In 1920, Daniel L, a 22-year-old presser at the Lowndes tailoring company, ducked into a laneway off Ontario St with Clayton S, a young, single labourer who worked at the Gendron Manufacturing Company. In the relative seclusion of the lane, the two young workers had it off.
At first glance, the case seems unremarkable, save perhaps for the boldness of having sex in public. But there is a detail of some significance: the laneway.
In the early 20th century, Toronto was a maze of back streets and laneways. Used now primarily as routes to garages and sheds, laneways in the early 20th century were quite different. They teemed with commercial activity and street life. At night, men searching for sex with other men found another purpose for the nooks and crannies created by the city’s many back lanes. As Toronto’s late, great queer historian Rick Bébout aptly put it, “Life has ways of taking root in the cracks and margins of official intent. That’s its genius.”
In 1917, John P, a single, 28-year-old butcher, and Frank H, a single, 32-year-old chef, carved out some space in one of the city’s lanes. As the police constable who caught John and Frank put it, “In a lane off 230 Yonge St [the] defendant came in and took out his penis and after he got it stiff Frank H came in and held the penis and pulled it back and forwards.”
The location at 230 Yonge was significant. Known as the Albert St lane, this was a well-known cruising area. In 1917, during the month of April alone, 28 men were arrested for having sex in the lane. Not all laneways became established cruising areas. It was the location of the Albert St laneway that made it such a prime spot. It was positioned within Toronto’s central shopping district — tucked in behind the factory, warehouse and department store buildings of Eaton’s and just up the street from Simpson’s. Cruising spots were often located within retail shopping areas because the store display windows provided men with a legitimate excuse to linger on the street and strike up a conversation. The nearby laneways provided a place to carry on the conversation with less talk and more action.
Unfortunately for many men, however, the Albert St lane was also within spitting distance of the police station in what we now call Old City Hall. Because the police staked out the Albert St laneway and made so many arrests, we are left with a detailed record of those who frequented the lane and their sexual encounters.
Albert St lane appears to have been a favourite spot for middle-class men who ventured downtown from their suburban homes. The lane was the site of many cross-class liaisons. Charles V, a 44-year-old married man, met up with Robert C, a 32-year-old working-class man, in the Albert St lane at 8:50pm. The site of Charles’s sexual encounter, in the shadows cast by the lane’s brick buildings, contrasted sharply with his parkside residence on Indian Rd in the west end of the city.
The court description of Charles’s encounter also captured something of the danger involved in having sex in the city’s busy back-streets, particularly the risk of getting caught not only by police, but by passersby. As the spying constable noted, Charles came into the laneway “and caught hold of Robert C’s privates and rubbed them. Charles V got his mouth towards Robert C’s privates [when] a man came and Charles V jumped.” Not to be deterred from the task at hand, “after [the man] passed Charles V rubbed . . . Robert C’s privates again.”
The Albert St lane was only a short distance away from “The Ward,” one of Toronto’s immigrant and working-class neighbourhoods. The lane was used by some of the many young, single immigrant men who lived in The Ward’s crowded rooming houses. Harry I, a Jewish man, slipped into the Albert St lane with another man where “they each got their penis out and each rubbed the penis of the other man.”
Harry’s trial differed from that of most men, for the judge was presented with a petition requesting that he be lenient with Harry. Testifying to Harry’s good character, the petition was signed by dozens of Jewish women and men from Harry’s neighbourhood. What does this tell us? It is a vivid reminder that men arrested for “sexual crimes” with other men in the early 20th century faced public exposure within their neighbourhoods. But public exposure did not necessarily mean complete rejection by the community. Although the petition did not save Harry from six months at the jail farm, it is evidence that for some men a tightly knit immigrant community capable of organizing a collective response was an important source of support.
I began this series of history articles by recalling a protest against police censorship held one night on Church St back in 1992. This year, in the week before Pride, I took part in the Queers for Social Justice night march. Walking side by side with the same person I did in that protest 20 years before, we set out along Queen St, past Old City Hall and up Yonge, past the site of the Albert St lane, now buried beneath the Eaton Centre, to Church and Wellesley.
After all these years, I still get a powerful feeling in my gut, the one that comes from being out on the street, asserting a queer collective presence in public. Our purpose was political — to reinject Pride with some politics. In the early 20th century, that queer political purpose was not yet possible. But the groundwork for it was laid by the men and many other brave queer people who decades ago staked out their own sexual claim on these very same streets.