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 — prizing a citizenship of consumption over other models of civic participation.

Despite homonormativity’s project of conservation to manage the public realm by a de facto regulating of public space and by promoting respectability as part of its brand, complications emerged as the project reified how publicly accessible spaces get 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 by the gay men perched on The Steps dramatized their agency over acceptable tolerances for enclave homonormativity — in their own image. This dramatization was informed by experience: Scott Thompson and Mark McKinney both worked for the Second Cup on Church Street and rehearsed sketches there while Kids in the Hall performed live at the Rivoli — all of it ending once McKinney, on duty, received a congratulatory phone call from the CBC on being awarded their new TV show (Rowlson 2005, 10).

That some parade groups observed by the three gay men in “Steps” (who were white and cis, as well as able-bodied, housed Canadians) evoked visceral antipathy or dismissive contempt as non-normative, in relation to themselves, illustrates a complex interplay: despite tensions, a maturing enclave of geographic homonormativity, adjacent to geographic heteronormativity (despite its sordid history of regulating queer sexualities), resolved as the components for a ubiquitous, geographic cisnormativity. This ubiquity underscored how trans people who were opaque and visible to cis people were vulnerable when found in this geographic cisnormativity, particularly when neoliberal visions of citizenship prized consumption (while trans people were expected to produce, if they were to be seen at all). Despite many being gay, lesbian, or bisexual themselves, they enjoyed negligible spatial claim or political capital inside the gaybourhood, the heteronormative city, and beyond. Trans people who were transparent and invisible to cis people, meanwhile, could inhabit cisnormative geographies conditionally, so long as they were not disclosed (whether voluntarily or forcibly) as members of a still-institutionalized, pathologized and, thus, regulated population — as these were tacit riders for revoking citizenship, just as it was for exposed cis lesbians and gay men before 1969, 1973, and 2005.

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 financial or political). 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 that felled friends and loved ones without favour, its collective impact on community was akin to surviving war — one fought on fields of hospitals and hospices. Much as heteronormativity’s ambitions for peacetime stability after World War II; its reverence for institutions 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; legal marriage rights; and normalizing relations with the heteronormative realm it once fought (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 be 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 be the Homewood-Maitland Safety Association (HMSA) (id., B1). The HMSA devised aggressive tactics — verbal harassment, physical swarming, and surveillance photography — to intimidate trans women (many of whom were not white) practising sex work along the liminal edge of Homewood Avenue (ibid.). The HMSA, formed in the late 2000s, engaged in acts of vigilantism which contradicted the “rotten fruit and eggs” counter-vigilance against homophobic, “drive-by shoutings” once employed by patrons 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 the 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 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 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, ephemeral, or 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 (2010) argument that “transnormativity” may exist 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 gap in 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 HMSA members (off-camera). The Xtra! masthead at the time, “Toronto’s Lesbian and Gay Weekly,” coupled with a glib, Newsy-styled presentation by its two reporters (both cis), illustrated the continuing absence of agency and palpable exclusion which trans people within the homonormative gaybourhood had dealt with since at least 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 storied Folsom Street Fair, was a sanitizing 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, formalized 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 a post-1971 migration of young cis 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 inevitable, even if they were not always welcomed as equitable partners or participants in moulding the gaybourhood’s future. When the gaybourhood was 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 would (or could) not concede to this respectability were consigned to the political sidelines of this 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; an embrace for privatization and securitization (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 spaces were so dicey a realm to be placed as queer that private spaces became ideal havens for personal safety contingent, of course, on the means to consume. Its end as an institution was an epitaph on how stratification within the queer community and measures of deterrence against “undesirables” undermined its utility as steps of solidarity and bonhomie.

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 include not only venues, but also public parks, streets, sidewalks, and easements.

A critical geographer must prepare themselves for unobstructed views of social-spatial terrains and do so through several lenses beyond their everyday — views which may appear alien and unforgiving, and views which challenge their own expectations. For instance, a critical geographer must prepare themselves by reconciling how homonormativity may not only be a reflexive response to hegemonic heteronormativity, but that it may also, given the right conditions, settle into complicity with heteronormativity by reifying a systemic cisnormativity, to the exclusion of those who are not cis. This cisnormativity dictates the limits of citizenship for people who not only lack agency within it, but are also confined by the same tenets of containment which once deprived cis gay and lesbian people from belonging in 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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