Toronto’s Gay Village (1969-1982): Plotting the Politics of Gay Identity

Catherine Jean Nash. Canadian Geographer. Volume 50, Issue 1. Spring 2006.


Toronto’s gay village, cheerfully marked by colourful flags, inviting store fronts and an energetic street life has become a key attraction for visitors and residents alike-from heterosexual tourists seeking to experience the urban spectacle to queer-identified street youth seeking safe haven. Over the last forty years, Toronto’s gay and lesbian population has enjoyed an increasingly more tolerant reception with thegay village acting as its cultural and social centre. Yet underneath the gay district’s friendly facade, there exists a highly contested and much critiqued urban landscape a location deeply scarred by myriad battles fought over the social, political and cultural meanings attributed to the existence of individuals interested in same-sex relationships (Castells 1983; Lauria and Knopp. 1985; Bell and Valentine 1995; Ingram et al 1997; Bailey 1999; Chasin 2000; Armstrong 2002). From its quiet and almost imperceptible beginnings in the 1950s to it current positioning as a national and international oasis of so-called queer culture, Toronto’s gay village has experienced a precarious existence as simultaneously a location of community and individual freedom and as material proof, for some, of Canada’s descent into moral and social decay.

The implications arising from the apparent relationship between certain homosexual identities and particular places is far more complicated than merely a battle over the ability to visibly inhabit and appropriate identifiable territories or neighbourhoods. The historical evolution of Toronto’s gay village has to do with complex and unpredictable power relations ordering and re-ordering associations between contested identities and places. How this plays out depends upon historically specific political, social, economic and cultural processes at a variety of scales. What it means to be ‘homosexual’ varies from place to place and time to time, and from the outset, Toronto’s gay and lesbian-identified spaces were a battleground for attempts to fix the meanings given to the identity of those engaged in same sex behaviours.

In this article, I explore the emergence and consolidation of Toronto’s gay village in association with varying and contested conceptualizations of homosexual identity. These conceptualizations emerged through a series of complex engagements between Toronto’s gay and lesbian population, mainstream interests (read: hegemonic straight interests) and the nascent homosexual political movement of the 1970s. I begin my account in the mid-1960s, although I do somewhat arbitrarily tie the paper to the date of the passage of the Criminal Code amendments partially decriminalizing certain sexual acts passed in 1969, a move sparking considerable public debate. The research period ends in the early 1980s prior to the first-reported case of AIDS in Toronto, an event substantially altering the nature of the debates around homosexual identity and space. The aim here is to complicate much of the current geographical literature on the role of gay politics in the mutual formation of gay identities and gay urban space. I demonstrate, contrary to much of the current literature on gay movement political activism, that at least in the City of Toronto in the 1970s, the gay movement sought to dismantle rather than affirm expressly gay-associated spaces and neighbourhoods. I argue that the gay village in Toronto evolved despite rather than because of gay movements’ efforts and intentions. In fact, Toronto’s gay activists only came to regard the gay village as a location of potential political and economic strength well after the consolidation of Toronto’s gay district and years after antagonistic exchanges between gay entrepreneurs, and the gay movement had subsided. For much of its history, the gay ghetto was regarded as an obstacle rather than a benefit to the liberation of gays and lesbians-a space at odds with and constitutive of a diminished and apolitical homosexual identity.

This article begins by briefly outlining the current geographical literature conceptualizing the interconnectedness of sexuality and space. In the next section, I then provide a brief overview of the three major ideological frameworks underpinning gay movement politics in Toronto during the 1970s-the assimilationist phase of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the liberationist phase of the mid-1970s and the minority rights phase marking the end of the decade. This admittedly tidy and linear narrative of political thought within the movement in Toronto is for organizational purposes only. In actuality, the various organizations and activists in Toronto engaged in contentious contested and often incoherent internal debates ensuring that multiple, overlapping and disparate formulations were in play throughout the period under consideration. However, in those public debates about homosexual identity and spatial organization, each of these approaches came to dominate in one time or another.

The paper then considers each of these ideological period in some detail and concludes by discussing the implications of these findings for future research and in the light of contemporary and increasingly conservative gay movement activism.

Embodying Identity in Place

In conceptualizing the relationship between identities, gay spaces and gay politics, I draw on two main bodies of literature: work by feminist geographers and historians on the historical and cultural constitution of identities in space and, to a lesser extent, geographical literature on gay and lesbian urban spaces. Contemporary work in cultural geography as well as work by feminist geographers and historians draws on various post-structuralist approaches to offer innovative and highly insightful accounts of the recursive formulations of spaces and identities (Scott 1988a, 1988b, 1993; Butler 1990; Duncan 1996; Bondi 1998; McDowell 1999). Using these approaches, scholars began to ‘retheorize the subject as relational and contingent … rather than being a fixed and stable entity which enters into social relations’ (McDowell 1999, 22). Furthering the notion that social identities are constructed and constantly in play, Judith Butler (1990) argues that socially constituted gender categories are maintained through the ‘performance’ of gender, particularly in public sites, in which bodies habitually act out the regulatory fiction of gendered and sexualized norms (Butler 1990; Bell et al. 1994). Within these processes of repetition and habituation, these behaviours are constitutive of subjectivity and a collective identity that manifests differently in different places (Bailey 1999; Nash 2003).

This idea that gendered and sexualized behaviours are ‘performances’ undertaken in compliance with normative values and beliefs renders visible the very corporeality of our being and suggests that ‘the body itself is constructed through public discourse and practices that occur on a variety of scales’ (McDowell 1999, 50). Spaces or landscapes are physically constructed within dominant systems of meaning that can be ‘read’ by occupants in ways that order and organize social relations, behaviours and expectations in certain spaces. Subjects, through bodily regulations of behaviours, are disciplined in place, so that ‘place is produced by practices that adhere to … beliefs about what is the appropriate thing to do,’ In doing so, place reproduces those beliefs that initially produced it, making them seem ‘natural, self-evident and common sense’ (Cresswell 1996, 16; see also Keith and Pile 1993).

Geographers considering the evolution of gay and lesbian spaces argue that public spaces are constituted as heteronormative and act to discipline bodily performances and thus subjectivities and identities within a heterosexual matrix of gendered and sexualized behaviours (Mcdowell 1999). Given that spaces contain ‘multiple meanings despite the fact that some meanings are encouraged more than others,’ it is possible for subjects to read resistive meanings in space (Cresswell 1996, 13). In this way, subjects can appropriate spaces to allow for new or alternative subjectivities and identities to operate (Forest 1995; Pile and Keith 1997; Bailey 1999; Mitchell 2000). Given the heteronormativity of public space, individuals must find ways to subvert spaces to allow for homosexual visibility, however, fleeting and partial and that render the meaning of the space expressly homosexual (Bell etal. 1994; Ingram et al. 1997).

Utilising these insights, one can argue that gay political identities only come into being when a person subjectively assembles same sex behaviours into a coherent understanding of the self as a ‘homosexual’ and then comes to collectively recognize the similarity of that experience (Bailey 1999; Nash 2003). This collective recognition comes about in place, allowing individuals to collectively make more universal meanings from same-sex experiences and to come together in ways that reconstitute particular spaces as ‘homosexual.’ Gay and lesbian social and political communities form through this process of identity formation in uncertain and fluid spaces; spaces which themselves come to reflect dominant meanings about acceptable and normative homosexual conduct. In other words, resistive spaces also come to discipline behaviours, performances and practices of the occupants in terms of ever-shifting internal systems of meaning and logic (Keith and Pile 1997). As the nature and complexity of spaces multiplies, the number of meaning about same-sex conduct in circulation in a multitude of distinctive spaces becomes highly contested and unstable.

Given this understanding of the discursively contested nature of spaces and their implication in the formation and maintenance of sexualized and gendered beings, the emergence of gay spaces inhabited by those people interested in same-sex encounters can be understood as highly contested and mobile rather than a linear progression from exclusion to appropriation and from resistance to political strength. Far from being a singular and well-orchestrated political strategy to control urban spaces for the benefit of a fixed and coherent gay and lesbian community, the formation of a gay village in Toronto was a messy and largely haphazard process with multiple players asserting contradictory strategies with largely unforeseen results. This stands in stark contrast to many contemporary accounts of North American gay urban development that suggests a heroic, logical and seemingly thought out historical lineage (e.g., Castells 1983; Winters 1979; Kinsman 1996; Ingram et al. 1997; Armstrong 2002; Warner 2002). As I argue here, the gay movement in Toronto sought to constitute gay and lesbian political identities within shifting ideological frameworks that largely rejected the formation of expressly gay spaces. Yet despite the movement’s best efforts, Toronto’s commercial and residential gay village became a publicly noted reality by the early 1980s.

Historians in Canada and the United States generally agree that, from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, a series of identifiable conceptual approaches guided gay movement politics including those of Toronto’s gay movement (Kinsman 1996; Ingram et al. 1997; Smith 1999; Warner 2002). In the early years, Toronto’s gay organizations were decidedly ‘assimilationist’ in their approach, arguing against a distinctive homosexual identity and spatial segregation in favour of total assimilation of homosexuals into mainstream society. By the mid-1970s, a ‘liberationist’ perspective largely replaced an assimilationist logic and promoted an agenda that claimed to work for the sexual liberation of all, both homosexual and heterosexual, and the eradication of distinctive, exclusively gay spaces. By the end of the decade, the liberationist rhetoric had waned, superseded by a so-called ‘ethnic minority’ approach and portraying gays and lesbians as an identifiable group similar in legitimacy and distinctiveness to other so-called minority communities in the city and possessing a legitimate urban territory (Nash 2005). In what follows, I argue that within each of these approaches, it is possible to trace out how gay political organizations struggled to constitute gay identities by spatial means. In constituting gay identities with reference to spatial representations and location, gay organisations for most of the 1970s represented gay spaces as detrimental to the goals of the movement and oppressive to those who inhabited them.

Assimilationist Leanings: Homosexuals as Heterosexuals

In the years after World War II, the city of Toronto had garnered a reputation as Canada’s ‘homosexual capital,’ sporting a well-developed downtown network of social spaces serving a growing homosexual population (Toronto Star January 1966, 1969; Katz 1964; Poulton 1964a, 1964b, 1964c; Maynard 1996).5 With the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969, Canada’s first gay political and social organizations began the arduous process of mobilizing an admittedly reluctant local homosexual population while attempting to soothe a decidedly anxious public (e.g., Globe 1969; see also Kinsman 1996; McCleod 1996; Grube 1997; Egan 1998; Warner 2002). Not all of these organizations were long lived nor did they play equally important roles in the homosexual movement. However, their early activism made homosexuality more publicly visible and generated considerable mainstream anxiety over the apparently large numbers of homosexuals living and socializing in Toronto’s downtown core (Warsun 1963; Hanlon 1964; Katz 1964; Poulton 1964a, 1964b, 1964c; Johnson 1968; Globe 1969).

The Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT) and the University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA) were among the first organizations to gain visibility in Toronto in late 1969-1970. Although both the organizations intervened in a number of public debates over homosexuality, two specifically spatial issues caught their attention: the segregation of homosexuals in gay-only spaces and the treatment of homosexuals caught engaging in public sex in certain public parks and washrooms. Their approach to each of these problems illustrates their ideological perspective on the role of particular spaces in the constitution of various types of homosexual identities.

Both UTHA and CHAT regarded their mandate as providing assistance and counselling to homosexuals and educating both the homosexuals and the mainstream on the latest medical and sociological research on homosexuality (e.g., BackCHAT 1971b, 1972; see also Kinsman 1996; Warner 2002). Despite taking serious issue with much of this professional literature, these organizations strongly believed in the ability of scholarly research to provide accurate, and more positive, information about homosexuals, and they encouraged homosexuals to participate as research subjects (BackCHAT March 1971a; Justice Weekly April 1971; Toronto Telegram 1971, Globe 1971). CHAT and UTHA were quite conservative in their political agenda and believed that social and political change could be effected by working within existing mainstream political and social institutional structures rather than through public protest and more militant activism (Kinsman 1996; Warner 2002).

From the outset, both CHAT and UTHA, as assimilationist organizations, were highly critical of Toronto’s existing social network of bars, bathhouses and restaurants and expressed moderate disapproval ofgay public sexual activity in parks and public washrooms. For UTHA, and particularly its president, Charles Hill, public sexual activity was symbolic of the shame and self-loathing experienced by homosexuals because of the attitude of mainstream society. Hill argued that those who engaged in washroom sex were forced to do so because of ‘society’s anti-homosexual prejudices’ that made it necessary for people to ‘compulsively hide their homosexuality’ (Hill 1971a, 5). For Hill, homosexuals needed to reject this social confinement and to become politically active. Public acknowledgement and visibility would allow homosexuals to conduct themselves in more acceptable ways (Hill 1971b, 1-2).

Activists also argued that exclusively gay spaces wrongly segregated homosexuals from mainstream society in an oppressive and marginal ‘ghetto,’ Several groups drew a direct correlation between being forced to socialize in these segregated spaces and what was then seen as ‘inappropriate’ homosexual conduct and lifestyles. In a strongly worded article in the Body Politic 1971, John Forbes describes the social scene in Vancouver and Toronto as unsavoury and oppressive spaces where individuals circulated in a vain attempt to have some form of social life. Forbes blamed what he regarded as the inability to form meaningful or close personal relationships on the actual physical layout of the clubs and bars themselves, arguing that substandard facilities and a shabby appearance fostered a lack of self-respect and concern for others and prevented homosexuals from forming monogamous, long-term relationships. Forbes went on to suggest that homosexuals who frequented the gay ghetto bar scene were complicit in their own marginalization and constituted an essentially captive clientele. Homosexuals needed to forego the clubs and bars in favour of the alternative spaces created by the homosexual political organizations-the community and drop-in centres, the coffee houses, the dances and fund-raising events. These spaces, Forbes argued, would help gays connect with others in ways that would nurture a healthier self-image and cultivate more appropriate social conduct (Forbes 1971; Pearce and Newcome 1972; BackCHAT July, 1973).

Articles in the Body Politic and other publications also suggested that individuals socializing in these gay ghetto spaces were implicitly rejecting political and public activism based on the false sense of security. Misled by their ability to socialize freely in a number of locations, it was argued that homosexuals erroneously came to see themselves as ‘liberated,’ This perception of liberation worked against the recognition of the common experience of oppression that formed the foundation for collective political activism. Writers Pearce and Newcome (1972) claimed that gay ghettos were a tool used by the mainstream to segregate subversive groups such as homosexuals from the mainstream, making ‘communication and compassion well nigh impossible’ (p. 13). To add insult to injury, they argued that the heterosexuals who owned and operated these commercial establishments profited personally and financially from spaces that oppressed and marginalized gays and lesbians.

To counter the negative effects of the so-called ghetto life, organizations created alternative spaces that they argued would encourage more appropriate social conduct and would persuade homosexuals to be more supportive of these organizations’ political agenda. CHAT, for example, opened a community centre ‘run by gay people and for gay people’ as a way to liberate gays and lesbians from the self-imposed ostracism of the ghetto (Body Politic January-February 1972). Using these more consciously political spaces, homosexuals would ‘come out’ both personally and politically, a move that activists argued was the single most important action homosexuals could take towards liberation. CHAT also encouraged gays to protest the shoddy conditions of many gay bars and restaurants and to open their own commercial establishments where homosexuals could support each other both socially and financially.

Gay organizations in the early 1970s also took a negative view of homosexual activities in public spaces. It is this image of gay male sexuality that was (and remains) so prominent in the public mind as the clearest example of the perversity and dangers of homosexuality. This homosexual was portrayed as predatory, seductive and dangerous, a person who crossed the line between the public and the private, the visible and the invisible (e.g., Tab International June 1972a,b, September 1972, October, 1972, 2; May 1973; Justice Weekly April, July, December 1971). From an assimilationist perspective, CHAT and UTHA argued that homosexuals were forced to seek out what they saw as admittedly limited forms of human contact because of mainstream prohibitions on same-sex intimacy (e.g., Hill 1971a, 197Ib). Accordingly, if homosexuals were permitted full participation in mainstream society, the need to seek out same-sex partners through clandestine encounters in public spaces would end, and homosexuals would develop the ‘natural’ long-term, monogamous relationships seen as appropriate by mainstream standards (BackCHAT February 1971a, April 5, 1971; Hill 1971a, 1971b; Hislop 1973). Again, this would be accomplished by homosexuals rejecting gay ghetto spaces in favour of the more enlightened and socially healthy spaces established by gay organizations such as CHAT and UTHA. In these spaces, gays and lesbians would become more socially and politically conscious of their oppression and marginalization and would engage more overtly in gay movement politics. Ultimately, the movement argued that gay ghetto spaces and clandestine casual behaviours would disappear, as gays and lesbians were welcomed into all spaces as equals (BackCHAT February 1971b, April, 1971; Hill 1971a, 1971b; Scott 1971).

Liberationist Human Rights: Fixing Homosexual Identity

By the mid-1970s, organizations such as CHAT and UTHA were overshadowed by more radical groups operating within a newly emerging and self-described ‘liberationist’ ideology which changed and reworked the nature of homosexual identity. This shift in dominant political ideology had several distinctly spatial components, two of which are discussed here. First, mainstream discourses began to distinguish between two ‘types’ of homosexual identity, one which associated with the more disreputable urban ‘ghetto’ and the other more respectable ‘suburban’ homosexual. At the same time, however, a second and more contradictory mainstream discourses represented the growing gay commercial district in a positive light-painting a contradictory picture of gay businessmen as conservative, moderate and hardworking contributors to Toronto’s downtown life while representing ghetto spaces as supporting an unhealthy homosexual lifestyle.

These contradictory mainstream representations were both vigorously resisted by liberationists for distinctive reasons set out below. second, liberationists continued to see the growing gay commercial district as a space detrimental to the achievement of aims of the liberation movement.

Liberationists eschewed the co-operative and more moderate approaches practised by assimilationist organizations in favour of a more publicly militant and unapologetic agenda. In the first issue of the Body Politic in December 1971, the editorial collective argued that homosexuals were oppressed in many ways, including when they felt Obligated to act nice, be accommodating and not aggravate the straights’ (p. 2). Liberationist activists were convinced that the only way to make any real progress with the homosexual agenda was through direct ‘confrontation with straights in their home territory (Daymen 1974: 9).

The more uncompromising elements in the liberation movement regarded homosexuals as truly ‘revolutionary’ subjects uniquely positioned to promote sexual liberation for both heterosexuals andhomosexuals (Epstein 1987, 18; Altman 1971). Liberationism argued that humankind was born ‘essentially polymorphous and bisexual’ but that social pressures ensured this more playful sexuality was narrowly channelled into the contemporary and mutually reinforcing sex/gender system (Seidman 1993, 113). The liberation movement regarded itself as the vehicle through which human sexual (and gender) liberation would be achieved. Integral to this was the idea that a political strategy founded on the formation and perpetuation of some sort of homosexual identity would work against the goal of sexual liberation, as it would continue the heterosexual-homosexual binary understanding of human sexuality. In the broadest sense then, the movements’ main goal was to break down or challenge sex/gender norms and categories rather than asserting a strictly homosexual identity (Epstein 1987; Kinsman 1996; Seidman 1997).

Two organizations figured prominently during this period. The first, the Gay Alliance Towards Equality (GATE), was involved in a number of local and provincial initiatives, while the second, a loose affiliation of organizations called the Coalition of Gay Rights in Ontario (CGRO), worked predominantly on issues of provincial interest. Both organizations believed the pursuit of human rights protection provided a well-organized and well-developed set of goals to focus the movement’s organizational energies and to gather broader support (Body Politic 1973a,b, 2; 1974, 2; Gay Alliance towards Equality 1974; Poppert 1975, 16). For liberationists, obtaining human rights protection was fundamental to the gay movement’s success in Ontario and was considered a priority (Waite 1972, 19, see also Body Politics March-April 1972). According to the Body Politic, the human rights agenda was not only a fundamental strategy for the movement but, as a goal, had the potential to ‘meet the needs of a majority of gays, not just a handful of gay militants’ (Body Politic 1971, 14). Although there were very concrete and tangible benefits to obtain human rights protection, many liberationists regarded this as simply an interim step in achieving full sexual and gender freedom and leading to the ‘creation of a society in which the labels ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual’ are thought to be archaic’ (Body Politic 1971, 15).

Many argue, however, that liberationists did not fully appreciate the extent to which the pursuit of the human rights agenda was in direct conflict with achieving sexual liberation. As legal scholar Didi Herman suggests, pursuing a human rights agenda required the movement to participate in the formal political and legal institutions of the state. These institutions impose their own sets of discursive meanings and practices on participants which they need to adhere to in order for them to be both credible and intelligible. As Herman (1994, 42) asserts, ‘dominant frameworks of meaning cannot be harnessed by social movements without these frameworks in turn shaping and reconstituting actors and communities,’

Human rights legislation in Canada itemizes an opened-ended series of protected categories consisting of characteristics thought to be the basis on which people experience discrimination. For individuals to avail themselves of these legislative safeguards, they must demonstrate that they possess the characteristics placing them in the protected categories and that the characteristics are ones on which discriminatory practices are based. In essence, individuals must constitute themselves as the ‘subjects’ these regimes of protection were designed to cover. Given that any number of individuals may have these characteristics, the legislative provisions support the perception that these traits form a core identity which, taken collectively, form a legitimate political, cultural and/ or social subgroup in society. As is often the case, any internal diversity in the subgroups is somewhat submerged during the production of the needed public collective identity regarded as worthy of legislative protection (Herman 1994; Stychin 1995; Smith 1999).

As the movement for human rights progressed, the commitment to the human rights agenda fundamentally altered how the liberation movement in Toronto represented homosexual identity. In stark contrast to CGRO’s 1973 representation of sexual practices as falling along the Kinsey continuum, by 1982, CGRO wrote that human rights protection would ‘force the government to recognize that we are entitled to the same rights which are theoretically accorded other minorities [emphasis in the original]’(CGRO 1973; 1982). The transition in the representation of homosexual identity from a liberationist notion of an unstable and fluid gendered and sexual self to a fully concrete ‘minority’ identity was virtually completed by the time provincial human rights protection was obtained in 1986. The liberationists’ goal of releasing sexuality and gender from their assigned roles and categories was lost in the need to present a singular, concrete and stable identity for which human rights protection could be obtained.

Spatializing Homosexual Rights: Suburbia and the Inconspicuous Middle Class

Mainstream commentators were cautiously supportive of human rights protection for gays and lesbians in the 1970s and early 1980s. In its editorials, the Toronto Star grudging argued that human rights protection demonstrated the tolerance a reasonable society should exhibit towards its less appealing but nonetheless legitimate citizens (Toronto Star November 1975, January 1976). Even the Toronto Sun, a vigorous opponent of homosexual activism, editorialized that homosexuals deserved basic tolerance, even though homosexuality was an ‘aberration, unnatural and abnormal’ (Sun October 1974). Mainstream discourses employed a particularly spatialized homosexual identity to justify the extension of anti-discrimination laws to homosexuals, one that negatively distinguished between those politically and socially visible homosexuals frequenting the so-called gay ghetto and those living quiet and unobtrusive lives in the suburbs.

The Toronto Star, in an article entitled ‘Metro homosexuals,’ specifically located a non-frightening type of homosexual that was worthy of human rights protection in the middle-class suburbs of Toronto. The article describes how neighbours in a ‘pleasant tree-lined neighbourhood in Mississauga’ were initially shocked by a homosexual couple moving into the area but were soon ‘swapping garden hints … over friendly cups of coffee’ (Handelman 1975, 23). These homosexuals, exhibiting typical behaviour that rendered them indistinguishable from the other inhabitants, demonstrated their ability to ‘fit in’ in a typical middle-class neighbourhood by displaying common interests and values.

In a companion article in the same issue, homosexuals are also described in a familiar, chummy, ‘folks-next-door style that subsumed homosexuality, particularly the ‘sexuality’ aspect, under a mantle of comfortable middle-class normalcy. These suburban homosexuals had a proper suburban aesthetic and neatly replaced the image of the promiscuous and unattached urban gay male with a vision of homosexuals living in successful longterm relationships (Van Rijn 1975. see also Blatchford 1975; Hofsess 1975). Such a perspective on gay ghetto life was even echoed in certain gay organizations and institutions, reflecting the long-standing disapproval of the so-called gay ghetto ‘lifestyle’ within certain segments of the gay community. For example, the Rev. Bob Wolf of the Metropolitan Community Church, a religious organization serving local gays and lesbians, claimed that the publicly visible bars and baths of the gay ghetto are only part of the gay world. The real gay life, Wolf says, is lived by thousands of men and women who work regular jobs … who live together in stable relationships and never go out (emphasis added)’ (Handelman 1975, 23). This discursive positioning of homosexuals as predominantly middle-class suburbanites effectively created two types of homosexual identity based on spatial affiliation: the suburban homosexual worthy of human rights protection and perverse and immoral homosexual who frequented the downtown gay ghetto spaces. Ironically, then, while liberationists regarded ghetto spaces as detrimental to the formation of a strongly political homosexual identity, they found their human rights agenda supported by mainstream groups based on a distinctions between the supposedly feckless gays of the ghetto and the worthy (and inconspicuous) gays and lesbians of the suburbs.

Liberationism and Gay Entrepreneurs: Politics and the Commodification of Gay Culture

With the growing success of gay movement politics in the 1970s and growing public tolerance, a number of new gay commercial establishments, owned by gays themselves, opened in the Church and Carleton Street areas. However, throughout the 1970s, liberationists continued to regard this growing gay commercial enclave of baths, bars, restaurants and community centres as detrimental to the constitution of a politically and socially aware homosexual identity. While many issues separated activists from gay businessmen, including many early activists decidedly socialist leanings, liberationists were particularly suspicious of positive mainstream commentary on the entrepreneurial skills and positive contribution of gay businessmen to the downtown core’s new and respectable ambience. Illustrating the contradictory discursive constitution of homosexual identities in mainstream discourses, these mainstream discourses did not condemn these new gay ghetto spaces but, on the contrary, struggled to describe these spaces as being essentially the same as heterosexual spaces-spaces for socializing, camaraderie and good clean fun.

Articles such as those by journalist Ken Waxman of Toronto Life Magazine portrayed these new commercial gay spaces as a sign of the growing maturity and respectability of Toronto’s gay community (Waxman 1975). Unlike the ‘shadowy world’ of the homosexual clubs and bars explored by the intrepid journalists of the 1960s, this seemingly new gay market was represented as publicly visible, easily accessible and welcoming to all. In experiencing the nightlife at the popular Club Manatee, a gay male dance bar, one writer describes its atmosphere as similar to ‘a high school dance after a football game,’ a description which renders this gay cruising site harmless, playful and innocent (Marchand 1975). Similar descriptions of the gay bath scene in the mainstream press suggested they had the ‘civilized atmosphere’ of a respectable, private men’s club (Lynch 1976). All in all, the mainstream tended to see the growing gay commercial scene as a positive development and to minimize the distinctions between gay and heterosexual social space.

This tendency to normalize gay spaces contributed to dominant mainstream discourses advocating a more tolerant view of homosexuality based on an assimilationist-type representation of gays as essentially indistinguishable from heterosexuals. In this way, the mainstream was able to construct an acceptable homosexual subject based on positioning that subject in spaces easily recognizable and comfortable such as the spaces of middle-class suburbia. The liberationist human rights agenda inadvertently deployed a view of same-sex conduct as an inherent and stable aspect of individual and collective identity. Mainstream factions sympathetic to homosexuals’ need for human rights protection contributed a distinctly spatialized notion of the type of homosexual worthy of human rights protection-a person who rejected the seeming perversity of a certain ‘gay ghetto lifestyle’ in favour of a respectable middle-class normalcy. The shift towards a ‘minority’ perception of the homosexual population was well underway.

The Homosexual Minority: Claiming the Gay Ghetto

By the end of the 1970s, several intensely public and controversial events sparked a widespread mainstream backlash against the Toronto gay movement’s human rights agenda. In August 1977, several men, one of whom had distant ties to the local gay community, murdered 12-year-old Emanual Jacques just a few blocks from the CHAT Community Centre. In the fall of 1977, the gay newspaper, the Body Politic, published a highly controversial article on man/boy relationships sparking renewed public concern about alleged ‘threat’ homosexuality posed to children. An antihomosexual campaign by American Christian evangelist Anita Bryant came to Toronto in January 1978, galvanizing both sides of the human rights debate, and in December 1978, bawdy-house charges were laid against the Barracks Bathhouse, again focusing public attention on the public sexual practices of gay men. The movement was forced to defend itself against accusations that its human rights agenda was really a ploy, as Anita Bryant claimed, to allow homosexuals to ‘recruit our children’ through the use of ‘money, drugs, alcohol … to get what they want’ (Sears 1977). Gay organizations redoubled their commitment to obtain human rights protection in the face of these challenges, ultimately abandoning liberationist calls for the breakdown in sex/gender roles in favour of positioning gays and lesbians as a legitimate minority group.

While these events played a prominent role in shifting the movement’s ideological framework from a liberationist to an ethnic minority perspective, the distinctly spatialized debates surrounding the Barracks Bathhouse raids again illustrate the uneasy and complex relationship the gay movement had with gay spaces not of their making. The raid and the sensationalized reporting on the activities of the Baths’ patrons forced the gay movement expressly to address what had often been submerged in discussions about human rights and other gay issues, the question of casual gay sex. Defending the Barracks forced an uneasy alliance between gay movement liberationist organizations and the gay businessmen who owned and operated the Barracks and other gay commercial establishments. Ironically, gay movement activists now found themselves defending the very spaces they had previously defined as detrimental to the formation of a strong gay identity and political community (Warner 2002; Nash 2005). In many ways, these processes altered the very composition of the gay movement itself and provoked a fundamental shift in the movement’s thinking on its ideological perspective and gay space (Kinsman 1996; Warner 2002).

Defending the Barracks: Gay Sexuality and Territorial Integrity

The Barracks Bathhouse opened at 56 Widmer Street, Toronto, in August 1974 and operated largely without incident until the Toronto police raid in the early morning hours on 9 December 1978. The Barracks had a well-known reputation amongst those who favoured sexual activities involving sadomasochism (S & M) and sexual paraphernalia (McCleod 1996). Commentators speculated that of the six bathhouses in operation in Toronto in December 1978, the police chose the Barracks because of its seamy reputation (McCleod 1996; Warner 2002). Mainstream discourses on the raid and the ensuing trial focused on the sexual activity of the Barracks patrons including the sordid details of men’s sexual encounters (Crook 1981; Lounder and English 1981; Mironowicz 1981; Toronto Star 1981; Toronto Sun 198Ij. This version of gay male identity as one that engaged in promiscuous and bizarre sexual behaviours stood in stark contrast to the respectable, monogamous and suburban homosexual identity circulating in those discourses supportive of human rights for homosexuals. A separate gay organization, the Right to Privacy Committee (RTPC), was formed to deal expressly with funding the defence of those charged in the Barracks raid as owners and found-ins in a bawdy house and in arguing against the negative publicity that ensued.

For most of the decade, the gay movement in Toronto had spoken disapprovingly of casual gay male sex and claimed that such behaviour resulted from men having to hide their sexuality because of mainstream condemnation. However, this view was largely out of step with a growing body of literature in North America and Europe that represented casual gay sex as a legitimate and liberatory form of conduct integral to a valid gay identity. Various scholars and activists argued that casual gay male sexual practices were revolutionary in and of themselves in their challenge to heterosexual norms and in their breaking down of the barriers between public and private space. Interestingly, this perspective gained momentum at a time when gay entrepreneurs were setting up places such as the baths and the backrooms of restaurants and bars where patrons could engage in casual sexual encounters without the risk of police intervention (Jeffreys 2003). Some liberationist and assimilationist activists, who had argued that casual gay public sex was the result of oppression and marginalization, began to claim that public sex was ‘actually a revolutionary act’ and ‘the very model of liberated sexuality’ (Warner 2002; Jeffreys 2003, 58). Others argued that gay men’s practice of public sex was their contribution to the revolutionary liberationist project of breaking down heterosexual and patriarchal constraints on sexuality (e.g., Hodges and Hutter 1974; Hocquenghem 1978; Rechy 1981; Bristow 1989).

This construction of casual gay male sexual activity as liberatory operated concurrently with the claim that this form of sexual expression was the unifying experience constituting a collective gay male identity. Ken Poppert, for example, argued in a 1982 Body Politic article that ‘the social fabric of the gay male community is knitted together by promiscuity, with public sex being central to the lives of gay men,’ For Poppert, the experience of public sexual expression was instrumental in creating the ‘collective consciousness’ that formed the foundation for a gay community and would lead to sexual and gender liberation for all (in Warner 2002, 129; see also Poppert 1979; McCaskell 1981). Within such perspective, bathhouses, parks and other venues for casual sex were re-interpreted as the social spaces making such collective consciousness possible (Poppert 1982; Mccaskell 1981). This perspective neatly fell within a liberationist perspective on gender and sexuality yet uncharacteristically valourized rather than condemned the spaces of gay sexual activity.

While the pages of gay publications such as the Body Politic may have asserted a more radical take on gay male casual sex, the RTPC, as the public spokesmen for the defence of the Barracks expressed a more moderate position. While not denying the existence of certain kinds of sexual behaviour amongst gay men, the RTPC asserted that sexual activity was a private matter and that sexual contact between consenting adults, even on a casual basis, was legitimate and acceptable and for which no apology or justification was required. Although the RTPC did not go so far as some in asserting the legitimacy of gay public sex, the Committee did assert that casual sexual contact in places such as bathhouses constituted consenting activity amongst adults in private (e.g., Golding 1981; Mossop 1981).7 The RTPC argued the Barracks was a private men’s club that required purchasing a membership, payment of a user fee and admission by attendants at the doors. As such, access to the club was limited to those screened and admitted as members and those who had clearly consented to participate in the bathhouse activities. By framing the issue this way, activists avoided dealing directly with the question of gay public sex or addressing the underlying issue of gay promiscuity.

Ironically and despite the RTPC claims about the legitimacy of casual gay sex, mainstream discourses sympathetic to the Iiberationists’ cause utilized older assimilationist and Iiberationists’ claims that homosexuals used places such as the Barracks out of fear of discrimination and a need for secrecy. Columnists Christie Blatchford and Joanne Bullock of the Star argued, for example, that the Barracks existed to provide casual sex for those men who ‘dare not live openly as homosexuals,’ This view was echoed by some in the gay movement itself including John Lee, a sociologist at the University of Toronto and a member of the RTPC. Lee, quoted extensively in the Blatchford and Bullock article, claimed it was no coincidence that six of the men charged in the raid were teachers, as it was safer for them to go the private baths than risk being seen in a public gay bar (Blatchford and Bullock 1978; Strauss 1978; see also Lee 1979). In the same article, the authors note that homosexual baths existed throughout North America and, according to Lee, provided ‘quick and economical sex’ in a place where ‘everyone going there knows they are there for the same reason’ (Blatchford and Bullock 1978, A2).

The June 12, 1981 judgement in the Barracks did little to clarify the bawdy house laws or rehabilitate the image of gay sexuality as anything other than promiscuous and criminal. The judge found the Barracks to be a common bawdy house although not because of the gay sex that took place there or because of the presence and use of sexual paraphernalia. The judge found certain sexual acts ‘indecent,’ because they were not undertaken in ‘private,’ that is, there were opportunities for third parties to either watch or participate in sexual activities between two individuals, in violation of the Criminal Code provisions (Mossop and Trollope 1979/1980; Palango 1981). Liberationists were dissatisfied with the decision, as it did not develop a usable definition of privacy. In the current state of affairs, they argued that if an undercover cop, through subterfuge or otherwise, were able to witness homosexual acts, the location of such acts became a bawdy house (Kinsman 1996; see also Russell 1980; Hannon 198Ia). As the Body Politic argued, now the ‘prying eyes of the undercover cop was sufficient to make our sex indecent and our places bawdy houses’ (Body Politic 1981, 6; Action 1981, 1). Nevertheless, the case made clear that gay sexual activity, undertaken in private and regardless of the nature of the activity, was clearly beyond the reach of the Criminal Code.

More importantly, perhaps by arguing that casual gay sex between consenting adults in private was legitimate and socially appropriate behaviour, prominent gay organizations such as the RTPC began to assert the legitimacy of the spaces and to claim them as important social spaces for the community-a position that contrasted starkly with previous claims that expressly gay spaces segregated and oppressed homosexuals. If casual sex were an integral part of the constitution of an individual and collective gay identity, then places such as the Barracks could properly be re-conceptualized as important institutions for the formation and maintenance of a healthy gay community.

Using this logic, the RTPC went on to argue that the police raids on the Barracks were an attack on all gays and lesbians, and all gay spaces had to be defended at all costs, as they constituted the necessary social, political and cultural space of a persecuted minority. The RTPC argued that the raids on the Barracks and the increasing number of liquor licensing and bylaw infractions being laid against gay establishments were a deliberate attempt by the state, through police action, to ‘decimate’ gay businesses in an ‘attempt to make the gay community disappear’ (RTPC 1981, 1; Gillis 1982, 2). Accordingly, allgay spaces, not just those utilized by a select few, needed to be safeguarded against attack. Gerald Hannon, in a 1981 article on the increasing police pressure on gay spaces, contends ‘Toronto has a barely adequate gay commercial scene … It is a fragile system and its beginning to feel the crunch’ (Hannon 198Ib, 8-9). For Hannon, the series of attacks on gay spaces was as a blatant attempt to destroy the ability of gays and lesbians to meet and socialize and thereby sustain a legitimate community.

Despite the sense of solidarity and allegiance expressed in the pages of the RTPC newsletters and on occasion in the Body Politic, it is clear that some liberationists were not convinced that gay businesses and the gay liberation movement had either common interests or common political objectives. Many found the tendency to equate the growing profile of Toronto’s gay commercial strip with the existence of a legitimate gay and lesbian community troubling and to reiterate the long-standing argument that gay ghetto spaces, including those owned and operated by gays themselves, contributed to gay oppression by bringing gays together for the profit of gay businessmen (Poppert 1975, 1979). Liberationists worried that gays and lesbians would come to regard the commercial gay life as a legitimate alternative to more formal political participation rather than developing an understanding that such spaces constituted their own form of oppression (Kinsman 1996; Chasin 2000; Warner 2002).

Nevertheless, by the early 1980s, certain segments of the gay political movement, and certainly the more publicly prominent ones, had completely reversed their position on gay residential and commercial space, now representing it as essential for the formation and maintenance of a healthy gay community. Given this reformulation, activists increasingly claimed that gay spaces needed to be defended by the community at all costs. By the time human rights protection was obtained in 1986, Toronto’s gay movement regarded the commercial gay ghetto as inseparable from and necessary for the formation and maintenance of gay and lesbian identity and community and the foundation for formal political participation in municipal and provincial politics.


This paper has outlined how shifting political ideologies employed by dominant gay movement organizations contained distinctive conceptualizations of identity defined, in part, through spatialized representations. In the early 1970s, assimilationist discourses argued homosexuals where essentially the same as heterosexuals, and the fact that homosexuals were forced to socialize in segregated spaces was a function of ostracism and discrimination. The solution was the assimilation of gays and lesbians into mainstream society and the elimination of homosexual spaces. Liberationists also viewed gay and lesbian spaces in a negative light but for contradictory political and social reasons. Mainstream discourses supported gay and lesbian agitation for human right protection but did so on conceptualizations of gays and lesbians as middle class and suburban. The gay ghetto was regarded as a disreputable place frequented by a narrow and unrepresentative group of homosexuals. second, liberationists disliked mainstream portrayals of gay businessmen as hardworking, conservative and contributing members of Toronto’s business community which stood in stark contrast to mainstream views of liberationists as radical trouble makers. For liberationists, the gay ghetto provided gays and lesbians with a false sense of security and acceptance that discouraged a more politically active identity. By the early 1980s, the ethnic minority perspective, developing within a human rights agenda, re-conceptualized the gay ghetto as the rightful home of a minority group and as the foundation for political and economic strength and community building. By this point, the gay movement had finally reconciled conceptualizations of gay identity with the consolidation of a visible residential and commercial gay village.

Over the last thirty years or so, Toronto’s gay village has become a site of celebration and political protest as well as the social and cultural centre for a gay and lesbian minority. Nevertheless, the gay village cannot outrun suggestions that it was and remains an elitist space where only those who can afford ‘the life’ have the opportunity to enjoy the space. Nor can it easily turn aside accusations that its existence reinforces the notion that gays and lesbians should be contained within ‘their’ community spaces or that the commodification of gay life has replaced political activism with political shopping-where gay identity can be purchased through the consumption of gay urban spaces and cultural paraphernalia (Binnie 1995; Pritchard et al. 1998; Chasin 2000). Ongoing concerns over the exclusion of lesbians, minorities, queer and transgendered folk paint the area as narrow and conservative and seek to open up alternative spaces (Nash and Bain forthcoming). Recent moves by gay businessmen and neighbourhood associations to ‘clean up’ the district by forcing homeless people, street youth and sex trade workers out of the area also tend to confirm suspicions that the gay village remains a disciplining and controlling social and political space. However, as with so many complicated and entrenched urban spaces, its disappearance in the near future is unlikely.