Ah, The 519 — hub of Toronto’s queer community when we aren’t getting wasted, jaded or overdressed. Musician Boo Watson once told me the story of what she remembers as the first Toronto Pride, this queer little garden party behind The 519, 20-odd years ago. Who would have known it would ever become the monster it is today? Pride, I mean. Not The 519.
The 519 was the first community centre I ever felt a part of. Before that I’d only read about community centres in books, seen them on TV on Degrassi and in movies like The Challengers.
My partner talks about going to “the Y” with her sister as a kid. I remember juice and cookies and a lovely woman named May at the Salvation Army, but that was long before I understood the concept of geographic or cultural community. I knew family and school. The world beyond seemed completely unconnected to me, full of strangers, other people’s family, other people’s schools. We never went to a community centre in Scarborough. I guess the closest thing was Leacock Arena, but it was always deserted and damp and the pop machines were always out of order.
The 519 had all the makings of the good community centres I read about; creaking staircase, stackable chairs, church-like acoustics, free books in boxes outside AA meetings.
The 519 was the physical space where my queer interests converged — writing, activism, performance, people — and bumped into health information, job postings, workshops, fairs and more people. Because The 519 is such a shared space its offerings were as diverse as our community, and when I found it, at about 18 years old, it seemed there was a reason to go every two weeks. Plus there were open-access bathrooms and an enormous bulletin board that made waiting interesting, informative, productive even.
Remember the wading pool? It’s gone now, replaced by a splash pad, but I am left with the fond memory of standing in an awkward circle with my ex-girlfriend at Pride 2003 when someone asked, “If you could choose anyone by this wading pool to sleep with tonight who would it be?”
My ex’s best friend Kelly chose the woman who, years later, would become my wife and the mother of my child, the woman I was already crushing on, already looking for. A most awkward moment indeed.
I’m starting a job at The 519, which has ignited this reflection. It feels in a way like the closing of a circle. Here for help, here for help, here for help, here to help. The community centre which did so much for me in my queer metamorphosis has come knocking for retribution and it is no coincidence that the opportunity comes a week after my daughter’s first birthday when the concept of community is foremost on my mind.
I cannot begin to describe the relief I am feeling as I consider working in a queer environment again. Forty hours a week is a big chunk of my life. It doesn’t matter how queer my home life is, I still step outside in the morning into the same big world as everyone else, the same heterosexist world where queer is “one in 10,” where my daughter must have a “father,” where my relationship is generally sexualized and trivialized. Some of that big world is bound to wear off on how I walk, how I dress, how I speak, how I feel about myself. I only notice it in contrast, now, as I anticipate the changes I will feel free to make when I am stepping into The 519 five days a week. It’s like my home life just got a little bit bigger. I anticipate some relief in this new job, where I should be able to let my hair down (shave it off, whatever) more often, where I should be able to drop some of the self-protective measures I have subconsciously put in place to navigate a world not made for my protection.
I like to think I can be myself anywhere, but it isn’t true. I spent two years at Inside Out around 2000 and it’s no surprise that it was then that I first seriously considered transitioning.
As I’ve moved further and further from living in a queer bubble (and as I steadily close the historical gap between me and my family) my internal gender debate has flattened out. Now I admire folks who’ve transitioned but can’t imagine doing it myself. Something that once seemed difficult but in some ways easier now seems absolutely monumental, nearly impossible.
I am not saying that I want to transition now. What I’m saying is I would like to believe my life would go on if I wanted to. I would like it to seem less monumental, and exposure is key, for all of us.
This week, and this job, is marking a return to some things near and dear to my heart — the powerful, essential aspects of community engagement, cutting-edge politics, consistency of character and passion in all aspectsof my life.
So see you in the village. I’m there on weekdays now.