A gaybourhood dénouement and conclusion

“Meet me at The Steps”: commanding normativities in Toronto’s gaybourhood, 1984–2005

The Fantastic Five. Toronto Pride, Church Street, 29 June 2009 [Idlewild].

The Fantastic Five. Toronto Pride, Church Street, 29 June 2009 [Idlewild].

This concludes a six-part series, posted June 20th to 25th, on Toronto’s gaybourhood, Church Wellesley Village; the legacy of The Steps at Second Cup; and the emergent visibility of a geographic cisnormativity. Read the entire series.

Although many queer Torontonians made political strides after the closure of The Steps in 2003–04, others remained either sidelined or held to the gaybourhood’s peripheries. Preoccupations over normalizing once-vilified sexualities and commoditizing a “gay and lesbian culture” undermined the gaybourhood’s Utopian ideal as a pluralistic patchwork for gender and sexual minorities from multiple classes, much as it seemed during the early 1980s. Whereas the enclave once hosted diversities of queer people whose clustering was shaped by decades of urbanization, concentrations of industrialized wage labour, and imposed confinement (D’Emilio 1983, 93), tolerance waned as some queer articulations were regarded as more normative and, thus, more respectable than others. The Church-Wellesley gaybourhood, now the Gay Village, changed as its geographic homonormativity placed the aggregation of social and economic diversity beneath the spending power of individuals and businesses which were best disposed to do so — venerating a citizenship of consumption over other models of civic participation.

Despite homonormativity’s conservational project to manage the public realm by de facto regulating public space and by promoting respectability as part of its brand, complications emerged when the project reified how publicly accessible spaces are informed by the language of gender. The gendering of space may prescribe who occupies it, when they may do so, and for what reason(s). Inside the enclave, articulated masculinities were rarely contested because public space was already masculinized. Its departure from what heteronormativity prescribed for masculinity, however, was what made it an exposed target during the years before Operation Soap (and a target for vigilantes during the period following). This articulation of masculinity, a gay masculinity, was at the heart of a geographic homonormativity.

As with other queer articulations excluded from visions of a new homonormativity, race was another lens which exacerbated a sense of exclusion within the gaybourhood: “Gay society… organized and commercial, is framed around the young middle-class white male. He is its customer and its product. Blacks, Asians, and Latin-Americans are the oysters in this meat market… a quaint specialty for exotic tastes” (Tsang 1996, 159). Viewed through this lens, The Steps was a commodity trading floor where dominant shareholders (white cis gay men) exchanged social appraisals constantly, and where social capital was encoded, negotiated, and tokenized — often without an informed consent from gay subjects of colour.

For the Kids in the Hall series “Steps”, the gaze from three gay men perched at The Steps dramatized their agency in dictating acceptable tolerances for enclave homonormativity. Their dramatization was informed by experience: Scott Thompson and Mark McKinney both worked for the Second Cup on Church Street and rehearsed sketches there when Kids in the Hall performed live at the Rivoli — all of it ending when McKinney, on duty, received a congratulatory phone call from the CBC on being awarded their new TV show (Rowlson 2005, 10). That some non-normative groups in the “Steps” pride sketch provoked either visceral antipathy or respectable contempt from the three gay men — all white and all cis — revealed how geographic homonormativity and heteronormativity (which had long moralized queer sexualities) co-operate as constituent parts of an omnipresent geographic cisnormativity. This ubiquity reveals how trans people who were opaque to cis people stood on shaky footing for prosperity, as they had scant spatial claim either within the gaybourhood or elsewhere in the heteronormative city. Trans people who were transparent and thus invisible to cis people, meanwhile, could inhabit cisnormative geographies for as long as they were not disclosed (whether voluntarily or forcibly) as members of a still-institutionalized and, thus, marginalized class.

A dénouement

Having won key rights and responsibilities for an everyday citizenship, cis gay men, once ravaged by systemic institutionalization and by decimation from AIDS, retired an activism of resistance for a neoliberal emphasis on gaybourhood investment (whether financially, culturally, or socially). This investment involved a regulation of social transactions within the public realm — namely, expanding the private sector’s reach over the gaybourhood’s public spaces, and not challenging the criminalization of informal economies (e.g., sex work and squeegeeing) after the Safe Streets Act was enacted. This neoliberal evolution intimated how a generation of radicalized gay youth during the 1970s and 1980s had survived two major sieges, but it was also a generation changed profoundly by those battles. For morphologically male queer men who were survivors to a pathogenic menace which felled friends and loved ones without mercy, its collective impact on the community was akin to surviving a war — one fought on the fields of hospitals and hospices. Much like heteronormative ambitions for peacetime stability after World War II; its reverence for the institution of marriage and family; and its crystallization of prescriptive expectations over dialects of gender (and sexuality) during the 1950s and 1960s, the gaybourhood’s cis gay men sought stability through fiscal conservatism; spatial securitization; realizing legal marriage rights; and a normalizing of relations with the heteronormative realm it once rejected (Adams 1994, 50–1; Bell & Binnie 2004, 1808).

As a matter of exercising agency, Ruppert argues how “many groups seek to control and mold public space as a means to influence what is public space and private space and to concretely and symbolically announce who is the public” (2006, 276). A formal group may include a business improvement area like the Liberty Village BIA, which added private security patrols to eradicate from public spaces the sex work which preceded the founding of Liberty Village itself (Baute 2008, B3). For Toronto’s gaybourhood, an informal group may include the Homewood-Maitland Safety Association (HMSA) (id., B1). The HMSA employed aggressive tactics — verbal harassment, physical swarming, and surveillance photography — to intimidate trans women (many of whom were women of colour) practising sex work along Homewood Avenue (ibid.). The HMSA, created during the late 2000s, implemented acts of vigilantism which contradicted the “rotten fruit and eggs” counter-vigilance against homophobic, “drive-by shoutings” once exercised by patrons sitting at The Steps. The latter, unlike the former, strove to defend a homonormative beachhead from acts of vigilantism from a hegemonic heteronormativity. The HMSA, meanwhile, held an upper hand of structure as property owners used their political capital as a hegemonic tool to seal a liminal breach in an otherwise seamless geography of cisnormativity (despite the steady production of labour by trans sex workers whose arrival preceded the HMSA by at least fifteen years). The HMSA then tried to solicit ward councillor Kyle Rae, an openly gay man, to remove the trans women to another neighbourhood entirely — something Rae refused to do (id., B3). Had Rae agreed, it would have revived a pre-1981 praxis by city officials to dislocate vulnerable gender and sexual minorities. Despite the HMSA’s membership being comprised entirely of cis people, other Homewood residents, including Dara Douma, were opposed the group’s tactics and supported the trans women to continue practising sex work. Her remarks also reflected a shifting of tolerances for trans people:

“For myself, their presence makes my street safer. They are a good measure of how safe a street feels. They are more vulnerable than I am, and they are at a greater potential risk of becoming victims of violence or abuse, so I feel safe walking home at night as long as they feel safe on this street” (Houston 2011).

Whether HMSA members were gay, straight, bisexual, or a mix of these was immaterial: the existence of this liminal breach in cisnormativity was precisely why trans women could practise sex work there in the first place. The councillor was mindful that relocation was unfeasible because other frays in Toronto’s omnipresent cisnormativity are either non-existent, more ephemeral, or are unknown entirely. Sex work alternatives for the women in question remained elusive due to institutional impositions working against their citizenship. In other words, there is no geographic “transnormativity” in Toronto, nor is there probably such a geographic realm anywhere — despite LeBlanc’s thesis (2010) that “transnormativity” exists in cyberspace. Areas to the east of Homewood Avenue were acknowledged as a dominant geography for heteronormativity, while points west were within the gaybourhood enclave — a geography for homonormativity. As of 2012, Homewood Avenue at Maitland Street survives as a tender underbelly of Toronto’s geographic cisnormativity.

Xtra! — now the Daily XTRA — reported Friday, 2 October 2009, on the contested liminal geography of Homewood Avenue, interviewing trans women (on camera) and members of the HMSA (off-camera). The Xtra! masthead at the time, “Toronto’s Lesbian and Gay Weekly,” coupled with a glib, Newsy-styled narrational approach by its two reporters (both cis), reflected the continuing absence of agency and sense of exclusion which trans people within the homonormative gaybourhood had been enduring since the 1980s. Friday, 2 October 2009 [Daily XTRA].

Tension at the gaybourhood’s liminal fray was only one sign of this homonormative conservatism. Whereas gay liberation once preoccupied itself with claiming a public visibility spared from heteronormative incursions, the new homonormativity also strove for public respectability as a vehicle for heteronormative acceptance. This included terminating an annual BDSM festival, the Church Street Fetish Fair, from 2010. The Fetish Fair, an analogue to San Francisco’s venerable Folsom Street Fair, was a responsive move by Church Wellesley Village BIA merchants to “put the focus on neighbourhood beautification, business development and local programming,” because “‘”We need people to come back’” (Houston 2012). (Gaybourhood businesses, comprised of proprietors both gay and straight, had organized the Church Wellesley Village BIA in 2002.) It was ironic how the political and social gains made by a stridence of gay and lesbian activism, and by a boldness to articulate non-heteronormative sexualities in the past, had ceded to gaybourhood stakeholders who “abandoned… emphasis on difference from the straight majority in favor of a moderate politics that highlights similarities to the straight majority” (Seidman 1993, as quoted in Bernstein 1997, 532; Polletta & Jasper 2001, 284).

Despite an in-migration after 1971 spearheaded by young gay men, the presence of other queer people at The Steps and around the gaybourhood meant that the presence of cis lesbian women and trans people was always inevitable, even if they were not always as welcome as equitable partners in the moulding the gaybourhood’s future. When the gaybourhood was still corralled as two ghettoes in two discrete locations, these gender and sexual minorities comprised part of a solidarity against heteronormative oppression. After the gaybourhood secured itself as an enclave, these parties were no longer as needed (or welcome) to the homonormative project. Queer people who could (or would) not concede to this respectability were relegated to the social (and political) margins within the homonormative geography.

This conservatism of homonormativity ended not only a co-existing patchwork of queer articulations within the gaybourhood but also distanced that alienated patchwork from the gaybourhood. Consequently, a new generation of queer Torontonians began to scour the city for another neighbourhood which not only promised less confining impositions over their articulations of queerness, but also offered more affordable housing options. By the mid-2000s, several began to settle around West Queen West nearby Dufferin (Whyte 2004, B1). News of queer people migrating elsewhere, however, irked gaybourhood stalwarts. As Bryen Dunn, a Parkdale resident and queer man, explained: “there were people at Church and Wellesley saying, ‘Why should we go out there and give our gay dollars to a straight establishment?’ [Dunn replied], ‘Well, why not? They’re being open and accepting; why can’t you do the same?’” (ibid.).


The Steps, a meeting place for Toronto’s gaybourhood, doubled as a quasi-public medium and the extension of a coffee café. Its design had all the makings of a successful space: simple, intelligible, and adaptable. Its downfall was the convergence of ageing demographics; public health by-law changes; a veneration for privatization (both in and around the gaybourhood); and an inability to cope with the external dislocation of younger patrons and visitors who sought refuge after they had nowhere else safe to go. It was emblematic of a time when public spacing was so risky a realm to be placed as queer that private spaces became ideal havens for personal safety. Its end as an institution was an epitaph on how intersectional stratification within the queer community and deterrences against “undesirables” had undermined its utility as a sitting stoop for solidarity and plurality.

Contrary to cis gay theorists like Bassi, who argue that a “relationship to gay political economy can thus be theorised as quantitatively binding us to the relations of exchange and ‘discourse of bourgeois individualism’” (2006, 230), this essay series is less concerned by how capitalism gets negotiated inside private venues of production and consumption, such as clubs, bars, or cabarets. Much as one cannot observe the forest from inside a grove, a preoccupation with acts of social production and consumption hidden inside private venues cannot observe macro-level geographies immanent to the cultivation and propagation of those venues. In North America, historic acts of civil resistance by gender and sexual minorities during the later 20th century made it possible to begin carving (from within) new cartographies of spacing at a district or neighbourhood level — areas large enough to not only include venues, but also public parks, streets, sidewalks, and easements.

A critical geographer must be prepared for an unobstructed view of social-spatial terrains and viewing those terrains through intersectional lenses — views which may suddenly appear alien and unforgiving, views which test the limit of their own comfort. A critical geographer must be prepared to reconcile how homonormativity may not only be a reflexive response to a hegemonic heteronormativity, but that it may also be complicit with heteronormativity in structuring a systemic cisnormativity which dictates the limits of everyday citizenship for a class of people who not only lack agency, but also remain confined by the same model of institutionalization that once deprived cis gay and lesbian people from an agency of belonging within the civic conscience.


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This unpublished manuscript was drafted August 2011, revised for review in June 2012, and edited for serializing in 2016. It is peer-reviewed by two scholars; two other reviewers rejected the topic posthaste. Composed originally for Will Straw’s Media and Urban Life (COMS675) graduate seminar, fall 2010, at McGill University.

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