A safe haven for queers, an inspiration for artists: Why we must fight for Hanlan's Point Beach
Canada's longest-surviving queer space continues to push for an official historic designation
As we enter the final throes of winter (at least officially), the queers of Toronto are surely dreaming of that annual light at the end of the frozen tunnel: the first day it's warm enough to make their way to Hanlan's Point Beach. And this year, that day will feel all the more precious.
Canada's oldest surviving queer space, the unofficial designation of Hanlan's Point as a safe space for LGBTQ folks dates back at least 80 years — it was even the site of Toronto's first Pride on August 1, 1971. But major threats to its existence as a historic community hub arose over the past few months, when the city's Toronto Island Park Master Plan was discovered to contain a proposal for building a permanent festival space on Hanlan's Point.
The plan was ultimately dropped, in large part thanks to a group of concerned patrons of the beach who had been following Toronto's master planning process for the last several years. When they found out about the proposal, they launched the Instagram account Hands Off Hanlan's to raise awareness of what was going on.
"We wanted to let people know, first of all, about what was being suggested in phase three of the master plan for what I would say the majority of queer people in the city really view as an extremely special space," says Travis Myers, a member of Hands Off Hanlan's. "And what we quickly learned was that almost nobody was aware of this, because the consultation hadn't really been happening on the the mass scale."
In addition to making their followers aware of the current threats to Hanlan's, the group also utilized the social media account to let people know about all the research they had uncovered about the space's history — namely that this was certainly not the first time it had been jeopardized, and it was very unlikely to be the last.
"We had this really unique opportunity to help queer people understand their own history because it's been erased for so long," Myers says. "A lot of people don't know this history. I didn't know a lot of this history going into this, and it's been so eye-opening."
Among the many, many highlights of that history is how the city of Toronto went through a period of "master plan madness" from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, producing at least 15 plan concepts for the island (Harbour City being the most famous). In each version, Hanlan's Point and its beach have been treated as underutilized spaces that are prime for development or activation. This came despite common knowledge that it had a large queer presence (Pride was physically held there in the 1970s).
These plans continued into the 1980s, with perhaps the wildest attempt to reprogram the space: building a wave pool across the lawn, over the beach, and into the water. This idea was thwarted by a group of concerned queers, just as the festival space was last month.
"What we found going through all of the archival stuff was that there was a group of people who did exactly what we doing now 40 years ago," says Myers. "It's so crazy to see that nothing has changed."
The prevention of this most recent attempt to re-imagine Hanlan's as a space stripped of its queer community clearly comes as a relief (at least temporarily) to the many people who call it a second summer home, not least of all many artists who have drawn on it for inspiration. Zack Rosen, who recently mounted Take Me Back To Happiness — an exhibition based on work he had created at Hanlan's — says he cannot imagine his life in Toronto without the beach.
"Hanlan's is such a fragile space," Rosen says. "On one side, you have nature encroaching. On the other side, you have people encroaching. And then between nature and essentially city government, we just have this one little beautiful kind of eden that's ours."
"I really tried to capture that in my work in as many different ways as I could. Realistically, what does Hanlan's looks like? What does Hanlan's feel like? What is Hanlan's philosophically?"
Dylan Glynn is also in the process of completing his own series of work that draws on Hanlan's, an Ontario Arts Council-funded project called Garden of Hedon.
"It's really impressive and inspiring, the fact that the community does consistently come together to preserve that space," Glynn says. "The whole inspiration for this collection is the legacy of Hanlan's being such a sacred queer space over the course of many generations. And that's where this idea of the mythos around Hanlan's comes from. That's why there's this mythic imagery in the series of paintings from centaurs to a minotaur — that long legacy across generations that creates kind of a legend that is something that is so inspiring to me."
Filmmaker Dylan Mitro set his short film "Ripples" — which is about to screen at the BFI Flare Film Festival in London, UK — at Hanlan's. The film delves into issues facing the community at the beach that stretch well beyond interference from city, focusing on how many LGBTQ folks feel the space is not being made inclusive by members of their own community (namely, gay men).
"The short started with just conversations I was having with my friends around the discourse around Hanlan's, and how I found that it was hard to identify which part of the space that was supposed to feel so safe and inclusive," Mitro says. "We had to try to carve out to try to even feel that way amongst my friends who are within the trans community or gender non-conforming. It is such a space focused being so hypersexualized and party-centric, and specifically hypermasculine and gay, but like, somehow it doesn't leave much space for those that are just trying to find community and have a space to relax and to heal."
Mitro was in attendance at meetings about the Toronto Island Master Plan, and is among the many who feel that just because the proposal for the event space has been stopped, that doesn't mean everything is resolved.
"Safety wasn't even a part of their plan at all," Mitro says. "There was no mandate of safety in any of their thoughts."
This is one of many concerns that remain for the Hands Off Hanlan's team, who are continuing to monitor the city's plans for that area of the island.
"It doesn't end with the deletion of the concert festival space," says Myers. "That's the beginning of making sure that the space is being respected and honoured as a queer community hub like it's been for over 80 years."
"I am very glad that people had their voices heard when it comes to the removal of the concert festival venue. It's just unfortunate that people might think that this is where it ends right now. But what needs to happen, in my opinion, is having a concrete historic designation for the space."
There have always been people who have looked at Hanlan's and essentially said that we can find a better use for this space than for the queer community. Getting a historic designation from the city could protect it from those people.
"There's always been a desire to find some 'better, grander' use for Hanlan's beyond the queer community's use of it," Myers says. "And what we need to do is get those protections in place — things like an an official declaration of this place as a historic site for the queer community so that we're not fighting these battles again and again."
But Myers' biggest takeaway from the last few months is how loud the response from the queer community has been.
"Thousands and thousands of queer people have spoken up and have finally drawn a line in the sand, no pun intended," he says. "They staked their claim on a place that's theirs. And I think there's nothing more wonderful than seeing a community mobilize and organize and say that their history matters and that their culture matters and that they don't want it taken away from them."
"While there's still a lot of hard work to be done in order to actually make sure that that comes to pass, the voices are out there now and the wheels are in motion. And I don't think that this can be ignored anymore."