From Molly Wood’s Bush to the gaybourhood: a historical narrative

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

This continues 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. Catch up with the introduction.

Molly Wood’s Bush

The birth of The Steps as a geographic anchor for the gay community was descended from a chain of events dating back to Toronto’s founding as the Town of York.

The gaybourhood’s heart at Church and Wellesley streets began with Alexander Wood, a Scottish merchant, magistrate, and founding landholder. His renown today stems from his putative homosexuality, his notoriety then from a longstanding feud with fellow magistrate and ex-friend, William Dummer Powell. Powell challenged Wood’s moral character following an 1810 rape case over which Wood presided, in which the female victim’s defensive scratching of the rapist’s genitals moved Wood to order personal inspections for each suspect (Goldie 2001, 13). Arising from an optics of perversion ascribed to his rumoured sexuality, the aftermath of his investigation subjected Wood to ridicule and rebuke, coercing his retreat to Scotland before returning to York for the War of 1812.

Figure 1. Extent of development (unmasked areas in blue, roads in black) for Town of York, ca. 1820s. Molly Wood’s Bush (black) overlapped two park lots [Spelt 1984 (with adaptations by Idlewild)].

Figure 1. Extent of development (unmasked areas in blue, roads in black) for Town of York, ca. 1820s. Molly Wood’s Bush (black) overlapped two park lots [Spelt 1984 (with adaptations by Idlewild)].

During the early 1820s, Wood bought a subdivided park lot[10] east and north of Yonge and Carlton streets, bound on the east and north, respectively, by Jarvis and Maitland streets [Figure 1]. His farm, nestled in a sylvan area north of the town and lakeshore, was known derisively as Molly Wood’s Bush — “molly” a Georgian euphemism for gay men and gender-variant people (Gannon & Easton 2011, 268).

Despite social reprimand he dealt with for the rest of his life, Wood’s legacy as a gay landholder is inscribed in the gaybourhood streets of Wood and Alexander (named by Wood himself), and Alexander Place. A bronze statue at Alexander near Church commemorates Wood as founder of Toronto’s modern gaybourhood.

Figure 2. Demolition of housing between Wood and Alexander streets, west of Church Street, 7 July 1954. Apartment towers were built in their wake. [York Univ. Institutional Repository, Toronto Telegram collection [asc03364]; URI].

Figure 2. Demolition of housing between Wood and Alexander streets, west of Church Street, 7 July 1954. Apartment towers were built in their wake. [York Univ. Institutional Repository, Toronto Telegram collection [asc03364]; URI].

The Track & The Ward: structures for corralling and containing queers

Census tallies between 1961 and 2001 indicate three concurrent trends for the emerging gaybourhood.

First, the opening of the TTC’s first subway line, featuring Wellesley, College, and Dundas stations along Yonge Street, accelerated the razing of rooming houses nearby Church Street [Figure 2] to make way for residential tower development. This densified the area’s population capacity, but also provoked social displacements. Second, older families moved on as children aged, ushering forth a wave of new residents, many of whom were not married. Third, after criminalization of homosexuality was eased and then de-pathologized, the proportion of young adult men living nearby Church Street spiked relative to other groups. Visibly gay men, lesbian women, and trans people had always resided in Toronto, but their inability or reluctance to assimilate into heteronormative society necessarily confined where they could live, gather, or be seen.

The spatial clustering of marginalized groups may either be an indicator of externally imposed confinements or a voluntary internal response to binary power oppositions. For queer spaces, a dialectic of territoriality emerges: are spaces maintained by the structurally hegemonic exclusions of heteronormativity, or are they defended by a consensus of agency which mobilizes a community around a shared sense of identity, culture, and/or belonging? When making an analysis using structuration theory — that “society neither exists independently of human activity nor is a product of it” (Dyck and Kearns 2006, 87) — tensions between structure and agency in the gaybourhood (and The Steps) become explorable. Structuration theory facilitates a review of constraints against, on one hand, how one can negotiate and navigate a geographic social space and, on the other, how extensively an external society can confine one’s own movements.

Figure 3. View of Village Green apartment tower complex behind razed lot and older housing stock, facing east on Maitland Street, between Church and Yonge Streets, Wednesday, 31 March 1971. [City of Toronto Archives: item 69, file 61, fonds 1526 (Harvey R. Naylor Fonds)].

Figure 3. View of Village Green apartment tower complex behind razed lot and older housing stock, facing east on Maitland Street, between Church and Yonge Streets, Wednesday, 31 March 1971. [City of Toronto Archives: item 69, file 61, fonds 1526 (Harvey R. Naylor Fonds)].

Clusters may emerge wherever marginal groups assert themselves or endure a shared sense of exclusion along culturally legible markers. These clusters may either be the hallmark of a marginal group’s hegemonic exclusion from dominant society (the structure of a ghetto) or a reflexive self-preservation and autonomy (the agency of an enclave). In Toronto, such markers helped to distinguish the borders of a heteronormative morality for heterosexual people, inside which that morality was suspended. This moral territoriality produced a ghetto — “a spatially concentrated area used to separate and to limit a particular involuntarily defined population group [...] held to be, and treated as, inferior by the dominant society” (Marcuse 1997, 231).

The corralling of gender and sexual minorities was evident in two discrete sites: for gay men, in and around an area called The Track (the Molly Wood’s Bush area); for lesbian women, hotels and bars in The Ward (old Chinatown), west of Yonge Street toward Bay and Dundas (Chenier 2004, 102–3). The Track was notorious for “rundown rooming houses, panhandlers, prostitutes, bums, and winos” (Jenkins 1995, D5; de Saint-André 1985, C1). In the heteronormative conscience, it was preferable to let moral decay fester within prescribed, contained zones where a “slum world of rotting tenements, overcrowded rooms”; a “dim, night world of dingy streets and sleazy cafés”; and where feminized sex work, “practising lesbians”, and drug trade repelled the presence of moral (i.e., heterosexual, non-institutionalized, “upstanding”) citizens (Ross 1997, 570; Howarth 1965, 17; de Saint-Andre 1985, C1). Relative to their gay contemporaries, lesbian women dealt with greater spatial displacement (having relocated previously from the Tenderloin area of Jarvis near Carleton during the mid ’50s) (Chenier 2004, 91). The agency of maintaining social networks helped to thwart these geographic disruptions. The frequency of police harassment was also lower — just so long as they kept themselves from view of public realms after dark (or risk arrest on suspicion of prostitution or drug trade) (ibid.). Lower police harassment, however, did not equate to lesser. In the late ’50s, after the new police chief organized a morality squad headed by inspector Herbert Thurston, police men earned notoriety in lesbian circles for detaining and taking queer women to Cherry Beach to assault — to “beat deviates in disgust” — and abandon them (Chenier 2004, 102; DeMara 1992a, B7; DeMara 1992b, A15).

Figure 4. Dwelling inventories and rental occupancy rates in Church-Wellesley gaybourhood, 1961–2001 [Statistics Canada]

Figure 4. Dwelling inventories and rental occupancy rates in Church-Wellesley gaybourhood, 1961–2001 [Statistics Canada].

The enterprise of heteronormative urban planning

A tacit urban planning practice of corralling queer residents evolved as developers bought land nearby The Track to build real estate around the new subway stations. After its opening, the Yonge line ushered an era of transit-oriented development which introduced high-rise housing (Filion & McSpurren 2007, 507–8). When the City Park and Village Green apartment towers opened on the west side of The Track in the 1960s [Figure 3], available rental dwellings for the future gaybourhood spiked. These apartments, however, were not designed for large families as the razed houses which preceded them. The apartments, predominantly bachelor (studio), one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units, were designed for small households. Consequently, within The Track’s census tract, the proportion of total housing stock offered as rentals climbed and hovered at 98 per cent throughout the 1970s and 1980s [Figure 4]. Lehman’s report on the Church-Wellesley Area (CWA) notes one side effect which external corralling, coupled with higher housing capacity for singles and couples, had on an increasingly confined and increasingly clustered gay community:

The gay liberation movement (as most liberation movements) consisted of two primary social actions: oppression and struggle, which produced two primary outcomes within the CWA: concentration and solidarity. Oppression of civil liberties (bath raids) resulting in the struggle for freedom (protests) has assisted in producing a concentration of the community — if only through a new and inexperienced visibility of its members (Lehman 1994, 40; emphasis by author).

Alliances between these lesbian and gay communities happened neither quickly nor organically. Each community coped with discrete varieties of harassment based on their morphological (i.e., body) sex and in the ways their gendered articulations violated the normative mores ascribed to those morphologies — particularly for passing women[11] and drag queens. Carr, et al., observe how marginalized groups can assert agency when they cluster: “Spatial identity is largely a product of social relationships with others. These others may be loosely affiliated groups or cultural, subcultural, or national ones” (1992, 202). During the late ’60s, a cluster of bathhouses east of Yonge helped to anchor new territories of gay spacing, as these were the first services to explicitly accommodate gay men. Lesbian women, since pressed from Ward mainstays like the Continental Hotel, Letros, and the Municipal, began to assert a claim of economic citizenship by owning and operating their own venues, including the Music Room and the Regency Club (Chenier 2004, 102–3; DeMara 1992b, A15).

Figure 5. Population growth, 1961–2001 [Statistics Canada].

Figure 5. Population growth, 1961–2001 [Statistics Canada].

This clustering phenomenon can be inferred further from a breakdown of census counts. From 1971 to 1981, the number of adult men in The Track, aged 25–34, leapt by 56 per cent, effecting a majority of residents in The Track who were male [Figures 5 & 6]. Extrapolating sexuality, however, is tougher, but a review of unmarried residents over age 15 offers a hint. Throughout the 1961–2001 census counts, universal marriage in Canada was prohibited. And yet, within these census tracts, officially unmarried residents were a definitive majority, rising from 42 to 66 per cent. Given the clustering of gay and lesbian residents during that time, it is plausible, if not probable that a measurable proportion of “bachelors” were neither heterosexual nor actually single. (Similarly, extrapolating whether those counted by the census were cis or trans is difficult, if not impossible.)

Figure 6. Age cohort breakdown by (morphological) sex, 1961–2001 [Statistics Canada].

Figure 6. Age cohort breakdown by (morphological) sex, 1961–2001 [Statistics Canada].

Through praxis, the urban planning profession and municipal politicians foisted another stratum of institutional stigma over queer residents. Planners and aldermen focussed on major infrastructure projects as subway use expanded, but they also “viewed Toronto’s burgeoning gay and lesbian presence as a sign of the city’s moral decay” (Grundy 2004, 29). In this sense, the modern gaybourhood was unplanned in that officials were not codifying a queer ghettoization through explicit policy, but their structural interventions elsewhere induced a compartmentalization to keep “immoral” activity within confined, gendered, and sexualized geographies.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau speaks on decriminalizing homosexuality: “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Thursday, 21 December 1967 [CBC Archives].

Moralized boundaries: the perniciousness of institutionalization and deprival of citizenship

Whereas heteronormativity during the 1950s and 1960s openly condemned homosexuality as a “social, sexual, national, and moral danger” (in which, inter alia, the RCMP interrogated Canadians suspected of being queer as a matter of Cold War national security), steps made toward its decriminalization, such as Pierre Trudeau’s bedroom privacy statement in 1967, followed by the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969, revealed two other structures of institutional control: one, a continuing deprivation of everyday citizenship for consenting, same-gender adult couples because homosexuality was still condemned as pathologically “sick” (Kinsman 2003, 136–8; Lepischak 2004, 85), and two, a praxis of urban (or “downtown”) containment for increasingly visible gaybourhoods to draw lines between heteronormative morality and queer deviance.

P.C. MP Eldon M. Woolliams (Calgary North) favouring decriminalization to clear a legal path for psychiatrists to ‘help’ gay people “in a medical way so that these people could be sent to centres, if we feel as citizens who oppose the feeling of this illness and this homosexuality, so they could be rehabilitated.” He added, “I understand in this city, in Toronto, they have clubs… where they wear girls’ clothing and makeup and they carry on.” Sunday, 2 February 1969 [CBC Archives].

When the professional de-pathologization of homosexuality followed decriminalization in 1973 (the year the American Psychiatric Association halted the diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental illness), the shift to de-institutionalize gay and lesbian people who were cis ran against the populist grain of heteronormative stigmas long informed by moralities of pathologization and containment. Not surprisingly, as Alexander remarks: “[i]t is the contradictions generated by institutionalization that produce exclusion” (2006, 411). People who were trans, meanwhile, endured a continued institutionalization after 1973, irrespective of their homosexuality or heterosexuality. In Toronto, the Clarke Institute for Psychiatry launched a facility in 1969, the Gender Identity Clinic, to expand the formal pathologization of trans people in Canada (Hollobon 1972, 4). As of 2011, this facility, among the last of its kind anywhere, remains operational at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Also as of 2011, trans people are still encumbered by APA pathologization[12].

After The Ward was expropriated to build New City Hall and, later, as urban planners cleared a path for development of larger-scale projects for commercial, governmental, and residential uses along upper Bay Street, lesbian women were displaced further north and east as their social spaces were forced to either relocate or shut down, while The Ward’s sex workers returned to the Tenderloin area (Chenier 2004, 107). This wave of development pushed the confined geography of lesbian women closer to The Track. Gender non-conforming people and trans people, meanwhile, confined almost entirely to the indoor spaces of bars and cabarets, were susceptible to criminalization twice over: for being homosexual (whether or not they were actually gay) and for violating criminal by-laws against “crossdressing”. Inspector Thurston used his morality squad to enthusiastically shut down and prosecute one night club’s proprietors for hosting “female impersonators”[13] while lamenting how public apathy was at fault for promoting this “spread of a vicious social cancer” (DeMara 1992a, B7; DeMara 1992b, A15). For trans women who were arrested on suspicion of doing sex work, the criminalization was carceral: up to a two-year sentence in jail (similar to sentences for gay men who were arrested for soliciting sex); for cis women who were arrested doing the same, the sentence was typically a fine — lesser due to the tacit, widespread commoditization of the morphologically female body (DeMara 1992a, B7).

During Halloween 1973, tensions arose between the cis gay community and cis heterosexual people on the topic of drag performers, genderqueer people, and trans people. Excerpts include drag queens and kings occupying (a confined) public space along Yonge Street outside the St. Charles Tavern, plus a beauty pageant of trans women at Club Manatee, an unlicensed gay bar [CBC Archives].

Moralities of consumption versus the economics of “immorality”

In the years between the decriminalization of homosexuality and its official de-institutionalization, tangible signs of a de facto gay geography were underway and clustering within The Track, but heteronormative constraints from beyond the gaybourhood confined queer people to spaces (e.g., bathhouses, cabarets, and bars) and times (after dark) when such visible acts of cultural production and economic consumption were perceived as immoral and deviant.

Roman Sauna, Toronto’s first gay-owned bathhouse, opened in the late 1960s; other openly gay bathhouses soon followed (Gallant 2001b). These attracted men locally and from afar. Lesbian women continued to “congregate in the bars, clubs, and restaurants around the Music Room and Parkside on Yonge Street, or in even newer bars on Church Street and in the city’s east end” — notably around Parliament Street — but the frequency of police harassment lesbian women dealt with climbed as these venues were also being frequented by gay men, reflecting the coerced convergence of once-separate geographies (Chenier 2004, 103; 107).

Figure 7. Yonge Street Mall, ca. 1971. From summers 1971 to 1974, the street, roughly a kilometre stretch, was designated as a municipal public space and populated by cafés and public seating areas [City of Toronto Archives: Item 6, Fonds 1465].

Figure 7. Yonge Street Mall, ca. 1971. From summers 1971 to 1974, the street, roughly a kilometre stretch, was designated as a municipal public space and populated by cafés and public seating areas [City of Toronto Archives: Item 6, Fonds 1465].

Meanwhile, during each summer between 1971 and 1974, Yonge Street was transformed into a public space called the Yonge Street Mall [Figure 7]. Bars, restaurants, and retail boutiques notwithstanding, Yonge Street, particularly between Dundas and Bloor, was host for adult entertainment marketed at heterosexual men. Red-light establishments along Yonge Street [Figure 8] advertised their services by leafleting the Mall; in parallel, this advertising included east-of-Yonge services marketed to gay men (City People 1974). Mayor David Crombie, inheriting the Yonge Street Mall from his predecessor, William Dennison, sought to regulate leafleting through a licensing system, but Queens Park rejected the municipal request, hastening the Mall’s closure and driving to criminalize the leafleting of services deemed morally illicit (City People 1974; Idlewild & Taylor, 2008). In response to allegations of bawdy marketing (including advertising for gay bathhouses), Metro police executed a series of “Clean Up Yonge Street” operations to rid the area of unlicensed leafleting (Grundy 2004, 29).

Figure 8. Yonge Street red-light district, ca. 1971 [City of Toronto Archives: Item 49, Fonds 1465].

Figure 8. Yonge Street red-light district, ca. 1971 [City of Toronto Archives: Item 49, Fonds 1465].

Metro police provoked a new round of morality-based harassment fuelled by a continued heteronormative populism to ad hoc re-institutionalize homosexuality — despite its official decriminalization and de-pathologization just a few years earlier. Bathhouses, serving as private communal spaces for gay men, were visible signifiers of heteronormativity’s liminal geographies. Consequently, these spaces risked incursions by the city. In 1978, a BDSM-themed gay bathhouse nearby Queen Street West, the Barracks, was raided by police (Nash 2003, 300). This action presaged a larger raid which would not only ensnare the Barracks once more, but would also catalyze the emergence of a politically mobilized lesbian and gay community.

After Operation Soap: protests, counter-protests, rioting, and arrests along Dundas Street nearby 52 Division headquarters, Saturday, 7 February 1981.
[CBC Archives].

On 5 February 1981, police executed Operation Soap, a blitz to raid four gay bathhouses; to issue citations for “found-ins” (patrons); and to arrest bathhouse staff (Gallant 2001a). Backlash against the blitz was fierce, triggering a protest by gay men which escalated that same night into a riot, starting in The Track and moving west (through the former lesbian ghetto of The Ward) toward 52 Division police headquarters — along which fires were started and cars damaged (Dutton and Pron 1981, A1). George Hislop, a gay activist who helped lead protests, recalls how police strategy for the raids “was to bankrupt us and with the Richmond Street Health Emporium, which was the biggest, they succeeded. Quite a few of the bathhouses from that era disappeared” (Gallant 2001a). Police chief Jack Ackroyd voiced his approval for the “expendability” of the shuttered bathhouses (Beare 2007, 347). As Beare argues:

Aligning oneself socially, politically, and economically with the political elite can only serve to bring the interests of one’s own group into line with the interests of the other, whether appropriately or not. The political views ‘become’ policing issues. The priorities of the political masters were shared by Chief Ackroyd; in return, Chief Ackroyd’s interests were advanced through their close working relationship. (ibid.)

Despite the city’s attempt to criminalize bathhouses as a proxy for vilifying gay men (following past raids, police brutality, and moral campaigns designed to fetter queer people), this resistance by gay (and lesbian) Torontonians in 1981 would serve as solid footing for a newly claimed enclave and signal a symbiosis between private enterprise and a new bulwark of geographic homonormativity. After 1981, a supporting economy emerged as the gay and lesbian community converged spatially and galvanized itself politically against further moralizing incursions, transforming years of coerced containment into the start of claiming territories from a once-ubiquitous realm of geographic heteronormativity. In 1984, one such territory would be a strip of innocuous stairs leading to a brand new coffee café.


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


[10] Park lots are tracts of land within the city of Toronto’s concessions. The original park lots, granted to York’s founders, were roughly 2km latitudinally by 200m longitudinally. These shaped Toronto’s morphology and arterials. See Spelt (1984) and J.M.S. Careless (1984).

[11] See generally Namaste (1996).

[12] Serialization editing note (2016): after this paper was drafted in 2011, the American Psychiatric Association moved in August 2012 to partially de-pathologize and de-institutionalize trans people from a diagnosis of mental illness on the basis of being trans. The fifth and current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-V, paralleled this move with hesitance, ultimately relegating the temporary “dysphoria” of an individual coming to terms with their relationship with gender as a transient diagnosis, whilst removing all institutional diagnoses previously related to being trans, irrespective of one’s age. (This “dysphoria”, or state of unease or discomfort with a trans person not transitioning, whilst no longer classified as a “disorder”, remains a partial pathologization affecting all trans people with an optics of “mental illness”.) Hesitance for a total de-pathologization from the DSM-V may be linked to the working group of psychiatrists and sexologists chaired by Kenneth J. Zucker, a former co-principal of Toronto’s Gender Identity Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Zucker was departed from the Gender Identity Clinic in 2015.

[13] Jamie Lee Hamilton, a Vancouver trans woman and sex worker, remarks how during the early years of Vancouver’s gay history (sharing analogous narratives to gay histories throughout North America during the 20th century), trans women frequently “worked doing female impersonation in gay bars.” She adds: “Working in these shows provided gender affirmation for many of us who were transitioning. The bars were safe places where we could… earn our livelihood. Entertainers often turned tricks to pay the bills” (Irving 2009, 34). This account also acknowledges a history of vocational constraints placed prescriptively on women who are trans.

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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