How Toronto turned its LGBT clubs into 'safer spaces' and why that still matters
'Queers come together in these spaces to celebrate, to party, to dance to meet one another'
It was 1973 and You Make Me Feel Brand New had just started playing on the jukebox when Andrew Zealley walked into Toronto's St. Charles Tavern for the first time.
"That song remains my coming out moment," he said. "Coming out, but going in."
At the time, St. Charles Tavern was one of two main Toronto institutions geared toward LGBT nightlife. And while Zealley, now an artist and activist, said he felt a sense of kinship as he entered a gay bar for the first time, there remained the threats of a police raid or being jumped by someone once he stepped outside.
Even to get in, you might have to run the gauntlet, a line of bigots hurling insults — and sometimes eggs — on Yonge Street as people walked into St. Charles.
"Historically, clubs have been a safer queer space — once you got inside," Zealley said. "But there's still the question of what a safe space really is."
- Orlando nightclub attack: Gunman had been investigated for terror links
- Pride Toronto events to go on as planned with increased security following Orlando attack
It's a question that's being asked again this week after a gunman killed 49 people dancing into the wee hours at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. More than 50 others were injured.
There's a collective sense of shock at the violence, of course, the executive director of Pride Toronto said, all the more so because the gunman violated what's traditionally been a safe space for the LGBT community.
"The clubs were the only place where we felt totally comfortable," Mathieu Chantelois said Monday. "That was the only place where we could actually be yourself and now even this place is a place where we don't feel comfortable anymore."
But Chantelois said the events make it all the more important to commemorate Pride, especially in a citywhere the LGBT community has fought hard for the right to feel safe in its nightclubs and its streets.
"Although the threat is there, we will not let fears get in the way of what we do," Chantelois, calling for a larger parade than ever before.
In 1981, the LGBT community was mobilizing against a different threat after police raided bathhouses and arrested more than 300 people. Ironically, people met in gay bars to discuss how to make those institutions and their streets safer, Tim McCaskell, an activist with the LGBT community said.
"This was a space for us where if we kept out of sight we were left alone and suddenly we weren't," he said.
And it became a turning point in community activism, he said, as people fought to reclaim one of the few spaces they could truly be themselves — to be out and, hopefully, feel safer.
Everyone's going to come out in full force to show the haters that love always wins.- Dean Oderico, general manager, Woody's
Part of that happened with the shift to the Village in the mid-80s, as bars left Yonge Street for the cheaper rents on Church Street where a neighbourhood identity was already developing. And it also marked a shift to when LGBT people began to own bars and clubs, which added to the sense of community, said Denise Benson, author of Then and Now: Toronto Nightlife History.
"Our civil rights movement really came to fruition from there," Benson said. "But before then, through to now, people came together — queers come together — in these spaces to celebrate, to party, to dance, to meet one another.
"It was a social space, but it was so much more."
That's evident during Pride Month, something that will be marked by celebration but also a time to remember those who died in Orlando or have been victims of other hate crimes and violence.
And it will give the community the chance to reaffirm ownership of its safe places, Dean Oderico, general manager of Woody's, a Church Street bar, told CBC News.
"Everyone's going to come out in full force to show the haters that love always wins," he said. "You'll meet somebody from a small town in Canada or another country where it is isn't safe and you see how important these spaces are."
With files from Amanda Grant