An introduction: “Meet me at The Steps”

Commanding normativities in Toronto’s gaybourhood, 1984–2005

This begins a six-part series, posted June 20th to 25th, on an urban design element to emerge organically as a successful social fixture in Toronto’s fledgling gaybourhood (Church-Wellesley Village), and its catalyzing relevance on an evolving community, on citizenships of consumption, and on comprehending a geographic cisnormativity endemic to both the gaybourhood and beyond it.

An introduction

Riley: [amazed expression] “Wow, there sure are a lot of drag queens on roller blades this year!”
Butchie: “Yeah. Well, you know, it is the fastest-growing sport in North America, eh?”
Riley: “Roller blades?”
Butchie: “No, drag!”
Riley: “Oh!”
Butchie: [points again] “Look! There goes a leather dyke with her nipples pierced!”
Riley: “Oh wo … oh, hey, hey, hey!” [points] There goes a leather man with his ass hanging out!”
Butchie: “Look!” [points] “There goes a mistress with her slave!”
Smitty: [shakes head, partly faces fourth wall] “You just know on the evening news, all they will show are the drag queens and the leather people.”
Riley: “Yeah! But there are a lot of them!”

Figure 0. “Steps: gay pride parade” [Kids in the Hall (season 5, episode 5), aired 7 December 1994. New York: Broadway Video].

Figure 0. “Steps: gay pride parade” [Kids in the Hall (season 5, episode 5), aired 7 December 1994. New York: Broadway Video].

“Steps”[1], a serial sketch by comedy troupe Kids in the Hall, parodies a café stoop in a gay[2] neighbourhood. Three gay men sit on the stoop and gossip politics, cruising, and social issues. In this pride parade sketch, Riley (Dave Foley) and Butchie (Scott Thompson) gawk at the outlandish in each marching group, oblivious or apathetic to their own deviation from normative[3] expectations of the time. After ogling familiar gay tropes on parade, both wince repugnantly at a “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender farm collective”. Butchie remarks, “Wow, they’re ugly.” Smitty (Kevin McDonald) muses how the collective cultivates good marijuana. His friends bolt from their perch to march alongside the collective. Smitty, now on his own, mutters: “Well, it’s good to see they’re overcoming their lookism.”

The stoop on which “Steps” is inspired was at a Second Cup Coffee franchise on Toronto’s Church Street. “The Steps” of the stoop bridged the public right-of-way, a sidewalk, to a café. That it emerged as a social gathering place for the gaybourhood[4] was organic, but accidental. Owing to its mythos within the gay community’s cultural imagination, this Second Cup earned sobriquets: the Suction Cup, the Second Slut, the Scup, and Last Chance Café (Jenkins 1995, D5; Xtra! 2005b, 13). The Steps not only provided a visibly emergent gay community with a means to publicly articulate a spatial claim on citizenship and belonging. As a strength of presence, it was also an anchor for defensible spacing where “new normals” could be etched into cultural, spatial, and social memories.

This series, “Meet me at The Steps”, follows the evolution of normativities in Toronto which threw into relief the orthogonal presence of a cisnormative[5] social geography. To arrive to this, one must backtrack to how three socio-spatial phenomena intersected with Toronto’s queer community.

Foremost, a historical narrative on the cultural impact of The Steps reveals how it was amongst the first publicly visible gathering grounds in Toronto for a besieged, marginalized, and repeatedly displaced community — in which external violences were curbed by giving gay patrons conditional access to a publicly accessible, publicly visible place which itself wasn’t a public space.

Second, a consumption-oriented model of civic participation heralded a neoliberal encroachment into the gaybourhood — an encroachment by which the sanction of “public” visibility was ascribed to one’s means to pay for time and occupation of space, such as buying a coffee. For someone with dispensable income or the means to invest in a business, this citizenship of consumption delivered an alternative to public realms like city parks, where the threat of harassment from law enforcement or heterosexual vigilantism was not an abstraction. Citizenships of consumption emerged as a reproducible model for the way Toronto’s “publics” could participate in both a normative and moral sense (e.g., the “business improvement area”).

Third, as gay visibility in publicly accessible spaces expanded, a homonormative[6] geography emerged by claiming territories from a ubiquitous geography of heteronormativity[7], particularly in liminal territories where heteronormative enforcement was lower. This newly claimed geography welcomed gay and lesbian[8] sexualities which were no longer institutionalized by pathology or criminality. This, however, complicated matters for queer people who continued to endure exemption from de-institutionalization. It discouraged their engagement in publicly visible sites of consumption within homonormative geographies unless their appearance could be regulated within homonormative expectations, much as it compounded their continuing ostracism from adjacent heteronormative geographies.

This heteronormative-homonormative co-normativity brought to relief an optics of exclusion, a geographic cisnormativity. This most immediately affected gender non-conforming and opaque (i.e., visible) trans[9] people, yet it also impacted other trans people in more pernicious ways. Homonormative sites of consumption welcomed heterosexual supporters as intrepid tourists to the gaybourhood, while visibly non-normative deviations were feared to disrupt that support and veneer of respectability the gaybourhood was starting to promote. This cisnormative geography, most evident at the liminal frays of co-normative geographies where defensible spacing of those normativities were at their weakest, supports Bauer, et al.’s, novel theory of cisnormativity. That is: a geographic cisnormativity resolves itself wherever participation and visibility of trans people are regulated not by heteronormativity, but by homonormativity — as the latter attempts to replicate and uphold the social, spatial, and economic exclusions which heteronormativity imposed historically over two populations: gay and lesbian people who are placed as cis; and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight people who are placed as trans.


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


[1] Kids in the Hall. 1994. Season 5, episode 5. New York: Broadway Video International.

[2] This essay series qualifies gay as it relates to a group of cisgender (or cis) men who were designated male at birth (DMAB), and who seek intimacy with the same. Gay men designated female at birth (DFAB) (i.e., transgender men or men with transsexual bodies) are exempted from this analysis for reasons described later. Queer, meanwhile, describes sexuality-gender-articulative experiences which may be deprived of a “normative” recognition. This is inclusive of not only gay and lesbian people who are cis, but also gay and lesbian people who are trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming, as well as bisexual people, cis or trans, more generally.

[3] The social negotiation, control, and articulation of normativities is central to this paper. Bicchieri explains normativity in terms of social norms — i.e., the expected response to an action or behaviour within a social context “depends on a sufficient number of people believing that it exists and pertains to a given type of situation, and expecting that enough other people are following it in those kinds of situations” (2006, 2). She argues how normativity is a socially hegemonic mechanism. She adds how the ways this hegemony is manifest validates wider expectations of normativity. This essay series explores how social normativities were meted during a particular intersection of space (Toronto) and time (1980s–2000s).

[4] Gaybourhood, the portmanteau of “gay” and “neighbourhood”, may be derogatory to some (much as queer may be for some gay men who are cis), while embraced by others. Other sobriquets for Toronto’s gaybourhood: gay village, gay ghetto, Church-Wellesley Village, and Church Street; it is rarely the queer village, “queerbourhood”, or queer ghetto. “Gaybourhood” reminds how the plurality of a queer community, writ large, acquiesced geographically to the intersection of cis gay men with cissexual bodies.

[5] Bauer, Greta R., et al. (2009, 356) reify cisnormativity as “the expectation that all people are cissexual, that those assigned male at birth always grow up to be men and those assigned female at birth always grow up to be women… [It] is so pervasive that it otherwise has not yet been named. Cisnormative assumptions are so prevalent that they are difficult at first to even recognize… [It] disallows the possibility of trans existence or trans visibility.” I further propose that cisnormativity is the relational condition of granting the affordances, rights, and responsibilities of citizenship to persons who are placed as cis, who have cissexual bodies, or both, to the hinted, de facto, or categorical exclusion of (or penalty to) those who are placed as trans, who have transsexual bodies, or both. Cisnormative geographies, meanwhile, are distinguished by the combined ubiquity of heteronormative and homonormative spaces, inside which methods of social, cultural, legal, institutional, and/or economic regulation over trans people’s lives prevent them from being enfranchised as participatory citizens on par with cis people. The perceived “intrusions” of trans people within cisnormative geographies are known to trigger and exacerbate the social exclusion, institutional sanction, criminalization, and even grievous bodily harm (with limited legal redress) of people who are trans.

[6] Several scholars have generated rich and contradictory ways to describe homonormativity. Summarized, homonormativity functions as a grounds for systemic exclusion — suppressing knowledge, spatial relationships, and social politics deemed as threatening to the conservatism of a cisgender homosexuality (even modelling itself to appeal to, if not echo heteronormative mores). Duggan (2002, 179) argues that homonormativity is part of a politically neoliberal project, in that it “does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.” LeBlanc (2010) adds that homonormativity “emerged as an artefact of the assimilationist agenda of respectability of many gay and lesbian citizens, in opposition to the radical queer rejection of heteronormative values… [L]eathersex bars, cruising areas, and other spaces of queer territoriality are now deemed by the gay community as embarrassments… as gay conservatism is a moralising politics that calls for the self-policing of ‘deviant’ behaviour.” Stryker (2008b, 155) argues that this conservatism, the perception of deviance, is “an operation at the micropolitical level, one that aligns gay interests with dominant constructions of knowledge and power that disqualify the very modes of knowing threatening to disrupt the smooth functioning of normative space and that displace modes of embodiment calling into question the basis of authority from which normative voices speak.” Berlant and Warner (1998, 548) disagree, contending that homonormativity does not exist, in that “homosexuality can never have the invisible, tacit, society-founding rightness that heterosexuality has,” thus it can “not be possible to speak of ‘homonormativity’ in the same sense.” They indict heteronormativity while foreclosing the possibility that homonormativity can be described or critiqued.

[7] Corber and Valocchi (2003, 4) describe heteronormativity as “the set of norms that make heterosexuality seem natural or right and that organize homosexuality as its binary opposite… [it] works to maintain the dominance of heterosexuality by preventing homosexuality from being a form of sexuality that can be taken for granted… in the way heterosexuality can.” The mechanism behind heteronormativity emerges from a different place than homonormativity, but the shared imperative to regulate an exclusion of the Other and to emphasize its own respectability conspires to perpetuate a ubiquitous cisnormativity.

[8] As with gay in footnote #2, this essay series qualifies lesbian as it relates to a group of cisgender (or cis) women who were designated female at birth (DFAB), and who seek intimacy with the same. Lesbian women designated male at birth (DMAB) (i.e., transgender women or women with transsexual bodies) are exempted from this analysis for reasons also described later.

[9] The adjective trans, where used in this paper, signifies women and men with transsexual bodies, as well as articulations of gender not prescribed to how one was designated at birth. Trans signifies in toto the life experiences of people whose neurological (i.e., brain or subconscious) sex, and/or dialectal articulation of gender (i.e., femininity or masculinity) are not ascribed to the semanticity or perception of their morphological (i.e., external body) sex as designated by others at the time of one’s birth. Cis, meanwhile, indicates that one’s morphological sex, neurological sex, and/or dialectal articulation of gender are in agreement (on the same side) with one another. The basic concepts of trans- (“on the other side of”) and cis- (“on this side of”) are derived from chemistry to describe isomers. I propose further that gender is a primeval (but universally legible) human language which provides the most rudimentary means of social communication upon which social systems of order; divisions of labour; industry of culture; ways of perception; superficial attraction; and syntactic languages are shaped, negotiated, and evolved. This comprises a hypothesis that the language of gender was an archaeological technology for communication which facilitated the early survival and evolution of the Homo genus. See Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device theory and van Schaik and Burkart (2010, 483). Also see Hall (1959, 97) on how any communication system requires three elements: an overarching structure (e.g., higher logic capabilities), components (e.g., people), and the message. Interpreted this way, gender becomes foundational when recognizing the emergence, structure, and spatial diversification of spoken vernacular and, later, written communication. This challenges the idea that gender is inherently performative and a social construction. On the contrary, a basic vocabulary and syntax of gender would need to exist before human social orders could coalesce around (or be structured by) it.

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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