Toronto Pride Rains Down!

by JC Alvarez
Thursday Jul 7, 2011

The North American Royal Visit of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, a/k/a Kate Middleton, who brought impeccable fashion sense, wasn’t the only newsworthy byte making the airwaves over the Canada Day holiday weekend: The future queen’s visit appropriately coincided with Toronto’s Gay Pride celebration. An impressive week full of activities, including festivals, marches and rallies culminated in a weekend of dances into the dusk. Toronto Gay Pride is largely well known as one of the world’s most well attended Pride events drawing more than a million spectators to the parade alone.... and plenty of once and future queens!

Lots and Lots to Celebrate!

The series of events took the Toronto Gay Pride committee practically a year to put together. Francisco Alvarez, the chair of the upcoming World Pride event in 2014, also to be hosted in Toronto, admitted that, although the city was in the midst of this year’s party, plans we already underway for next year.

Unlike most spectacles of this magnitude the city of Toronto works to coincide its week of Pride activities conveniently to fit in with the national independence holiday of Canada Day (July 1) and the observance of the pivotal events at Stonewall, which many mark as the cornerstone of the Gay Civil Rights Movement.

Although very much a world city, Toronto’s charm lies in its also conveying the small-town feel of a provincial town. As a visitor from New York, my joy was enhanced by reveling not only in the enjoyment of friendly goodwill of a major city celebrating its Pride, but also in the passage that very Friday (and quick signing into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo) of New York’s Marriage Equality bill.

Walker in the City

Anyone visiting this huge metropolis can benefit from the walking tours provided by Toronto Queer Walking Tours and its local historian Bruce Bell, both of which helped me understand the cultural connection with our northern neighbors.

Liz Devine, president of Rainbow High Vacations, was also present for the walking tour through Toronto’s "Gay Village," oriented at Church and Wellesley. Liz imparted the gay historical resonance of the walk and emotionally illustrated the lengths to which the Toronto LGBT community has gone to defend themselves and win their civil rights.

Similarly motivated to organize and defend their community, the Gay Civil Rights movement in Toronto was inspired by an incident referred to as the 1981 Bathhouse Riots. In the dead of winter, local police stormed a popular Toronto bathhouse -- at the time, one of the secured safe havens where gays went to congregate.

Causing unnecessary property damage, and assaulting the patrons, officers dragged men out of the establishment. Some were clad only in towels. The police bloodied and beat them onto the cold snow covered streets.

In that moment, no longer would Toronto’s LGBT community be relegated to the intolerance, scorn and prejudice of a system that deemed them as deviants or second-class citizens. Leaders arose and protests began. When confronted by well-armed, riot-ready police who were determined to disperse the demonstrators making their way up Yonge Street expecting a fight, gay activists all sat down along the path instead. Knowing the world was watching, the police could not act against what immediately had become a peaceful and defiant demonstration.

This is all recent history and although incredible strides have been achieved to guarantee fair and equal rights, Toronto, like most cities, recognizes the need not to accept complacency and to continue the work necessary to further the movement.

Parameters of Pride

During Gay Pride Week, the community reclaims the streets. Closing off most of Church Street, the heart of Toronto’s bar scene. Popular stops include Woody’s the bar made famous on Showtime’s "Queer As Folk," where you can find most of the hunky, pretty people, and the Black Eagle for the more manly types. A street fair, performance stages and various vendor booths line the streets offering free samples and many opportunities for people watching.

Before the big parade on Sunday, the first of a series of politically minded marches, the Trans March, was launched on Friday. It recognizes the growing visibility and need for the sometimes-disenfranchised trans-members of the community. The cornerstone of Saturday’s rally down Yonge Street was the widely supported Dyke March.

At the heart of all the frolicking and where you can find the pulse of this lovingly nurturing community is The 519, Toronto’s LGBT center at 519 Church St. As well as providing all the counseling, groups and services one would expect at a huge city’s gay center, The 519 inspires good eating with a uniquely guided eating experience at Fabarnak, an eatery that is part of the center.

Hey, who can doubt the role of belonging and affirming that food plays in defining our community? Fabarnak was also established as an opportunity for the local LGBT youth to learn firsthand about food preparation, from the ground up and running a business.

The Green Space at Cawthra Square Park adjacent to The 519, is transformed into several dance parties, beginning with the inaugural "1001 Starry Nights" on Thursday, described as "an elegant outdoor soirée."

Just Dance! Then March!!

It is the first of the weekend’s events which are dedicated fundraisers benefitting The 519. Rio de Janeiro superstar DJ Ana Paulo played at the Green Space on Saturday night after having just thrilled thousands at the Pier Dance that caps NYC Pride. No one can say Toronto is at a loss for drawing top notch DJ talent!

The impending threat of a Saturday evening shower couldn’t dampen the spirits of the thousands who had come out earlier to support the rally along the Dyke March. On one of the several main stages positioned right outside Wellesley Station, a main hub into Toronto’s gay village, the rain came down just as legendary dance diva Deborah Cox took the stage to sing her greatest hits.

The event entitled "WerQ!" at Wellesley was hosted by some of the city’s biggest nightlife personalities, with a contemporary dance show by superstar choreographer Scott Fordham, and with a lightning display provided by the Almighty above. Party-goers danced into the night as the showers provided relief from the summer night’s heat.

On Sunday, everyone excitedly anticipated the Gay Pride Parade which starts at Church and Bloor Streets, moves south on Yonge Street, then heads east on Gerrard culminating back at Church for a grande finale.

Absent from the event was Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, the sadly staunchly conservative politician who chose this weekend to go to "cottage" with his family. That may be an alternative Canada Day tradition but it was an unpopular choice for the mayor to take especially showing his lack of support for the LGBT community.

After some politicking, event organizers agreed they couldn’t be bothered by who had chosen not to attend. They were far more devoted to the millions expected to attend Sunday’s pivotal Pride Parade.

The biggest distraction to Toronto’s Gay Pride is simply this...there’s just too much to do, even for just one weekend. The city does a magnificent job of satisfying every taste and stimulating every single one of the senses... from free street fairs and music festivals, to the surrounding big ticket circuit parties like Prism’s Pride series which promised appearances by big name adult film stars, and top-tier DJ’s including Manny Lehman, Hector Fonseca and Rosabel of Rosario and Abel. Since everything is located within a reasonable distance it’s a matter of how quickly you can get there before the mandatory queue.

One thing is for certain - if on an annual basis Toronto can pull this sort of Pride celebration off, when World Pride takes over the city you can bet it will be an event to rival a Royal Wedding.

Native New Yorker JC Alvarez is a pop-culture enthusiast and the nightlife chronicler of the club scene and its celebrity denizens from coast-to-coast. He is the on-air host of the nationally syndicated radio show "Out Loud & Live!" and is also on the panel of the local-access talk show "Talking About".


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