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Recalling Toronto’s forgotten gay bars

Bars, clubs and hangouts played a unique role in gay and lesbian history in 20th-century Toronto

'MOST GLAMOROUS NIGHT OF MY LIFE.' 50 King St E past and present: site of the Letros Tavern and the Nile Room downstairs. Neil Gilson recalls his first time in drag, when he won the 1961 Miss Letros competition.

So much of our history remains hidden.

What’s been recorded — some memoirs, some activist history, oral recordings, Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissmann’s film Forbidden Love — is very limited. There is a lived history, a social history that still needs a much fuller telling.

The bars (and unlicensed dance clubs and other hangouts) played a unique role in gay and lesbian history in 20th-century Toronto. They were rare public spaces for homosexuals to come together to schmooze, cruise, booze and stroke bruised egos.

Activists waving the gay rights flag on the front lines were crucial to the development of what we now take for granted: dignity, equality, freedom. But just as crucial was the camaraderie found in bars, the living example of ordinary gay men and lesbians to counter the homophobic teachings coursing through media and officialdom. Read activist Rick Bébout’s amazing online memoir, Promiscuous Affections: A Life in the Bar, to see how central these gay spaces could be.

We know the names of many long-gone bars — the Music Room, the Parkside, the Quest. But to borrow Donald Rumsfeld’s plangent phrase, there are numerous “unknown unknowns.” How many bars will we never hear about? How many more stories and characters did they house?

Memories fade. Photos get lost in the shuffle. Secrets are taken to the grave. We need to record what’s left of this history now before it is lost forever. It’s our legacy.

This is only the first in an ongoing series, and yet, such a tiny sample of interviews turned up the first-ever mention of a place called the White Chef. And who ever heard of the Golliwog Lounge? (With its recent move, I haven’t been able to access properly the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives collections, so I can’t confirm this — that work, too, is still to come.)

I hope these anecdotes will jog your memories and inspire you to share.

Belly up to the bar, order a drink and tell us a story — with a twist.

If you’d like to participate in this project or send in some of your own recollections email
comment@dailyxtra.com.

— Gordon Bowness

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