Does Pride need to get more political about LGBT rights?

Toronto's Pride, one of the biggest gay pride festivals anywhere, was born out of protest but over the years has become more of a celebration. Activists and organizers debate that transition, and Pride's contentious future.

Toronto's gay, lesbian and trans communities' Pride event began as both a protest and a celebration

35 years of Pride: Rev. Brent Hawkes

7 years ago
Duration 4:52
Rev. Brent Hawkes remembers the early days of the pride movement, the 1981 bathhouse raids and more.

While Pride has its roots in protest, some early gay and lesbian activists worry whether Pride Toronto has lost too much of its political side, becoming overwhelmingly a celebration.

Pride Toronto executive director Mathieu Chantelois says Pride "absolutely" needs to stay political, for many reasons. One example he gives is a pile of letters on his desk, received in just the past week.

"It's all hate mail, people telling me I'll burn in hell, and what I'm doing is absolutely wrong." He adds that homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia remain part of Canadian society.

Pride Week is underway in Toronto, culminating with a huge parade and other festivities on June 28.

The event`s protest roots stem from the Feb. 5, 1981 Toronto Police raids on four gay bathhouses, with almost 300 arrests and major damage to some of the premises. "Terrorizing," says Rev. Brent Hawkes, then and now the pastor at Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto.

One of the key groups organizing Pride events in Toronto in 1981, including the protest march, was Gays and Lesbians Against the Right Everywhere, GLARE. (CBC)

The raids awoke a sleeping giant, Hawkes recalls, and "very quickly galvanized the community."

The protests began the night after the raids and continued to build. He says those raids "made lots of folks activists who might never have gotten involved, might have quietly stayed in the closet."

Hawkes went on a hunger strike that would last 25 days, until Toronto city council agreed to an inquiry into police conduct around the bathhouse raids. Hawkes speaks in much more detail about the raids and his own involvement in the protests and resistance, in the video at the top of this page.

Looking back at the movement, Hawkes observes, "Over the years we've radically changed the police service," although he quickly adds that it's not perfect, especially around trans issues, and that there are still some bad apples in the barrel.

'It should also be fun'

Amy Gottlieb, a Toronto artist and activist on gender and sexuality issues, helped organize Pride in 1981. (Maureen FitzGerald)

Artist Amy Gottlieb was already a lesbian activist before the 1981 bathhouse raids, then focusing on countering a strong "moral conservative, right-wing campaign" against gays and lesbians. She describes the raids as "our Stonewall," a reference to a raid on a gay bar in New York City on June 28, 1969 and the riots and protest it sparked, launching the U.S. gay liberation movement.

She would become one of the organizers of the 1981 Toronto Pride, "the first Pride in Toronto that corresponded with the Stonewall riots." (Toronto had Pride picnics and other events in the 1970s, including a march in 1974.)

Gottlieb says the 1981 Pride grew out of "our insistence that we refused to be silent, that we demanded our justice, defied the fear and the bigotry that was being whipped up by the right wing, and that was being carried out by the police and by other institutions."

She says the organizers' goal was a Pride that was really political but would also "celebrate our lives and our struggles" when to do so in public was a real act of defiance. And they wanted to build a coalition of communities impacted by "police repression." 

Another goal was "that it should also be fun."

The CBC-TV news story on that June 28, 1981 Pride is embedded at the end of this story.

Achieving two functions

Rev. Brent Hawkes had to persuade his Metropolitan Community Church to get involved in Pride in the early years. (Eric Foss/CBC)

Hawkes says that in its early days, Pride was "overwhelmingly radical leftist" and he had to persuade his church to get involved. It was one of the first middle-of-the-road groups to do so, and he even claims MCC had the first Pride float: Noah's Ark on a little wagon.

Pride "was appropriately angry in those early days because we had lots to be angry about," Hawkes says, but today he's worried that as an event with two functions, political and celebratory, one part could overcome the other.

While he says the LGBTQ community has made amazing progress in a short period, with much to celebrate, he says there's also lots to be done around rights issues, especially for the transgender community and internationally. 

For last year's World Pride, which was in Toronto, Hawkes served as parade grand marshal.

Gottlieb says she has attended all the Prides since 1981 but that was the only one she helped organize. Noting that every year activist groups march in Pride, and that Pride is still political, she too worries that Pride has lost the political focus as it "became a festival that embraces so many things."

On the other hand, back in 1981, "we would never have imagined that there would have been something quite this grand and that all these people would have been totally fine about marching in lesbian and gay pride."

Pride transitioning

For Pride director Chantelois, a generation behind Hawkes and Gottlieb, Pride is transitioning, in Toronto and around the world. While he says it's important for Pride to talk about what happened with Stonewall and the bathhouse raids, "the biggest danger for us is to try to do the same thing we were doing in 1981. 

Pride Toronto executive director Mathieu Chantelois says Pride needs to stay political, but in a 2015 way. (Marc Lemyre/Radio-Canada)

"As an organization, as a movement, every year it's important for us to reinvent ourselves, to see how we're going to stay relevant." 

For him Pride is still political, but in a 2015 way.

He points to this year's bookings, which includes Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist group that was jailed after running afoul of Vladimir Putin during the last Russian presidential election. "You can't get any more political than Pussy Riot," says Chantelois.

He also mentions Celina Jaitly, a Pride international grand marshal along with Pussy Riot and musician Cyndi Lauper.

Jaitly, a Bollywood actress, has been so outspoken in her support for gay marriage, which is against the law in India, that other Bollywood actors don't want to work with her, and there have been threats on her life, according to Chantelois.

1981 Pride parade

7 years ago
Duration 1:12
Toronto hosted its first Pride parade in 1981 as a response to the police bathhouse raids earlier in the year.


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