A new morality: the citizenship of consumption

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

Part five continues a six-part series, posted June 20th to 25th, on examining how a new interpretation of everyday citizenship, one centred around the act of consumption, fundamentally altered the gaybourhood from beyond its enclave boundaries. Catch up with the last instalment, the social impacts of normative geographies.

By century’s end, the transition of Toronto’s gaybourhood from an imposed ghetto shaped by heteronormativity to a voluntarily homonormative enclave was nearly complete. Marcuse describes how enclaves operate as “spatially concentrated area[s] in which members of a particular population group, self-defined by ethnicity or religion or otherwise, congregate as a means of enhancing their economic, social, political and/or cultural development” (1997, 242). This was the case for the Church-Wellesley gaybourhood where The Steps, whilst not a public space, was revered nevertheless as a “public” fixture and a gaybourhood port of call. Gaybourhood inhabitants, ravaged by institutionalizing measures, constructive relocations, morality raids, bashings, and HIV-related losses, furthered their stake on the enclave by supporting more commercial services owned and operated by gay men and lesbian women.

The addition of these businesses, however, was not to snub commercial alternatives in the surrounding heteronormative geographies. Myslik describes the appeal for voluntary territoriality — one comprised of a geographic homonormativity — less as a means to upend (or subvert) heteronormativity and more for cultivating an everyday citizenship within the realm of homonormative geographies: gay men “consider the psychological and social benefits of open association worth the physical risk taken in queer spaces [where] coping with the presence of violence is an act of negotiating power in society” (1996, 168).

Other critiques challenge this model of resistance, underscoring a fundamental flaw — namely, its preoccupation with only gay men and lesbian women who are cisgender, to the detriment of other queer people. This preoccupation reveals a nearsightedness inherent to social realities in which homonormative geographies (with its clear conventions around a cisgender lesbian and gay territoriality) host an inextricable, but organic wealth of queer articulations and lived experiences which co-exist beyond narratives of a prescriptive, moralizing, or respectable nature. This co-existence was always endemic to the gaybourhood, but many of its inhabitants were not released from the handicap of institutionalization the way cis gay men and cis lesbian women had been in 1973.

Despite risking disapproval from emerging respectabilities within homonormative geographies, for some marginal queer people this homonormative terrain may be the only geographic refuge from harsher bias treatment elsewhere. Bell and Binnie observe that the praxis of gay enclaves are zones of consumption where mechanisms of exclusion reign: “what sometimes happens is that the boundary of ‘unwantedness’ gets redrawn, so that in opening up to (non-gay-identified) consumers, the spaces push out what we might call the ʻqueer unwanted’” (2004, 1810). Bassi (2006), however, absolves this market-oriented neoliberalization of the gaybourhood enclave, arguing how hegemonic conditions (ostensibly, heteronormativity) necessitate homonormative geographies of consumption.

While enclave-based geographies may help to cultivate a sense of solidarity and cohesion amongst its inhabitants, the praxis of centring preconditions or dependencies of belonging and citizenship around the commission of consumption demotes the solidarities which made the claiming of those enclaves an urgent political project. As revealed by sex work, stage labour, and other service economy labour (all being modes of production), an ethic of hard work and “grit” may not be sufficient for a sense of belonging when a citizenship of consumption is engineered and elevated to merit a greater belonging for those who benefit from the intersectional and structural privileges to inform positive life chances within that geography. In turn, a citizenship of consumption affords one who benefits from such life chances with a means to consume more conspicuously. The “queer unwanted”, deprived from those life chances, may lack the economic might and/or institutional-legal means to articulate themselves as consumers and, thus, as “citizens” — irrespective of whether those geographies are homonormative or heteronormative. Without a footing of place, the “queer unwanted” may be pressed to invisibility or relegated to sites of exclusion where fewer consumers (i.e., “citizens”) will see them.

By regulating the gaybourhood’s transactions, cis gay men and cis lesbian women, operating as gaybourhood stakeholders, could regulate activities they perceived as unwelcome and/or undesired in their image of a homonormative enclave, further confining the movement of marginal queer people whose presences challenged whatever veneer of respectability the gaybourhood strove to market and promote to people who hailed from heteronormative geographies. Duggan (2002, 190) describes this as the new homonormativity — a socially conservative gay project to re-brand itself as a centrist idea in the mould of a socially conservative heteronormativity. In this Utopian imagining of a new homonormativity, the liberation of (predominantly white) cis gay men morphed into a neoliberal order lauding economic might and property rights as the new (and key) metrics for reworking a terms of everyday citizenship and for regulating both the social and political economies of gaybourhood spaces.

Figure 12. Twilight years at The Steps, 2003 [© Richard Lautens, Toronto Star].

Figure 12. Twilight years at The Steps, 2003 [© Richard Lautens, Toronto Star].

The shift toward a conservatism in Toronto’s gaybourhood had been underway for years, but it was the convergence of political mobilization, economic empowerment, legal normalization, and a neoliberal veneration for the privatizing of public gathering spaces which equipped the gaybourhood with the chisel to sculpt a vision for a new homonormativity. Rifts were beginning to show at The Steps as tension increased between gay men and butch lesbian women. In 1999, two lesbian co-workers at Second Cup were harassed by gay patrons when “‘a gay man spit at me and called me a fucking dyke’” (Cosgrove 1999, 17). She learnt that her butch articulation of gender was unsettling not to heterosexual customers, but mistreatment “related to her sexuality or gender has been from gay men… ‘When there’s only two females [sic] behind the cash, a man will come in and ask where the men are and why there were no men working’” (ibid.). At its zenith, The Steps was an inclusive commons for social gatherings. One patron recalled the early 1990s, during the Kids in the Hall “Steps” era, when “‘it was like a melting pot, like the small town bar where everybody convened. It wasn’t broken into groups back then. From the bears to the twinkies to the political groups from the 519… it really was a crossroads for so many people’” (Xtra! 2005b, 13). Even as social change rapidly reshaped the gaybourhood, an old camaraderie for this ephemeral time still lingered: “[a] young dyke perched on the steps in front of the Second Cup… hands me a flier, screaming, ‘Come hear me spin and bring your fine girlfriend too!’” (Raber 2001, 18). By contrast, signs of the new homonormativity being a significant influence — settlement, stability, and domesticity — was reflected by anecdotal observations from a gay elder as he remarked on not only the abundance of pet dogs being walked by owners with a frequency unlike anywhere else in the city, but also observing demographic splits between “the variable stream of the comely young, the bellied middle-aged, and the senile like me” (Symons 2002, A15).

By the time of September 11th, a cluster of interlinked factors was hastening The Steps’ decline as an inclusive social space. One was demography: the social preferences for a changing, ageing clientèle, much of it white, evolved away from a culture of cruising and lounging, and toward settling down and property ownership — manifest by a ten per cent drop in the share of gaybourhood renters after peaking during the 1980s [Figure 4]. By 2001, the rapid influx of young men during the enclave’s birth tapered off as men aged over 35, many of them being arrivals from earlier decades, emerged as the gaybourhood’s new majority; for women across all ages, growth held stagnant, much as it had since the 1980s [Figure 5 & Figure 6]. Another factor was the normalization of legal citizenship for gay and lesbian people when universal marriage was legalized provincially in 2003, and federally in 2005. This change emboldened gay and lesbian couples to settle openly in other cisnormative geographies beyond the gaybourhood enclave without fearing as great a threat from homophobia. A third factor was competition from other café franchises which cut into Second Cup’s market share of the gaybourhood as Starbucks, Lettieri, and Timothy’s World Coffee opened along Church Street.

Expanding the privatization of gaybourhood space

Perhaps the most overlooked change, however, was how external elements of neoliberalism had altered the gaybourhood’s social terrain. By 2000, new faces were appearing at The Steps, many of whom were displaced by changes occurring beyond the gaybourhood. The Steps, meanwhile, devolved into a contested territory where prescriptive sexualities, dialects of gender, morphological sex, ethnicity, class and, most importantly, the capacity for consumption were welcomed more than those who fell beyond those prescriptions. A veneer of inclusivity, borne from a shared struggle against heteronormative ghettoization two decades earlier, ceded to an intersectional hierarchy of respectability.

A spike in queer youth — some of whom made daily visits from the suburbs, others being transient runaways — congregated at The Steps and around the gaybourhood. Changes to smoking by-laws, a by-product of new public health policies, halted smoking at most eateries and cafés. While restaurateurs could re-open as bars, doing so would shut out the regulars who were younger than the legal drinking age of 19 (Zuvlony 2001, E3). Café chains, by the very nature of their format, could not do so. Independent gaybourhood cafés like Zelda’s, Hair of the Dog, and the Satellite Lounge, venues long popular with queer youth who commuted from the suburbs, chose to re-open as bars, leaving many loyal teen patrons with few gaybourhood social gathering spaces beyond The Steps at Second Cup (ibid.). Furthering this optics of a homonormative respectability (and a growing schism from gentrifying stakeholders), some teens who came to Second Cup and The Steps after school were accused by older patrons of being “shabbily dressed” in spite of abiding the conventions for a citizenship of consumption; one teen, displeased by elder disapproval, argued that she had “a right to sit” at The Steps because she bought their coffee (Ross 2003, B2). This enforcement of social respectability was a reversal from the early days of the gaybourhood’s revitalization when fears were preoccupied by whether the young enclave would remain “vibrant yet accessible to all” (Holden 1987, A8). As one resident in 1987 declared, “I’d never live in Yorkville. We don’t want this to become another Yorkville” (ibid.).

Figure 13. Squeegee kid, Monday, 20 May 1996 (Victoria Day) [City of Toronto Archives, item 17, file 93, series 1907 (Ivaan Kotulsky fonds)].

Figure 13. Squeegee kid, Monday, 20 May 1996 (Victoria Day) [City of Toronto Archives, item 17, file 93, series 1907 (Ivaan Kotulsky fonds)].

Runaway youth, meanwhile, had to co-exist in public spaces alongside homeless adults, relying on informal economies for survival income — including squeegeeing [Figure 13], sex work, panhandling, and even street drug trade. By the late 1990s, the emerging presence of transient kids within the gaybourhood, partly an effect of policies which failed to meet their basic social welfare needs, was a direct consequence of municipal actions taken in 1998, when city council approved the expropriation of land for developing a public-private partnership, a “P3”, for a privately surveilled and managed plaza called Yonge-Dundas Square (Ruppert 2006, 283). Unlike Nathan Phillips Square outside New City Hall, the new Yonge-Dundas Square would not be a public space, but a publicly accessible private space — not unlike The Steps. Homeless youth who long found refuge near Yonge and Dundas (then called The Strip, home to video arcades, discount retailers, and jewellers) were displaced by this planning intervention; in effect, this intervention was a sanitizing manoeuvre which the City of Toronto had rejected initially during the Yonge Street Mall days of the 1970s, due to the prohibitive legal costs ascribed to an expropriation action (City People 1974; Jenkins 1995, D5).

The old Track, a gaybourhood now gentrifying as the Gay Village, grappled with the same systemic problems the city once accused it of generating: the old immorality had come full-circle as the new respectability. Still, Toronto police, echoing its legacy of morality squads, made one final incursion into the gaybourhood, this time impacting lesbian women. In September 2000, police targeted the Pussy Palace, a bathhouse event for lesbian women hosted at a venue which was one of the Operation Soap raid targets back in 1981 (Bain & Nash 2007, 17). As with Operation Soap, a controversial and confrontational police chief, one with a history of harassing the queer community, approved the raid (Beare 2007, 347; Nolen & Freeze 2000, A27). Appalled by the raid, the lesbian and gay community implored Chief Julian Fantino to concentrate policing energies instead on so-called nuisance activities in public spacing like those around The Steps and elsewhere in the gaybourhood — a new homonormativity of conservatism which Valverde and Cirak (2003, 109) describe as a “law-and-order, ‘gays-are-respectable-too’” approach. Out of this new respectability, the gaybourhood’s city councillor, Kyle Rae (who in 1991 was elected as Toronto’s first openly gay councillor), would go on to spearhead the move at city council to, ironically, expropriate land for Yonge-Dundas Square, the very move which displaced many at-risk youth to the gaybourhood and The Steps.

In 1999, the provincial government, led by Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris, passed the Safe Streets Act — encoding the criminalization of marginal populations which attempted to earn incomes through informal economies. As with the municipal expropriation of Yonge and Dundas, the Safe Streets Act was promoted as a sanitizing, “right-wing, law-and-order, ban them from ‘our’ city” measure to combat visibly homeless people (itself a function of government cutbacks to social housing) (Ranasinghe & Valverde 2006, 326). By criminalizing informal economies, the Safe Streets Act sought to make public spaces and streets more appealing for a “public” of “middle-class consumers, workers, and tourists” by excluding “counter-publics” and classes of people (e.g., street youth and “squeegee kids”) who were perceived as threats to that ideal (Ruppert 2006, 287). Both the expropriation and the Act, the latter arming Toronto police with a new enforcement tool, removed street youth around Yonge and Dundas to other parts of the city. Kids who migrated eastward toward the gaybourhood were greeted with a cold shoulder by some gay and lesbian dwellers. Community stakeholders opposing the kids blamed conflicts at both The Steps and around the gaybourhood on “street youth, vagrants and drug-dealing and prostitution” (DeMara 2004, A4). One gaybourhood resident observed, “A couple of years ago, [Second Cup] decided they didn’t like the looks of folks who were hanging out on the steps. Young people. Young, poor people — the sort that used to hang out at Yonge and Dundas before that was razed to make Dundas Square” (Xtra! 2005b, 13). Homeless adults who came to The Steps, meanwhile, tended to be queer but often hailed from elsewhere — as with one gay man of colour, a sex worker and immigrant who sent his under-the-table income to family in Guyana (Symons 2002, A15). These tensions revealed a gaybourhood enclave being moulded from beyond as much as it was shaping its own vision. While external forces were venerating the ideal for promoting citizenships of consumption in more places, much as The Steps had capitalized on so successfully during the 1980s and 1990s, the displacement and criminalization facing impoverished populations impacted by those forces placed new pressures on the gaybourhood, exacerbating class schisms between long-term enclave dwellers and at-risk youth.

Figure 14. The qualitative impact of fluorescent UV black lights inside a restaurant washroom in lieu of conventional fluorescent lights: inside a McDonald’s in Montréal’s gay village, 2011. UV lighting, implemented in this way, makes it tougher (but not impossible) to locate a vein for intravenous drug injection. UV black lighting also makes everything prohibitively difficult to see with the human eye. (The bright object, centre right, is not a light source, but a reflective fluorescing surface.) [Idlewild]

Figure 14. The qualitative impact of fluorescent UV black lights inside a restaurant washroom in lieu of conventional fluorescent lights: inside a McDonald’s in Montréal’s gay village, 15 January 2011. UV lighting, implemented in this way, makes it tougher (but not impossible) to locate a vein for intravenous drug injection. UV black lighting also makes everything prohibitively difficult to see with the human eye. (The bright object, centre right, is not a light source, but a reflective fluorescing surface.) [Idlewild]

Elimination of The Steps and the end of Second Cup

Second Cup and building management, responding to community complaints of nuisance activity and patrons considered undesirable, made changes to its built environment. In 2003, Second Cup mounted outdoor speakers for blasting classical music (under the premise that it would be unpleasant for loiterers); terminated 24-hour service; upgraded the café’s interior with brighter bulbs; and replaced its washroom fluorescent lighting with ultraviolet black lights (to discourage intravenous drug injections) [Figure 14] (Couture 2005, 8; DeMara 2004, A4). These counter-nuisance actions were not only unsuccessful at meeting their objectives, but they also pushed away longtime regulars and produced a less agreeable café environment. In 2004, 65 Wellesley Street management (formerly Churwell Centre) overhauled the Church Street-facing façade to eliminate most of The Steps: positioned inside the building’s overhang, they were sealed behind a flush wall which expanded leasable interior space (DeMara 2004, A4).

While rationalized by building management as a business decision, the demolition of The Steps was decried by several gaybourhood residents as an extreme measure and an unrecoverable loss of a unique institution. Rick Bébout, a gaybourhood historian (and member of the Body Politic collective which founded Xtra!, the city’s lesbian and gay newspaper weekly), expressed disappointment. He observed how the façade redesign “not only destroys history, it says something about the lack of perspective in the gay community, a group that has far too often been outcast itself” (Ross 2003, B2). Annoyed by the gaybourhood’s growing embrace of respectability, Bébout added, “‘It’s kind of shameful for me to see people who have our history, (viewing) others [as] useless or trash’” (ibid.). Former Church-Wellesley BIA chair Dennis O’Connor felt similarly, but was more reserved: “Culturally and historically for us, it is a great loss and I think it will be missed for a very long time. But the way The Steps have been in the last two years, there were very, very few people from the community that ever used it anymore” (DeMara 2004, A4). After seeing a precipitous decline in business following façade renovations, Second Cup closed in 2005. Bert Archer, a gaybourhood resident who was aware that driving away at-risk, undesirable kids was partly behind the renovations, said, “Now they’re going out of business. Serves them right” (Xtra! 2005b, 13). In 2006, a year after Second Cup closed, Councillor Rae lamented how Church Street suffered from “street kids and the hustlers and the drug dealers and drug users on the street” (DeMara 2006, H1) — seemingly unfazed by how his campaign to expropriate Yonge and Dundas helped to provoke much of their dislocation in the first place.


A complete index of references for “Meet me at The Steps” is included with the series conclusion.

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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