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A Brief History of Toronto’s Gay Village

Posted by Dr. Hugh McLean on 15 January 2021
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Toronto’s Gay Village is an iconic LGBTQ+-friendly neighbourhood in the heart of the city, nestled at the intersection of Church  Street and Wellesley Street. Queer folks from all over have come to The Village as an exciting and welcoming destination for them to explore their identity and sexuality and to boldly transition without fear of judgment. But that wasn’t always the case. 

In this blog, we delve deeper into the history of Toronto’s Gay Village and how it came to be what it is today. Continue reading to learn more!

Alexander Wood, the Forefather of the Toronto Gay Village

Alexander Wood, a magistrate in Upper Canada, acquired 25 acres of land at Yonge and Carlton streets, which spanned north to Wellesley and east of Church in the 1800s. Wood, who was also a merchant born of Scottish descent, was embroiled in a scandal where he allegedly made untoward sexual advances to other men while investigating a controversial rape case. Because of the incident, his estate was mockingly called “Molly Wood’s Bush.” At the time, “molly” was an offensive term, meaning homosexual. He died in 1844, and his land was developed in the 1850s, opening Alexander and Wood streets. 

In 2005, Alexander Wood’s statue was erected at Church and Alexander streets to pay homage to the person considered as the forefather of Toronto Gay Village.

19th Century, Underground Gay Scene

After the Depression in the 1920s, the Church-Jarvis-Sherbourne area saw a massive transformation and rose to prominence as a chic neighbourhood with prominent residents like famous businessman Robert Simpson. Then, gentrification in the 1950s gave birth to City Park, Toronto’s first high-rise apartments, situated between Alexander and Wood streets.

Since the early 19th century, Church Street and the surrounding areas have been a safe space for Toronto’s gay community. Between 1960 and 1980, an underground male gay scene with bathhouses, bars, restaurants, and other establishments playing a pivotal role in nurturing the budding gay subculture. These establishments included Parkside Tavern, St. Charles Tavern on Yonge Street, and Allan Gardens. 

Initially, most of these places were owned by heterosexual individuals but were frequented by gay men. It wasn’t until the 1970s when gay-owned businesses started popping up as the queer subculture reached Church street and commercial spaces became more affordable. 

The Egging of Yonge Street 

In the 1970s, the streets of Church and Wellesley Village were closed to host the Halloween parade where members of the community were dressed in flamboyant costumes for all to see. The yearly event would draw spectators and photographers anticipating the colourful display of creativity from its participants. 

Unfortunately, it soon became a point of interest for homophobic abuse and discrimination. Some ill-mannered onlookers would egg and insult drag performers along Yonge Street. It grew worse over the years to the point where the police had to intervene to keep the crowd under control. 

1981, Toronto Bathhouse Raids

On February 5, 1981, the Toronto Gay Village community was shocked to witness 200 police officers raid downtown bathhouses (The Barracks, The Club, Richmond Street Health Emporium, and Roman II Health and Recreation Spa) in an operation dubbed as “Operation Soap.” 

Deemed as the largest single arrest in Toronto’s history—second only to the 1970s FLQ crisis in Quebec—286 men were charged as found-ins and 20 as operators of common bawdy houses (brothels). Arrested bathhouse patrons were subjected to excessive police behaviour, including verbal taunts about their sexuality, and bathhouse owners reported tens of thousands of dollars worth in damages. In the end, many of the individuals charged were found to be innocent.

It was a pivotal moment for the entire gay community. Driven by outrage from years of discrimination and derogatory treatment and inspired by the New York’s Stonewall of 1969, they efficiently organized a protest. It was flocked by over 3,000 people who marched in Toronto Gay Village’s Wellesley and Yonge to Dundas Street, over to 52 Police Division and eventually to Queen’s Park. 

“The significance of the bathhouse raids was that it was an attack on the (gay) community and humans rights to freedom,” said Dennis Findlay, a longtime activist and volunteer at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, who was also among the protestors and helped those affected by the raids. “Within the queer community, all the differences that various groups had with one another disappeared the night of the raids. It brought the community together and politicized the community and individuals in a very significant way – such that when AIDS happened (in the years to come), we were organized and ready, and we understood how to go about organizing around an issue.”

Pride parade

The 519 Community Centre

In 1975, Toronto’s Gay Village welcomed the opening of the 519 Community Centre. Previously known as the 519 Church Street Community Centre, an LGBTQ+-friendly community space spearheaded by the City of Toronto and a Canadian charitable non-profit institution. After its government acquisition, it was headed by the community through a volunteer board of directors.

Throughout the years, The 519 has grown to become a pillar of the Toronto Gay Village, opening its doors to LGBTQ+ groups and peoples from all walks of life. Here are some of the most notable historical milestones of The 519:

  • In 1976, it received the first application from Huntley Youth Services to use the facility for the gay youth group’s activities. During the same year, Mark Breslin opened the original Yuk Yuk’s International Standup Comedy in the basement Pine Room of The 519, which has seen incredible performances by Howie Mandel and Jim Carrey.
  • In 1977, The 519 passed a resolution recognizing the rights of the neighbourhood street-active, homeless, or sex workers to the legitimate use of the centre.
  • The Hassle-Free Clinic held its first-ever meeting at The 519 in 1984 and launched its free medical and counselling service in sexual health. In the same year, The 519 also established Zami, an interactive support group for African Americans and West Indians in the gay community.
  • In 1993, The AIDS Memorial, designed by Patrick Fahn, a Toronto-based architect, was unveiled in Cawthra Park, resulting from a program run through The 519.
  • In 1994, advocacy groups involved in the Campaign for Equal Marriage met every night at The 519 in May and June before 10,000 people took to the streets on June 9 to protest the defeat of Bill 167, which sought to provide same-sex couples with equal rights to opposite-sex common-law couples.
  • In 1998, The 519 founded The MealTrans Programme, the first trans-only program offering low-income individuals from Toronto Gay Village nutritious food.
  • In 2001, The 519, in collaboration with the Toronto District School Board, created the “Families Against Homophobia” curriculum that recognizes and provides support for children with queer parents.
  • In 2005, The 519’s Anti-Poverty and Homeless Programme served over 2,500 meals, donated nearly 6,000 articles of clothing, and facilitated more than 3,000 medical service visits made possible with their partnership with the Sherbourne Health Bus.
  • In 2015, The 519 became the trustee and host of the PrideHouse Toronto initiative, a partnership of 15 organizations working together to ensure the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan American Games are the most LGBTQ-inclusive multi-sport Games in history.
Toronto’s skyline and the CN Tower boasting pride colours

Toronto’s Gay Village, A Queer-Friendly Destination

With more awareness surrounding LGBTQ+ rights in Canada, queer-friendly destinations, establishments, and events have made their way to other parts of the city. Some hotspots worth mentioning include Leslieville, Parkdale, and Queen West. 

Although this generally signifies a stride in the right direction for the whole LGBTQ+ community, this also puts a strain on the cultural and economic future of the historical Toronto Gay Village. The once vibrant and booming neighbourhood is currently under threat by expensive rent, condominium developments, and big-box stores, which are sucking the life out of local, independent, and queer-owned businesses. 

If you find yourself in the Toronto Gay Village, don’t miss the chance to visit and support these queer-friendly businesses.

  • Books: Glad Day Bookshop is the first queer-focused Canadian bookstore and the oldest queer bookstore in the world!
  • Shopping: Fortune and Strength 
  • Coffee Shops: Piedmont Coffee Bar, Fuel Plus, and Church Street Espresso
  • Nightclubs: Crews and Tangos, Woody’s, and Club 120
  • Restaurants and Bars: Hair of the Dog, Sambucas on Church, and Storm Crow Manor

Toronto Top Surgery

Thinking of having your FTM top surgery in Toronto? Dr. Hugh McLean is a board-certified plastic surgeon specializing in gender-affirming surgeries and chest masculinization procedures. His private practice, McLean Clinic, is located in Mississauga is conveniently only less than an hour’s drive from the Toronto Gay Village. 

For inquiries, contact McLean Clinic now! A friendly member of our team will be more than happy to assist you.

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