Last week, I attended a talk given at the Gladstone Hotel, which seems to be the location of choice for all sorts of interesting events, many but not all of them queer (just the kind of ratio I like). This one was part of a monthly series of talks put on by Java Knights, and it was a panel discussion entitled “The Future of Queer Neighbourhoods in Toronto.”
It started at 7, so I walked in around 7:15, fully expecting to be one of the first people to arrive. Not so. The place was packed and I found myself sitting in the hallway so as not to rudely interrupt the goings-on by walking in partway through. This was my first lesson in Toronto event etiquette: these folks start shit on time. Yikes! None of that lackadaisical “Montreal time” stuff, where people show up whenever they please and things get started when the room feels full enough. Duly noted!
My second lesson in Toronto event etiquette was that people here are super-friendly, even when you’re sitting in the hall. Or maybe they just felt sorry for me. It really was a very nice hall, honestly. But anytime someone walked by, they’d ask if they should leave the bathroom light for me (it was across the hall, and the light was good for taking notes), or offer to give up their seat in the room, or even just hunker down and say hello, you’re a new face, welcome to the event. It was pretty cool. I thought Toronto people were all supposed to be hardened unfriendly urbanites, but at the very least, the queers seem like right nice folks. (Plus, the organizers had free safer sex supplies available after the talk, including dental dams and a safer-sex guide for trans men. Remarkable. I certainly felt welcome!)
In non-etiquette-related lessons, I also learned that for all their supposed navel-gazing “Toronto is the centre of the world” mentality, Torontonians spend as much time agonizing about and comparing themselves to Montreal as Montrealers spend doing the same about Toronto. Seriously. In the first (well, second) 15 minutes of the panel, I heard more about Montreal’s queer neighbourhoods than I did about Toronto’s. It was fascinating. Did you know, for example, that the City of Montreal spends $800K per year promoting the Gay Village as a tourist destination, whereas the City of Toronto spends a mere $300K doing the same for the Church and Wellesley area here?
One of the panellists also mentioned that some people got sick of the Village in Montreal and hightailed it to the West Island to set up their own queer neighbourhood. He said it had been written about in the Hour. I found the idea rather doubtful, so I did a little research and I came up with this article, quoted on the Queer West Toronto blog, and though I understand my research has not been thorough, I’ve concluded that the speaker simply misunderstood the article. To my knowledge there are plenty of queers in the West Island, but no specifically queer neighbourhood, though I’m definitely up for being corrected if I’m wrong.
One of the problems with sitting in the hallway was that I could hear everything that was being said but I couldn’t actually see most people’s faces, unfortunately, with a couple of notable exceptions (such as the very hot gal who runs West Side Stories, a queer- and women-friendly video rental place on Dundas just wet of Dufferin. I know where I’m going to rent my next chick. I mean flick.). This, compounded by me missing the introductions due to my tardy arrival, means I’m not sure who said what, so you will forgive me if my quotes are lacking specific sources. This was further complicated because a lot of the people who spoke were actually audience members rather than panellists. That was a good thing, in my humble opinion – I really liked the community-discussion flavour of the event, and there were a lot of people with articulate and interesting opinions to share. But yeah, the citation, not so easy. Luckily, the Gay West site contains all the details. Also, the Toronto Star previewed the event here. So if you’re curious about the names, check out those links.
I kind of expected that the panel would be about queer neighbourhoods in Toronto. Y’know, given the title of the thing and all. What it ended up being, though, was a wide-ranging discussion about the nature of queer identity and diversity, and the physical/geographical space we occupy. I can’t say that I’m surprised – we do love to talk about our identities, after all – and I can’t even say I’m disappointed. It was an engaging and thought-provoking discussion and I enjoyed every minute of it. That said, I can’t say I left with a more concrete understanding of where queer people live in Toronto, either. But honestly I’m probably more interested in the philosophy of queer neighbourhoods than in a demographic chart of the city, so no complaints. I’m sure I’ll find lots of queers wherever I go.
All righty. The meat of the thing. I was getting to it.
In a sense, the central though unspoken question of the evening was: is having a gay ghetto a good thing or a bad thing? And the secondary question was: given our current urban context, in which we seem to have both a gay ghetto and a whole lot of queer stuff happening outside that ghetto (and I would say this applies to many major cities nowadays, of which Toronto and Montreal are only two), what does this situation mean for our pasts and our futures as queers?
Dr. Catherine Nash, a queer geography professor from Brock University (who was in the audience, rather than on the panel, and oddly enough, whose name I caught but whose face I did not), had some of the night’s most interesting stuff to say. She kicked off her comments by talking about the “slippage between the terms ‘gay and lesbian’ and ‘queer’”, and how this indicates a parallel “slippage in politics that is reflected in the development of new queer areas.” Her point was that of course the nature of community residential and business space will change as the community itself changes. Among other things she mused about her own position on the board of directors for a queer neighbourhood association. When talking about “space allowing for queerness,” she said, “When this is settled by a board of directors or a business association, does that mean an attempt at solidifying, rather than retaining the fluidity of queer?”
It’s a weighty question, when you think about it. Not so much the board of directors thing, but rather the broader situation in which queer fluidity challenges concrete things like money, the concept of a target market, the physical reality of urban space, and the politics of community. I don’t have answers for this one except to say that whether we consider ourselves radical or not, the generalized fluidity of queer identity (unlike gay identity) trumps even the rainbow-happy marketing strategies out there, and it is rather fascinating to consider what that might mean. When you define a group by its very un-definability, how does anyone – profit-oriented or otherwise – cater to its needs? As a community organizer, I’ve definitely come up against that question numerous times, and the answer seems to be, make personal connections, keep your politics flexible, and do your best to listen. Some say we’re frustratingly fickle; I say we’re complex and ever-changing, and that’s not frustrating, it’s exciting.
Back in the realm of the concrete, though, one person mentioned that it’s “important to recognize the historical importance of the gay ghetto,” and talked about “the relevance of the gay village as a beacon for those who are not in it.” I’ve often said similar things about the function of Pride celebrations. In a sense, the people who actually attend such things or spend time in such spaces aren’t necessarily the ones getting the most out of it. The people who really need them are the ones who are stuck in places and situations, geographic or otherwise, where they can’t be openly queer – take Richard Burnett’s latest column as an example. We white urban Canadian queers take for granted the existence of gay/queer spaces, and are privileged in that we have them at our disposal to enjoy or dismiss as we please. Countless others are not so fortunate.
I’m not advocating that we see our villages as a pity-fuelled charity effort for the poor unfortunate souls who don’t spend time there. Before we sprain a wrist patting ourselves on the backs, let’s remember that people are making money hand over fist off the hip urban queers who spend their hard-earned dollars in the businesses that make their homes in such areas. But there’s something to be said for placing the existence of a gay village into its proper historical context – i.e. such spaces have saved lives, and continue to do so, among many other far less dramatic things – and into its proper contemporary context as well, i.e. that we can criticize pink-dollar-hungry moguls all we want, and rightly so, but people still die trying to create the rainbow spaces we can afford to pooh-pooh. It’s all about balance, really.
Another point raised was about the presence of a gay pride flag in a business’ window. The question was asked: “Would you go into a place because of a rainbow flag?” There were some intriguingly mixed answers. One person said, “Word of mouth attracts queers, not necessarily Pride flags.” Fair enough, but that implies that you’re plugged into a network through which you will hear what the word of mouth is saying, which most likely means you have to be a resident of or frequent visitor to a given city. The word-of-mouth thing also implies that word of mouth is thoroughly effective across the board, which it isn’t – like it or not, that system relies on status (i.e. how well a source of information is known) and media visibility (i.e. how much people see your work in the community) as much as anywhere else, and like it or not, that’s often about money. Not only – the grapevine can be a wonderful equalizer in some ways – but nonetheless, more people will hear about a massive circuit party than about a dyke-run café, period.
The West Side Stories woman said, “As a business owner, that flag does either noticeably drive people away or bring them in. Flags mean different things depending on the part of town.” I would add to that, they mean different things depending on who’s looking. If you’re a local and you notice that a shop suddenly begins to fly a queer flag when they realize it’ll make them a lot more money, you might not start giving your business to the place just because of the rainbow. If, on the other hand, you’re visiting a strange city and you spot such a flag on a doorway, that can be a beacon saying “you are welcome here.” Of course this may or may not be true, but it’s definitely a place to start. There are no guarantees in either case.
Another audience member said, “The queer diaspora is about socio-economics, not sexual orientation or identity. That’s partly about affordability, and partly about family status.” Very true. Certain areas of town are simply more affordable than others, and because of the economic desirability of pink-dollar businesses catering to DINK couples, buying or renting a home in a city’s gay area is often quite simply too expensive for many of us, particularly those with kids. For the last six years in Montreal I lived in Verdun – on the opposite end of town from the official Village, but packed with dykes, young queers, musicians, and artists, as well as tons of people of colour (particularly black and Korean) and blue-collar Francophones. I didn’t move there because it was a queer Mecca, I moved there because I could afford the rent and still have a big beautiful apartment. That’s much how Boi M and I chose our current digs, too, which are in the north-west tip of the Toronto’s vague downtown, not far from an area that an acquaintance recently described as “where Rasta meets pasta.” When I walk down the street, I pass by Portuguese sports bars and aging Italian barbershops, not slick rainbow-scented organic gift shops and trendy bars. But I can pay my rent… and my landlords are gay, and I have a bunch of queer friends within a ten-block radius.
Which brings me to another point raised by an audience member. “We are an increasingly multiracial, multifaith community of queers. In Canada we may have the opportunity to create entirely new kinds of queer spaces and queer existences because of our diversity. We may, as a queer community, be a catalyst for a whole list of other questions around identity and space.” The speaker was a politician of some sort, and a middle-aged white male, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’d be touting the diversity angle of queer space. This same person later said “Accommodation is a dead end for diversity. Celebration is what we need, presence in all our diversity in cultural communities and as ethnic people in queer spaces.”
He’s right, in some ways, especially in a city like Toronto where over half the population was not born in Canada. Diversity isn’t a tag line, it’s an everyday reality. However, the old inequalities still exist as much within the queer community as anywhere else – racism, sexism, transphobia and more. I think the queer community’s strength, much like the feminist community’s, is in asking the tough questions and doing the self-analysis around them… but by no means do I think we represent some sort of model community which will lead the holy charge towards racial equality. Anytime someone begins to wax poetic about how wonderfully diverse the queer community is without providing the somewhat more humbling critique that should necessarily come with that kind of statement, I get a little suspicious, especially when they’re from the most privileged slice of that community. Let’s keep making our strides, but let’s not get too self-satisfied along the way.
Someone else asked the question, “Does a bar define a gay community?” One answer was, “No, but it does serve as a distinct signal that there is one, and that people are meeting each other to have sex, yes.”
Interestingly, this was one of the few times that the question of sex even came up. People talked a lot about socio-economics and identity, but nobody really addressed the heart of the matter: queers need spaces in which to hook up. Everyone does, of course, but when you’re straight, just about any space can be a hook-up joint because most of the people around you are going to share your inclinations to at least some degree. When you’re queer, not so. Historically we’ve developed any number of ingenious ways to say “I’d like to have sex with others of my gender or thereabouts,” ranging from gay male hanky codes to cloaked industrial-area underground bars to specialized language (“Are you a friend of Dorothy?” or “Do you like Melissa Etheridge?”) to the cultural signifiers (earrings, haircuts, mannerisms, clothing styles) that add up to that indefinable something that pings people’s gaydar.
Nowadays some of us are free to do the equivalent of screaming it from the rooftops, but much of our queer history is steeped in the need for total or partial secrecy so as to avoid persecution. And no matter how many same-sex marriages get performed, that doesn’t necessarily make the average street a safer place for the average queer to hit on the average person. Granted, our spaces may not be bulletproof or sprayed with basher-repellent, but there’s at least some better chance of enjoying a safe cruise when you’re in a rainbow-flagged, queer-filled space or area of town, and that means such spaces will persist in one form or another for the foreseeable future. Which in turn means we’ve got lots more discussion and debate about the nature and politics of queer space ahead of us. How’s that for a future? Me, I’m looking forward to it.