4 min

Shock factor

Girls holding hands? Torontonians can't stop staring

Credit: Joshua Meles

So how accepting is Toronto toward public displays of same-sex affection?

In a highly unscientific experiment, I decided to bring a friend to various locations in the city – specifically avoiding the gay village – to cuddle, hold hands and act like a cutesy lesbian couple, and watch how people reacted.

My first problem was finding someone to be my girlfriend. In a show of goodwill which I’m sure had nothing to do with getting their names in a newspaper, my friends Meg and Cara agreed to alternate playing the part.

They dealt admirably. Every time someone look at our joined hands and then quickly looked away, Cara would put her arm around my waist territorially. Meg leapt wholeheartedly into our girlfriends-moving-in-together storyline. In busy coffee shops, she argued passionately that “the bed should be the focus of the bedroom,” which could only be accomplished by a mirror on the ceiling.

I’m a bit paranoid at the best of times, so it’s important to keep in mind that, while we were looking for homophobic reactions, much of what we experienced could have been something else entirely.

We only felt unsafe once – on the sidewalk of Queen St W after 10pm. Nothing specific, just discomfort.

And we only once saw another obviously gay couple – two guys standing well within each other’s personal space on an escalator at the Yorkdale Sears.


Our first excursion was to the Sleep Country Canada at Eglinton and Oriole Parkway. We thought bed shopping would be the perfect way to kick off our time as pretend girlfriends.

Meg and I entered holding hands and discussing the merits of a queen versus a double. The store was empty, but it took five minutes for one of the three salespeople to approach us. A salesman encouraged us to lie down on the beds (“Don’t worry, we Scotchguard them”), and told us someone would be with us shortly.

We were sitting on the edge of a mattress when the saleswoman, wearing a large cross around her neck, finally arrived. She also encouraged us to lie down, looking rather uncomfortable as we did. She watched us try other mattresses, and hesitantly told us the price of a four-poster bed we liked. We left hand in hand.

The Sears at Yorkdale was much friendlier. The saleswoman smiled at us like the cute couple we were.

“If she kicks, you definitely need a queen-sized bed,” the woman said when I complained about Cara. We told the saleswoman we were moving out of university residence, and she laughed that any mattress would be a step up, and recommended that we wait until their big sale to make our purchase. I wanted to buy a bed just so she could get commission.

At the Sears at the Eaton Centre, Meg and I decided to shop for bedding. The salesman was most unhelpful, so we tried to find everything on our own.

At one point, Meg suggested that flannel sheets might be nice. I responded that they would be too sweaty post-sex. A woman walked past with a look on her face vaguely reminiscent of that on the faces of the officers while testifying at the Kyle Rae libel trial about what they had seen at the Pussy Palace women’s bathhouse – a politically correct attempt to cover moral dismay.

Cara and I were ignored in Jacob Lingerie and La Senza at Yorkdale, and Meg and I were ignored at Silk And Satin at the Eaton Centre, even as we looked at merchandise. The saleswomen in Jacob helped other customers while ignoring us, while the saleswomen in La Senza and Silk And Satin ignored everyone, including a group of three young women who entered with their arms linked.

We received much more helpful treatment in bookstores. At both the Indigo at Yonge and Eglinton and the one in the Eaton Centre, Meg and I got a couple looks from customers. The man who held the door for us at the Yonge and Eglinton store smiled at us with an “I could convert you” look.

We wandered around, but could not find the queer lit section. We asked a salesperson in her 30s where it was. Embarrassed, she told us that the store had just been reorganized. “I’m actually not sure where it is.”

She led us all over the crowded store, and then enlisted the help of a young-looking sales clerk. When they still could not find it, they went off to get more help, and Meg and I found it on our own. They returned, apologized again and then left us alone.

The cashier didn’t blink when I asked for Sexing The Cherry at the Eaton Centre Indigo. When we ventured upstairs and asked about a queer lit section, two bored looking salespeople in their 20s explained that there wasn’t one, and suggested we visit Glad Day Bookshop on Yonge.


We moved on to coffee shops, starting with the Second Cup at Yonge and Eglinton, where the waitress smiled when I teased Meg about asking for whipped cream.

We held hands on top of the table and talked about painting the bedroom of our apartment. The woman sitting next to us kept glancing over, and then back at her hands, which were rotating her coffee cup in increasingly rapid circles. She did not seem to agree with Meg’s talk about decorating the bedroom. Suddenly, the woman put down her coffee cup, pushed back her chair so quickly it almost fell over and rushed out. Because of the cramped space we were in, she almost touched Meg.

At the Second Cup in the Eaton Centre we got no response, even when I teased Meg for the same reason.

Tequila Bookworm on Queen St W was peaceful. We weren’t holding hands as we left, and about a block away, a cute guy in his 20s tried to engage us in conversation.

“Lovely night, isn’t it, ladies?”

He seemed unthreatening, but I’m not such a fan of the pickup line, especially when I’ve got a beautiful woman on my arm.

Cara and I decided to end the evening browsing through porn videos. Suspect Video on Queen St W was crowded with men, and nothing we did seemed to catch anyone’s attention. We flipped through their selection, loudly asking each other’s preferences (“Do you like girls in uniforms? How about girls in leather?”), looked at lesbian porn mag On Our Backs and commented on sexual positions. Nothing.

Overall, I was surprised by the contrast between how people responded when we were inside businesses and how they responded when we were on the street or in the corridors of malls. Inside, even if the salespeople or customers looked uncomfortable, the Second Cup woman was the only one who was openly upset.

But while walking down the street or through the malls holding hands or with our arms around each other’s waists, we were stared at, glared at and in one case, pointed at by a kid. It was often annoying, but most of the time, you could explain people’s reaction as just being curious.

Of course, if everyone saw queer couples holding hands and discussing colours for their bedroom walls on a regular basis, then my pretend girlfriends and I wouldn’t have seemed so out of the ordinary at all.