By Mathieu Brûlé
The relationship between the City of Toronto and the city’s queer communities has been a popular topic of discussion in Toronto over the past few weeks. Prompted by Mayor Rob Ford’s decision to forego Pride Week’s festivities in exchange for time at his family cottage, many, critics and supporters alike, have expressed disappointment in the mayor’s decision to forego the 16-year tradition of Toronto’s mayor’s marching in the Pride Parade. While it is true that attending Pride events is not an official duty of the mayor, it certainly is a sign of goodwill from the city’s highest elected office. Since 1995, Toronto mayors have made it a point of attending Pride. To many, this was a sign that the City, which has not always acted in the best interests of the city’s queer communities, was willing to work with them to make Toronto as inclusive as possible and celebrate sexual diversity rather than suppress it. We need to consider Rob Ford’s decision in this context.
Seeking City support for Pride events has been a goal of Pride organizers for the past 40 years. When Toronto’s first Pride Week was held in August 1972, its organizers in Toronto Gay Action and the Community Homophile Association of Toronto made it a point to seek official recognition and support from the city in the form of a proclamation recognizing the event. Although the week was an overall success, it was denied official recognition. The same request was again denied the following year, although then Mayor David Crombie did extend his well wishes to the event’s organizers.
Although relations between the City and Toronto’s queer communities experienced a number of difficult periods in the 1980s, particularly following the infamous bathhouse raids in February 1981, a number of supporters and allies could be found on city council. The mobilization that had occurred following the bathhouse raids provided momentum to renew the now sporadic annual pride events. As tension between lesbian and gay activists and the City lingered, Pride events consistently grew in size, growing from approximately 1,500 participants in 1981, to over 25,000 by the end of the decade. Despite the growing popularity of the event, as well as its obvious benefits to local tourism, Mayor Art Eggleton continued to refuse to grant an official proclamation recognizing the event, an insult made worse by his decision to proclaim an official “Muppet Baby Day” in 1990.
The third decade of Pride in Toronto began with a step towards improving relations between queer communities and the City with an official proclamation recognizing Pride Day by City Council in 1991. Four years later, long-time lesbian and gay rights supporter Barbara Hall became the first mayor to march in Toronto’s Pride Parade.
Although Hall’s status as a supporter of lesbian and gay rights did not make her decision to march in the parade a surprise, it did set a precedent that even the more conservative mayors and public figures decided to follow. This is evident in her successor and businessman Mel Lastman’s decision to not only march in the parade, but also in his decision to officially recognize Pride Week, as opposed to only Pride Day, in 1998. Even Julian Fantino, who had made few friends in lesbian and gay communities following his tenure as chief of police in London, Ontario during which he oversaw the controversial Project Guardian made it a point to attend some Pride events in his first year as Police Chief.
Over the past fifteen years, public figures of all political stripes, from the liberal Barbara Hall to the staunchly conservative Julian Fantino, have made it a point to extend their hands to Toronto’s queer communities by attending Pride events. Doing so has sent the message to the entire city that civic leaders are willing to hear the voices of groups that were once openly persecuted and criminalized by the law. Rob Ford’s decision to forego this year’s Pride events should be considered in this context. The mayor’s decision to give Pride the cold shoulder, combined with his threats to cut the event’s municipal funding, as well as the ongoing attacks on the event by some of his closest political allies, represents a step backwards in terms of relations between the City and Toronto’s queer communities. Whether it was intentional or not, the annual reaffirmation of this relationship has been set back and threatens to reopen old wounds that many had thought, or hoped, had been healed.
Mathieu Brûlé is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at York University.