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Environmental concerns threaten Hanlan’s Point Beach

Eroding gay spaces

A new landscaping and conservation project scheduled for clothing-optional Hanlan’s Point Beach could mark the end of cruising in the tree- and bush-lined area beside the beach.

The recently announced Toronto Island Sand Dune Management and Restoration Project will eliminate access to the “informal trails” that currently exist alongside the southern part of the beach and serve as a popular cruising spot for gay men. Post-and-paddle fencing will limit beach access to three “formalized” entry points. The move is said to be an ecological one meant to curtail heavy foot traffic and preserve local sand dunes and vegetation, which work together to reduce shoreline erosion.

“It’s a sensitive ecological area and needs to be protected from random use that will tread down on it and damage what is actually a pretty rare phenomenon,” says Tom Davidson, assistant to councillor Pam McConnell, who is backing the project. “And so, we need to find a balance that ensures the people have access to what is a beautiful spot but also protects the ecological integrity of a sensitive area.”

In addition to the added access points, plans for the project include construction of a wheelchair accessible boardwalk, extra bicycle parking and increased directional signage. Work will begin after Labour Day and is expected to finish by mid-November.

Though there is no indication that the move is designed to be anything other than an environmental and landscape improvement initiative, gay men still have cause for concern, says Gary Kinsman, a queer-rights activist and professor of sociology at Sudbury’s Laurentian University.

“Preserving the natural environment on the island is obviously something that everyone wants to support,” affirms Kinsman. “But this also has to be put into the context of the long-standing historical use of that area by men connected with the gay community — in terms of the cruising area and in terms of a place to meet other men.

“And unfortunately, you can also put this in the context of a long history of attempts to try and close down cruising areas for gay men, where they’ve razed the bushes, they’ve built fences, they’ve built barriers, they’ve done all sorts of things in different contexts to keep gay men from doing this.”

“So, the point of it is, even if the motivation for it is much more environmental in character, it’s having this unintended repercussion of actually curtailing a certain type of erotic space that we’ve historically established for ourselves. And I think that is something to be concerned about.”

Author Joseph Couture, whose book Peek: Inside the Private World of Public Sex looks at the occurrence of gay outdoor sex, doesn’t believe the loss of cruising areas like Hanlan’s Point will affect Toronto’s gays as much as it would those living in small towns.

Nor does he expect a huge public outcry over their continuing disappearance.

“These types of spaces are much more important in small towns, where you don’t have bathhouses, and you have a limited number of people online that you can access,” says Couture. “In small towns, parks and washrooms are a more important venue for meeting men.”

“Those who are saddened and disappointed by this will probably be the last ones to say anything because, typically, the people who visit these venues are the least out in their communities. The people who are out, who identify as gay can go to a bar, go to  a bathhouse where they feel comfortable, show their picture online and go to someone’s house. The people who visit public sex venues are typically the most deeply closeted and the least likely to say anything about this.”

Kinsman is aware that changing  attitudes among queers have perhaps made it unfashionable to defend outdoor cruising, but he says such spaces continue to serve an important function and should be preserved.

“It’s really important, I think, for us to defend these types of erotic spaces or quasi-public erotic spaces that we’ve managed to establish for ourselves. But that’s not necessarily  a popular position in the gay scene these days, given the whole belief that with same-sex marriage we’ve reached nirvana in the sense of  respectability. But it seems to me that it’s important for us to continue  to hold onto those notions of a need for these types of spaces for people who want them and need them.”

For more details on the project, go to Pam McConnell’s website at pammcconnell.ca