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Forty years ago and more, gay men and lesbians heading east on Toronto’s King St just off Yonge were probably well dressed — dresses, pearls and high heels for the women; suits, even tuxes, for the guys. They might have been a little nervous. Certainly, they would have had one destination in mind: the Nile Room at Letros, the most famous gay bar in the city. This was long before gay was good, before bars were everywhere — and before sartorial standards plunged in the schleppy 1970s.
Earlier this year some 75 queers and interested straight friends, all very casually dressed but not at all nervous, had the same destination in mind. They gathered in front of the King Edward Hotel to stare across the street at the building at 50 King St E that once held Letros, hear something of its history and join this article’s authors for Yonge Street Is Flaming, a guided walking tour of Yonge St’s queer history.
It was just one of at least 27 neighbourhood tours that wove through the city May 5 as part of Jane’s Walk, the first annual celebration of urban philosopher and activist Jane Jacobs’ idea of, what she calls, “walkable, dense, compact and diverse neighbourhoods as the hallmarks of a healthy city.”
To most people the term “gay Toronto” now means the Church/Wellesley neighbourhood. But for much of the past 50 years, Yonge St, the city’s main drag, led a secret life: It was home to the bars, baths and clubs that constituted what mainstream society thought of as, “The twilight world of the homosexual,” or what one liquor inspector’s report from the period described as, “A meeting place for young men with feminine characteristics and possibly sex perverts.” Yonge Street Is Flaming was an attempt to literally walk people through that history, to follow in the footsteps of the men and women who struggled to move from commercial establishments that barely tolerated them to bars and clubs they could call their own, to the vast public space we claim and celebrate each Pride Day.
Memories are short. Facts get twisted. Some tales are apocryphal. Yonge Street Is Flaming was hastily organized and we make no claim to absolute accuracy. We were amateurs in the best sense, doing a job because we loved it and hoping the walkers with us would fill in gaps with stories of their own — some did, and we hope for more.
We relied heavily on the collections of the Canadian Lesbian And Gay Archives and Rick Bebout’s on-line memoirs at Rbebout.com and Lynne Fernie’s original research files for her film Forbidden Love.
If you have queer Yonge St recollections and anecdotes to share, send them to Janeactive18@hotmail.com.
Jane Farrow is a CBC Radio producer and Gerald Hannon is a journalist and a member of the board of Pink Triangle Press, which publishes Xtra.