Toronto
5 min

Lower the limbo bar

Celebrating diversity takes more than bending over backwards

BRIDGE MIX. Garth St Clair, Duchess and DJ Black Cat want it all - Pride, Caribana and a city where everyone can party together. Credit: Paula Wilson

The organizers of Caribbean Pride think they can help bridge the racial divides in Toronto. At the very least, they say the party will certainly be colourful.



“We know that the [gay and lesbian] community doesn’t take part in Caribana,” says Garth St Clair. “So we decided to bring a taste of Caribana to the community. We’re just showing that the culture can be taken to another community and enjoyed, just as straight people enjoy the Caribana parade.”



But while St Clair wants to work towards gay and racial harmony, he says this Pride party – on Thu, Jul 29 at The Phoenix, just before Caribana weekend – is really about him contributing to the queer community and helping raise money for the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation.



St Clair, who emigrated to Canada in 1994, was a dancer in his native Trinidad in the 1970s and ’80s. It was a time, he says, that left an indelible impression on him, and gave him a lifelong appreciation of the gay community.



“I was really moved by it. You know what it’s like to have five of your best friends die of AIDS. I’ve always been around gay people. I’m straight, but I feel very comfortable being around them. They’re the best friends I’ve had. They’re very truthful, very straight-forward, and they make me laugh all the time.



“It’s my way of giving back. It’s not going to bring back the friends I lost, but hopefully it can help some other people.”



St Clair moved to Canada after he got out of the Trinidad military. A Toronto band looking for a singer saw St Clair performing in Trinidad and recruited him. The band has since broken up, but St Clair says it’s for the best. “If I was in a band, I wouldn’t be able to work with Pride.”



St Clair’s singing career is continuing, though. Under the name of GS Soldier, he recently released Musica Picante, a CD of his soca, calypso and reggae songs, and will be heading back into the studio shortly. He’ll also be performing at Caribbean Pride.



This is the second attempt at such bridge building. Last year, St Clair organized Carnival Is Red, a party on Church St that he says had white gay men and lesbians dancing in the streets – until police closed it down.



“The majority of people who were at that event were white people, about 90 percent,” he says. “But every time I say black and white, I don’t like saying it. It doesn’t sound right in my ears. There’s these divisions between black gays and white gays. I don’t know why that is.”



DJ Black Cat, aka Mykl Hall, who has worked with St Clair in the past and will be spinning at Caribbean Pride, says those divisions need to be closed.



“In general, I believe that it is harder to be black and gay. If you’re black, you’re already ostracized. I’m not using that as an excuse. But the community is not black-based, so you have to work a bit harder. It’s just the way Toronto is. Toronto likes to act like they don’t have a problem, but they do.”



St Clair says some of those problems may have surfaced last year when police forced an early closure to the event, then being held outside. Though they had a permit till 11pm, the event was shut down at 9pm after nearby residents complain of noise. “You wouldn’t believe the problems we had. Some say it was a racist thing. But we couldn’t find a reason. They harassed us until we had no choice but to shut it down.”



But Hall says he sees hopeful signs. He says his regular nights at the Red Spot (on Church St) have become increasingly popular among homos of all colours. Hall also hosts a party every year for Caribana. This time, he’s spreading it out over three days and calling it the Million Man/Woman Weekend.



“I get about 500 people every year. If you’re from out-of-town and you’re gay, you’re coming to see Black Cat.” (The Million Man/Woman Weekend kicks off with drag queen Stephanie Stephens on Fri, Jul 30 at the Red Spot. On Saturday it moves to Carrington’s, on Yonge St, with Michelle Ross, and guest DJs Verilia, Tandera, and T’N’T. And on Sun, Aug 1, it returns to the Red Spot with Duchess. The Red Spot is also showing photos of Black Cat by John Ortner.



“Attitudes are changing already,” adds Hall. “You’ll see a lot more black people on Church St than you would see two or three years ago. They’re more comfortable with themselves, as I am now. Five years ago, putting on a Caribbean Pride would have been ridiculous.”



And Caribbean Pride aims to help those changes along.



“We want to state emphatically that Caribbean culture does not belong to any one group,” says St Clair. “We want to get rid of the stigma that this is just for black people. We’re looking at the possibility of steel bands in the Pride parade.”



As a taste test, Horyzon, a soca band from Trinidad, will perform at Caribbean Pride. Its participation reminds St Clair of the political issues he’s addressing.



“It’s the first time they’ve been convinced to play in the gay community. They look at it as breaking down a barrier. There’s a lot of homophobia in Trinidad, a lot of gay-bashing. It’s time to tear down this wall between the gay community and the straight community. We could learn a lot from each other.”



Duchess, aka Terry Francis, who’ll host Caribbean Pride, also hopes the barriers are coming down. “I try not to get into the politics of it, but sometimes it’s in your face.



“I’m from Barbados…. Canada is somewhere that’s more liberal than our little island. But at gay Pride, you don’t normally see the black people. Normally, a lot of black people take off and go to other cities. A lot of blacks in Canada are from the West Indies, and they have this mentality about gay being criminal. It’s best to go somewhere else and not be seen.”



But Duchess points to this year’s Pride, and the Blockorama dance party organized by the group Blackness Yes, as an example of things changing.



And St Clair says that things might improve even more next year when Caribana itself will become an official sponsor of Caribbean Pride.



“For some reason, the CEO of Caribana decided this is a very fantastic idea. I don’t think it’ll be a problem. They would just be a sponsor. It would still be strictly for the gay community.”



But St Clair says the sponsorship might also be a first step towards a gay presence in the Caribana parade, although he recognizes the difficulties.



“I think that would be great. Marching in it would be real integration. But there is still this fear about participating in Caribana.”



Hall is somewhat apprehensive about the prospect. “It could be quite dangerous. There are a lot of ignorant people in this world. But there are so many people who go to the parade who are gay. It’d be nice to be able to go and be open about who you are.”



But reflecting on Blockorama – where both he and Duchess performed – Hall sees hope.



“The majority of people there were straight and they were black and they knew it was a gay event. Maybe I’m behind things. Maybe we are ready to drop this into the straight parade and say ‘Let’s see what happens.’ If they do this, I wouldn’t hide. I’d do whatever I can.”



Caribbean Pride.

$10 adv; $15 door.

9pm. Thu, Jul 29.

The Phoenix.

410 Sherbourne St.

(416) 752-4425.