge experiential differences or that there was such a thing as white-skinned and class privilege. Sure, we were all fighting the oppression of homophobia and sexism, but little thought — if any — was given to racism in our everyday lives.
Dewson House was where we lived with our chosen family, with friends old and new and lovers too. It was a place to relax, where you came to seek shelter from the raging storm outside, from the bitter tongues. Here we shared in the parenting of four children, fought over housework, gossiped, told our stories, held parties, drank, played music. Reggae and calypso for days played on our stereo, and we were big on women and feminist singers: Aretha Franklin, Miriam Makeba, Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Casselberry-Dupreé, Tori Reagan, Buffy St. Marie. These were women speaking to us, speaking our language, telling our life. That was one of the things that made Dewson House so important — we almost never heard this music at bars or white feminist gatherings.
One of the memories that forever stays with me is the mouthwatering smell that came from that small kitchen and the barbecue out back in the summers. The delicious aroma still seeks my nose every once in a while. Caribbean cooking was the star of the house. My mouth waters when I remember the Grenadian split pea, vegetarian-style with a touch of nutmeg on top; Jamaican escovitch fish, fried to a crisp, seasoned with scotch bonnet pepper and pickled vegetable; gungo peas and rice; snacks like samosas dipped in tamarind sauce and tasty Nigerian puff puff. I remember with much nostalgia that there was always food in the house, a pot or two for anyone to dip into. Images of children come to mind, and I smile, then a bit of homesickness touches me softly. I am remembering how they looked forward on weekends to the savoury fried Cree bannock, how they would stuff themselves with portions too large, then pretend they were stuck to their chairs.
If you trace back the histories of most of Toronto's Black queer and feminist organizing, you will find a common root: that collective house on Dewson Street.- Debbie Douglas, Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer
Dewson House was not only about food, music, dancing, sex, lovers, gossip or even just a meeting place for the weary. We had tons of debates around politics and everything that affected us. We organized, built coalitions from the ground up. If my memory serves me right, we wasted very little time in building on our organizing skills with our first group Lesbians of Colour; although it disbanded within a few months, it set the table for other groups to emerge out of Dewson House (there are too many to name here). We challenged homophobia head-on in the Black and Caribbean communities while standing together as we fought Twailers 'mas up inna Zimbwe'.
As we became more comfortable in our skins and moved into different activist work that sparked our imaginations, our intent was always to create other spaces for queers of colour. Dewson was a big house, but we wanted to create outside and continue coalition building. Zami, a group which was conceived at Dewson House, began meeting at the 519 on Church St. (Credit given to Douglas Stewart, the brave man who lived with some feisty lesbians.) The name was a Caribbean-Creole word meaning lesbian, although it eventually became largely a men's group. It was open to anyone of colour, but its main goal was to speak to queer issues in the Black community and to continue anti-racist work in the LGBTQ community.
I pursued my interest in feminist publishing and became the first Black woman on the editorial collective. Fireweed was a feminist quarterly of writing, politics, art and culture that was guided by women from Dewson House and ran from 1978–2002. I was one of the managing editors, with friends of Dewson House as the other guest collective members. In 1986, the quarterly featured a Native issue. One of our editors was the late Connie Fife, a Cree Indigenous woman who at the time lived with her young son at Dewson House.
In 1985, my then-partner and I founded Sister Vision: Black Women and Women of Colour Press in the basement at Dewson House. Our vision was to create a space where women could write, publish, and come together to share their writings — to celebrate. Speshal Rikwes, our first book, was published in Jamaican patois; we wanted to bring to the forefront the cultural significance of language in these poems. Another one of our children's books, by Ojibway storyteller and writer Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, was published in both Ojibway and English. Many of these books and anthologies, like Piece of my Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology, literally changed the face of Canadian literature. After all that we accomplished, I can't help but feel disbelief when my mind takes me from the 80s to the 2016 Pride parade, when Black Lives Matter Toronto staged a sit-in on Yonge St. to call out the LGBTQ community for its "history of anti-Blackness." I am reminded of images of the group's big bold picket sign: "May we never again need to remind you that we, too, are queer. BLACK LIVES MATTER." I shake my head and ask myself, "What year are we in?"
Dewson House really was our Grand Central Station. The house was never empty, the front door rarely locked. It embraced folks at all hours with a pot simmering on the stove. People would drop by to borrow a book, to watch a film, to make posters for a demonstration, for discussions, for writing workshops — you name it, it was happening at Dewson House. As it was put in Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer: "If you trace back the histories of most of Toronto's Black queer and feminist organizing, you will find a common root: that collective house on Dewson Street."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.