The architecture of normative spacing and queer liminalities

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

Part four continues a six-part series, posted June 20th to 25th, on exploring the tensions, containments, and exclusions inside Toronto’s new homonormative geography during the years after The Steps grew into a cultural phenomenon. Catch up with the previous instalment, a retrospective of The Steps at Second Cup.

The Steps at Second Cup was far from Toronto’s first physical space for queer people, but its timing and placement made it the first publicly visible phenomenon of fixed spacing to normalize queer people in a way which a heteronormative city could neither ignore, criminalize, nor strive to moralize. To resolve how this social-historical event went beyond being a mere social gathering place for the lesbian and gay community and more a statement on changing geographies, two critical, but divergent approaches may apply when examining the social phenomenology of queer spacing:

  1. the first approach, continuing from an examination on “counterintimacies”, proposes that reflexive resistances to a hegemonic, compulsory heteronormativity are manifest by expressions and productions of, inter alia, predominantly gay male (or lesbian female) sexualities within articulated geograph(ies) (Berlant and Warner 1998, 548);
  2. the other, meanwhile, examines intersectional sites of resistance against a dialectic of normativity generally (whether that normativity is manifest as heteronormativity, homonormativity, and/or cisnormativity), and how that normativity emerges as notorious for reducing, invalidating, and/or suppressing non-normative queer existences (Oswin 2008, 91–2).

Variations on the former approach are often applied with contemporary queer theory: it is simpler to conceptualize ideas as binary questions wherein homonormativity is discrete from (and oppositional to) heteronormativity. Such binary oppositions generate social borderlands of resistance which help to inform, distinguish, and divide marginal territor(ies) away from dominantly hegemonic spaces. This, however, forecloses on any possibility that these oppositions may also reveal and exacerbate other marginal geographies. The latter approach, meanwhile, invites a way to unpack complex dialectics around queer gathering places like The Steps. With the camera of intersectionality, several co-existing projects — or lenses — of resistance within queer geographies help to clarify other experiences of belonging and exclusion. Such pluralistic intersections challenge the simplicity of binary oppositions which resist only (or principally) a hegemony of heteronormativity.

This is to say that not all queer people may be:

  • interested to challenge hegemonic heteronormativity;
  • invested to affirm or validate compulsory homonormativity in gaybourhoods, inside which
    being gay or lesbian is a de facto intersection of prevalence (if not dominance);
  • willing to ignore omnipresent cisnormativity inherent to both homonormative and heteronormative spheres, within which principal dialects of femininity and masculinity, both comprising the language and syntax of gender, are legible to one’s morphological sex designated at birth — where cisnormativity as a conscious, hegemonic project renders people even within queer geographies as invisible, marginalized, or entirely invalidated as persona non grata; and/or
  • able to preoccupy themselves with only a lens of heteronormative, homonormative, or cisnormative marginalization when other lenses — race, immigration status, etc. — demand the urgency for redress either prior to or in tandem with other lenses of marginalization to which they are also subjected.

The voluntary clustering of non-heteronormative articulations — at The Steps and around the gaybourhood — produced an emerging social institution: a geographic homonormativity. Of this phenomenon, Polletta and Jasper argue, “Such institutions supply the solidarity incentives that encourage movement participation, but they also represent a ‘free space’ in which people can develop counterhegemonic ideas and oppositional identities” (2001, 288). Such a spatial claim, however, may also attract notice from parties intent on harming perceptually non-normative people. The Steps’ appeal as a publicly visible social hub is what inspired some outsiders to react as heteronormative vigilantes (Hanhardt 2008, 75). The spatial boundary of queerness, informed by a dialectic between external hegemonic heteronormativity and internal queer resistance, came to be understood implicitly to those, respectively, within and beyond the gaybourhood — a delicate détente, if not an anxious equilibrium between structure and agency. Still, one queer resident lamented how “[a] showing of confidence while walking is not enough… carrying a whistle is ‘a fact of life’” (Martins 1992, 9).

Homophobic epithets and assaults reminded patrons at The Steps and around the gaybourhood of their social marginality beyond the enclave. For seventeen months in 1990–91, the 519 Church Street Community Centre (aka, “The 519”) recorded 206 bashing incidents (ibid.). In October 1994, the assault of two gay men in front of The Steps by six assailants who piled out of a van was decried as an “invasion”: one victim was left in a pool of his own blood, mixed with glass from the bottle used to strike him (Toronto Star 1994, A5). In response to this and “drive by shoutings”, some of The Steps’ regulars asserted a counter-vigilance by having rotten fruit and eggs on stand-by to throw at drive-by harassers (Bird 1994, 5). While Metro police frowned on this, the exercise of this active resistance conveyed a community manifesto to the heteronormative city: “this space, The Steps, is ours.” “People,” argued Crowe, “will take care of space and assets in which they have a proprietary concern” (2000, 121). This is a cornerstone of defensible spacing. Defending The Steps as a place of visible leisure was not only an act of assuring community safety, but also a political act of formalizing the claim for a geographic homonormativity.

The social-spatial phenomenon of a geographic cisnormativity

Homophobic attempts to assault the gaybourhood’s gay men and lesbian women paled, however, against everyday acts of not only criminal vigilantism, but also tacit exclusions from participation directed at the gaybourhood’s trans people. Both were acts of violence with very different means to a similar end: to deprive trans people of their esprit de corps.

Sanctioned appearances of visible trans people — notably, trans women who lacked a cisnormative transparency — were held (i.e., tolerated) generally to two activities in areas removed from the leisurely visibility of The Steps: for sex work, a liminal corridor along the gaybourhood’s easternmost, least visible periphery, adjacent to the old Tenderloin; for those performing drag, the venue of burlesque cabarets and stage shows. Both areas were sites for the production of performative labour. Namaste’s field work on trans people in Toronto and Montréal revealed how the vocation of drag is sanctioned only within performance zones (e.g., a fixed stage or pride float) (2000, 10); sex work, meanwhile, is contained to where territorial peripheries of homonormativity and heteronormativity abut (i.e., liminal zones where the boundaries of each are enforced at their weakest) (2000, 147–8).

In other words, a cisnormative geography, by implicating both heteronormativity and homonormativity, cedes its spatial ubiquity around areas where acts of defensible territoriality from each of its components is maintained at its very least. Blomley, a scholar of defensible spacing, argues: “[p]ublic spaces, such as streets and parks, are more or less successful and safe to the extent that private residents imagine and act upon a property claim to that space” (2003, 17). Without a way to assert that claim, trans people who not only are deprived from a perception of being “safe”, but are also deprived institutionally to a sanctioned claim to either private or public territories (e.g., property ownership, organizational membership, access to formal labour, everyday rights of citizenship, etc.), may retreat to marginal spaces where a cisnormative geography becomes the most tenuous. These liminal areas become spaces of exclusion, where at “the social level, as at the individual level, an awareness of group boundaries can be expressed in the opposition between purity and defilement” (Sibley 1995, 36). “Purity” may constitute groups who are non-criminalized and non-institutionalized, while “defilement” may constitute those who are considered to be either or both.

Visible, opaque trans people inside the Church-Wellesley gaybourhood were placed not as participatory subjects of economic consumption or leisure in the way that people placed as cis were. Rather, they were placed as objects of production with a sine qua non — an essential condition — that they evince themselves as economically viable to the gaybourhood as a precondition for their visibility within the gaybourhood. It is not that visible trans people were barred from sites of consumption like The Steps, but their appearances were tolerated, if begrudgingly, as noted exceptions because their presence flouted the prescriptive, subject/object contrariety of leisure consumption versus labour production. For many trans people, working other types of jobs inside the gaybourhood was rendered impractical by discrimination against inconsistent legal paperwork and by a tacit desire for respectability by cis queer people who sought to distance themselves further from an optics of institutionalized deviance (from which they had escaped officially after 1973).

This model of social ostracism is not new. In his text on the political economies of public spacing, Harvey turns to Beaudelaire’s “The Eyes of the Poor”, a poem mocking Haussmann’s Paris, to underscore social conflicts of political capital between a normative bourgeois and the marginal “other”, for whom the bourgeois desires to have disappeared from view. Per Harvey, this “other” provokes:

bourgeois anxiety (coupled with guilt)… as if the rising power of commodity spectacle… produces deeper and deeper levels of anxiety and insecurity in the bourgeois personality. Reassurance then depends on ‘sending them away’. Any continued sign of ‘their’ presence produces a fear of that other who is otherwise concealed. The ‘other’ is concealed behind the fetish of the commodity, as well as within the folds of the urban crowd (2006, 29).

The emergence of Toronto’s geographic homonormativity during the 1980s beget new orders of inequity for both political economies and social geographies. From Seidman’s theory on postmodern gay culture, Bernstein observed a social conservatism in the queer community where emerging autonomies within homonormative territories emboldened (cis) gay men and (cis) lesbian women to differentiate themselves from “other” queer people — much how heteronormativity had blackballed the most opaque gay and lesbian people from heteronormative society: “the lesbian and gay movement seems largely to have abandoned its emphasis on difference from the straight majority in favor of a moderate politics that highlights similarities to the straight majority” (1997, 532). That this shift toward a politics of respectability coincided with when cis queerness was no longer encumbered by institutionally-regulated pathologization (which still plagued people who were trans) is difficult to overlook.

Figure 11. A gaybourhood site of sanctioned labour production for trans people at Bar 501, 1995. [Andrew Stawicki, Toronto Star]

Figure 11. A gaybourhood site of sanctioned labour production for trans people at Bar 501, 1995. [Andrew Stawicki, Toronto Star]

Directly across the street from The Steps was Bar 501 [Figure 11], a venue renown for racy drag burlesque in its red light district-styled parlour windows (Wong 1995, A1). For visible, often younger trans people (and for those whose legal paperwork would disclose them forcibly as trans), the vocational alternative to burlesque and stage work was to practise sex work on Homewood Avenue — an eastern side-street furthest from the gaybourhood’s economic core, long the principal workplace for Toronto’s trans sex workers (DiManno 1996b, A7; Rau 2008; de Saint-Andre 1985, C1). For visible trans men, to remain integrated inside cis lesbian space — and to work from within this community — was one way to distinguish themselves unambiguously from cis women; it also kept them relatively hidden as trans people (Stryker 2008a, 114). While the trans women dancing at Bar 501 were relatively safe (behind glass, in plain view of The Steps’ patrons), trans women working on Homewood, where proprietor surveillance was at its poorest, were exposed to a material risk of danger.

Held alongside heteronormative acts of vigilantism besieging cis gay men at The Steps and around the gaybourhood, an enmity toward known trans people — toward trans women in particular — congealed between gaybourhood and points beyond. While heteronormative geographies presented material risks for cis people placed beyond heteronormative expectations (the 1985 fatal beating in High Park of a school teacher named Kenn Zeller, for being placed incorrectly as gay, is one example), the gaybourhood enclave desired a minimum of social interference from anyone whose placement undermined its newfound footing as a homonormative geography (DeMara 1992a, B7). From this, a co-normativity between heteronormativity and homonormativity revealed an omnipresent cisnormativity which had been tougher to discern (and describe) before the emergence of a geographic homonormativity. Heteronormative vigilantism could also harm trans people inside heteronormative geographies if someone who was placed as trans was marked as a visceral “threat” to the inviolable social order of a hegemonic heteronormativity — a social order where one born with a morphologically female body “paired” only with someone born with a morphologically male body and vice-versa, and where such morphologies were presumed to be “fixed” in the womb. (This is not unlike the notion of heterosexuality being “fixed” in utero, while homosexuality was a “lifestyle” and a “choice”.) The 1978 High Park area schoolyard murder of Shirley Hauser, a trans woman whose date stabbed her seventeen times after she disclosed that she was trans, illustrates a comparative counterpoint to Zeller’s death in 1985 (Globe and Mail 1978, P5).

As with cis heterosexual people, cis gay and lesbian people within the homonormative gaybourhood kept a distance from known trans people, because trans people were marked as a visceral threat to the inviolable social order of fixity upon which one’s own intimate desires were based. That is: trans people, regardless of their sexual orientation, detracted from the homonormative project of sidling next to heteronormativity with a sense of normalized respectability, since trans people were accepted as an institutionalized deviation from normative values. In this sense, cis people — heterosexual and homosexual — shared a mutual discomfiture for the inconvenient existence of trans people.

In August 1996, a trans woman working on Homewood was attacked with a weapon and sexually assaulted (Toronto Star 1996, A6). Unlike bashings reported along Church Street (where proprietor surveillance was far greater), her assault received minimal notice in the media and around the gaybourhood. The silence was deafening given how the most violent crime in Toronto’s queer history had occurred only months prior on Victoria Day 1996, when a cis man who drove into Toronto from the suburbs targeted three sex workers he placed as trans and shot each in the head fatally — a trans woman; a genderqueer teen (designated male at birth); and a cis woman. The first two were found on Homewood; the third was executed near King Street West, nearby what is now Liberty Village (Mascoll 1999, A1).

While the murder spree riveted Toronto’s news media, the gaybourhood downplayed the significance of this brutal violence[17]. Two small vigils — one at the site of the Homewood shootings, the other at Allan Gardens (a city park at the heart of the old Tenderloin) — were held at the gaybourhood’s eastern bounds, attended by a mix of sex workers and queer youth who knew the youngest victim (DeMara & Welsh 1996, A6; Freed 1997, A8; Rankin & Edwards 1996, A7). That victim, a 19-year-old genderqueer person, worked a second job as a Bar 501 stage performer (DiManno 1996a, A7). The vigils, all public expressions of mourning and non-violent resistance, were not invited to the gaybourhood’s heart — whether outside The 519, in Cawthra Square Park (next to The 519), or The Steps. No organized outrage or display of solidarity against violence by the gaybourhood was expressed vis-à-vis the Operation Soap raids. By contrast, political performance art (Whittall 2000); organized, militant resistance to gay bashings (Scotton 1991); and AIDS vigils (Toronto Star 2002) were some of the events hosted, respectively, at these venues — attesting that the gaybourhood’s homonormativity did not extend to those whose lives contravened a ubiquitous cisnormativity.

From the late 1990s, a growing morality based on consumption within the homonormative enclave of the gaybourhood would encroach on the negotiation of public spaces and place new pressures on both The Steps and Second Cup.


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


[17] I was in Toronto during the weekend of 25–27 May 1996, less than a week after Victoria Day. Some of my time during the early hours of Sunday, the 26th (between 2am and 4am), was spent at the Second Cup on Church Street. (It was also my introduction to The Steps.) The experience offered an impressionable, if stark juxtaposition of a dynamic setting against a heightened sense of personal danger from an unknown suspect, one yet to be apprehended by police, with a known history of targeting women he placed as trans. A couple of patrons adjacent to where I sat shared their speculations, sotto voce, with respect to the kind of person the killer was and whether he might again attack the “gay community”. The murderer’s fugitive status did not hinder late-night pedestrian traffic along Church Street or social activity at The Steps, as evaluated by several subsequent visits to The Steps in 1996 and 1997. The indelible memory tying that night together was how I was not placed by cis patrons (or our friendly barista) as “one of them” (i.e., a sex worker, a trans woman, or both). Thus, as the conventional wisdom of those around us went that evening, it was unlikely that the serial murderer would be coming after lesbian women (or gay men) who were placed as cis — ironic in that my being placed as a woman who was cis offered me a veneer of “protection”.

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.

Series Navigation<< Small stoop, giant armatureA new morality: the citizenship of consumption >>