Community & Current Events

Toronto's Gay and Lesbian community: a brief history

By: Doug O'Neill

Photo courtesy of SweetOne/FlickrCC Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photo courtesy of SweetOne/FlickrCC

Community & Current Events

Toronto's Gay and Lesbian community: a brief history

By: Doug O'Neill

Alexander Wood Statue

At the corner of Church and Alexander streets in the area once known as Molly Wood's Bush, is a statue of Alexander Wood (pictured). An Upper Canada magistrate caught in the midst of a sex scandal in 1810, he was accused of "committing homosexual acts." His reputation was never fully restored. The statue was erected in 2005 to honour Wood as a forefather of Toronto's gay community.

St. Charles Tavern
An iconic gay gathering spot from the '60s to the early '80s, Yonge Street's St. Charles Tavern was one of the first openly gay bars. Repeatedly attacked by anti-gay crowds (especially on Halloween night when patrons, courageous brave souls that they were, hosted annual drag shows), the tavern symbolized the challenges gay men and women faced only a few decades ago. Though the tavern is long since gone, its impact was profound.

The 519 Church Street Community Centre

The "519," as it's known, has long been at the centre of Toronto's LGBT community. Built in 1975, the centre was a safe haven for many gay and lesbian Canadians who moved to the city. The 519 Church Street Community Centre, at the geographical heart of Pride Day celebrations, is home to hundreds of organizations, including Pride Uganda Toronto, American Express Employees for Equal Rights, Polish Gays and Lesbians Khush (South Asian Gays and Lesbians).


1981 Toronto bathhouse raids
On Feb. 5, 1981, Toronto police raided four bathhouses. Officers rounded up and arrested hundreds of men, with many lives and reputations destroyed in the process. This heinous act of discrimination galvanized the gay community. The following evening, 3,000 people marched on Queen's Park and 52 Division in Toronto. It was, for many, Canada's version of Stonewall. In a very public, vocal manner, the gay and lesbian community stood up for their rights. The following spring, Toronto had its very first Pride Day celebration on Toronto Island.

The birth of Toronto's gay village
In the '80s, gay establishments moved from Yonge Street to Church Street, and an identifiable gay village was born—a safe, accepting neighbourhood (and social hot spot) for many LGBT youth and adults from across Canada. Coffee shops, restaurants, bars and dance clubs flourished in the area bordered by Gerrard Street to the south, Yonge Street to the west, Charles Street to the north, and Jarvis Street to the east. 

1984: Church Street closes for Pride Day festivities

Originally held on Toronto Island and later at King's College Circle at U of T, Pride celebrations eventually took over both Cawthra Square at the 519 Church Street Community Centre and Church Street. By 1984, the festival had grown so large the city closed down Church Street to traffic and provided a pedestrian promenade. These days, Church Street is closed from Carlton to Bloor Street for much of Pride weekend.

Woody's: The gay man's "Cheers"

Still one of the most popular gay bars in Toronto today, Woody's first opened its doors in 1989. With pool, Sunday brunches, karaoke nights, fundraisers, sports nights and special nights for gay university and college lads, Woody's was one of the best gay pubs around. The bar also became one of the first gay establishments that saw patrons bringing straight friends—a first for Toronto—heralding a new era of inclusivity and openness.

Queer as Folk TV series
North America's version of the award-winning series Queer as Folk was shot in Toronto from 2000 to 2005. Woody's and Sailors, popular bars in the Gay Village, were often featured on the show. Filmed in Toronto (but set in Pittsburgh), the series signified a huge shift in primetime TV and society at large, changes that were a long time coming.  

The community expands
With the new millennium came more positive changes. The LGBT community expanded past the Church-Wellesley Gay Village. Gay establishments opened in Parkdale and Queen West (known to many as "Village West"), and WAYLA bar opened their doors in Leslieville.



Toronto hosts WorldPride 2014

So much has changed in a few decades. Today in Canada, there are laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and there is recognition of same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage. Even more importantly, there's an increased respect and acceptance of the LGBT community. WorldPride Toronto 2014 will encourage other communities around the world to continue to address ongoing challenges in LGBT communities.

Learn more about Toronto's historic Church Street and WorldPride in our celebration of WorldPride 2014 in Toronto. ʉ۬

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Community & Current Events

Toronto's Gay and Lesbian community: a brief history

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