3 min

Joyful, messy, chaotic: big love for free speech at Toronto Pride

A first-person account of marching with the yellow and pink

The Pride Coalition for Free Speech's contingent in the Toronto Pride parade. Credit: Matt Mills photo

Under the scorching sun, in the glaring eye of the straight media, with a million of our closest friends watching live from Yonge St, the city of Toronto pulled off a tiny miracle of civility, joyfulness and downright gaiety.

From my vantage point at the front of the Pride Coalition for Free Speech contingent — the group with the yellow and pink signs — the parade was a love-in. As sunscreen-infused sweat dripped down my forehead, we chanted, over and over, “We’re sexy. We’re hot. Censorship is not.” I wore a yellow marshal T-shirt with the softest free-speech slogan I could conjure: “Talk to me like lovers do.”

We danced. We chanted. We even sang “Stand By Me.” As we made our way down Yonge, those on the sidelines clapped and grinned. There was roaring applause for us just before Wellesley. For a few blocks, spectators chanted along with our call-and-answer, “4-3-2-1. Free speech is for everyone.”

A little more than two weeks earlier, I became an unlikely organizer of the Pride Coalition for Free Speech’s parade contingent. At an evening meeting at Ryerson University, the consensus from 80-odd Coalition volunteers was: we want to march in the Pride Toronto parade. But none of the existing leadership had the energy to take the project on. So a group of 10 volunteers and I struck a committee. Planning began in earnest immediately. I also became a part of the Coalition’s safety-and-security crew. Along the way, I changed the email signature on my personal account to “PS: Do you have a megaphone I can borrow on July 4?”

Parade day started out calmly enough, as a small group Pride Coalition volunteers ferried 750 signs, 450 sticks, cardboard, paint, markers and two much-in-demand staple guns to George Hislop parkette at 11 in the morning. Blockorama had agreed to let us use a patch of grass to assemble both ourselves and our signs.

The mood was convivial. Some quietly sipped coffees while others inked signs, altered T-shirts and practised songs on their guitars. Yawns gave way to clapping as the first group of about 80 left for the parade’s staging area on Bloor St.

They took piles of signs — most saying simply “My Pride includes free speech” to distribute to other groups, many of which had asked for them in advance. I waved them off, staying behind at Hislop to direct stragglers and clean up.

Shortly before 2pm, I headed over to Bloor St with another organizer and two armloads of signs. Walking up Church St, we got a call: “Something’s going on here. Can you please come?”

The Coalition marched directly in front of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid; in the staging area the two groups milled around together. Many in the Coalition have no position on the Middle East — or have opinions that diverged from QuAIA’s. But the coalition was formed out of opposition to QuAIA’s ouster, so there were good vibes between the two groups.

We picked up the pace. The call turned out to be related to a skirmish with hecklers. It was heated but non-violent. Those who were waiting to march didn’t engage, and volunteers who had been trained in de-escalation stepped in.

After the initial altercation, the Coalition’s safety crew fanned out along the parameter of the contingent to keep an eye out for more trouble. About five groups of nay-sayers came to visit us in the staging area — mostly just to scope us out — and they kept a respectful distance.

As the free speechers finally inched into the parade shortly before 4pm, the safety crew began scanning the crowd to see if there were any more troublemakers. There weren’t any; by halfway through, the safety crew was more concerned with keeping the chants alive than anything else.

I arrived at the end of the parade route around 5pm, exhausted but happy. Volunteers collapsed on the sidewalk beside piles of the pink and yellow; one rad dyke energetically humped the signs on the curb. We downed bottles of water and surveyed our sunburns. Gradually, folks dispersed to look after their aching bodies. Even as I type this, my fingers are slick with a second drenching of moisturizer.

Toronto gave big love for free speech; what a joyful expression of queerness. Happy Pride, everyone.

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