3 min

Reimagining our gay village

Is Toronto’s gay village dying? What makes a gay neighbourhood? What are the business owners in the Church-Wellesley gaybourhood doing to keep people’s interest?

These are questions we’ve asked before. Indeed, there will surely be some loyal readers long tired of them. There is a joke around the office that Xtra’s editorial team feels compelled to produce a story each time a Church Street business owner passes gas.

Yet if we don’t, who will? There is something to be said for taking pride in a project born of struggle. For watching over something that helps define who we are. While we gay Torontonians daily make use of the rights those who built the gay village fought for us to enjoy, there are a good many of us who also love to hate the neighbourhood that remains, the one place in our city gay people can truly call their own.

In the first of a five-part series that examines the future of the gay village, Xtra looks back on the creation of the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood and at some of those spaces where the city’s gay pioneers congregated to plot strategies to further gay rights activism. In those early days, simply gathering together was a radical venture in itself.

We’ve come a long way. A few decades later and we’re asking if gay people in Toronto even need their own neighbourhood. Yet as Xtra readers know, homophobia and transphobia remain prevalent in our schools, in our families, on social media and in the ranks of Toronto’s city council.

And while many of the city’s “postmodern homos” maintain no great connection to Church Street, the Village remains the place where queer refugees and immigrants from less welcoming countries figure out they’re going to be okay. It is also still the first stop for the majority of gay tourists, as well as those looking for sex. It is for these reasons and others that we keep a close watch over it.

There is no question that Toronto’s gaybourhood needs a serious makeover. It has wallowed in mediocrity for too many years, the owners of many of its landmark institutions content to get by on a recipe for success that made sense in the 1990s. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

Meanwhile, as Toronto prepares for WorldPride in 2014, those community members responsible for taking the lead in reviving and refurbishing the Village have often seemed to be going in umpteen different directions, their solutions amounting to a bricolage of incompatible ideas.

The Church Street mural project, for example, is a novel plan. Yet its team seems to have begun a journey down a politically correct path of no return. Co-curator James Fowler recently told Xtra that the gay cowboy mural, which was removed from the old Barn (gay men’s) nightclub in March, was too male-centric. “Maybe now it can become a female-centric wall or a trans-centric wall,” he proposed.

Stop the insanity. I truly hope the various groups reimagining the look and feel of our gay village can come to terms with the idea that their projects will be a success even if each little thing they do doesn’t contain a representation of every letter of the ever-growing LGBT acronym. While all these people belong in the Village and on its walls, let’s not negate the neighbourhood’s history in an attempt to please each of the competing interests tangled up in its present. That is no way to make a more attractive Village.

If nothing else, our Village series will put forward some new ideas by examining the ways stakeholders in other places are helping rejuvenate their gay neighbourhooods. This can be as simple as updating websites (yes, I know, people in glass houses; dailyxtra.com is coming), incorporating more public artwork, restoring heritage properties or creating partnerships between municipal governments and civil society. I hope it will get Torontonians talking and thinking. From New York City’s Greenwich Village to Sydney’s Taylor Square or even Toronto’s Roncesvalles Village neighbourhood, the problems facing the Church-Wellesley Village are not unique. With a little imagination, our solutions can be.