There must be at least 203,296 foreign-born queers in Toronto.
That’s a number calculated with the help of Statistics Canada records on legal immigration to Toronto, filtered through that dubious 10 percent calculation (Stats Canada doesn’t break down immigrants by sexual orientation). Of these theoretically queer immigrants about 80,000 (10 percent of 792,035) arrived between 1991 and 2001.
The majority of these queers are Chinese, South Asian, black or Filipino. In lesser numbers they are Latin American and Arabic. With Toronto cementing its international reputation as the gay Mecca, Toronto’s gay village has gone global.
If long-time residents are starting to take the village for granted, Toronto’s newest gay members are picking up the slack.
“I am a DJ and I’m a Sikh,” says Prabhjot Bedi (PJ), who is co-founder of Queer Indian Mela, a monthly dance night for South Asians at Papi’s (next one is Sat, Jan 10). “Mela is really diverse. I was surprised. At first, I thought it would be more an Indian crowd, honestly. But I was amazed by the fact that there has been every kind of crowd there. From white to brown to black; every kind of crowd. People love the music, people love the environment.”
When PJ came to Canada from India five years ago he carried with him the burden of traditional Indian values, which make little room for gay and lesbian life. Toronto’s openness, he says, was a big surprise.
“When I came first to Church St I was scared out of my wits. I don’t know why, but I was,” says PJ. “If I had gone to Woody’s, I would have just stood to the side and just watched people and that was it.”
Slowly PJ began to find his place in the community, and as he did he also began to see opportunities to help shape it.
“We come from a society which is sometimes very close-minded to these things. So with Queer Indian Mela we tried to create the sort of place where everyone is invited and nobody cares if you are gay or straight,” says PJ.
“You can call it a cultural revolution what’s happening right now,” he says. ” [Indians] are coming out and they are becoming culturally liberated. But at the same time it’s very slow. You cannot see it happening in one day. It will happen gradually.”
While the Toronto South Asian queer explosion is emerging as something distinct from home-country traditions, Latin America has brought its own gay culture to the Toronto scene. From established venues like El Convento Rico to the salsa grooves of the much newer George’s Play and Papi’s, immigrants from Latin America are making their mark on the queer scene.
“There is a big number of Latin people who are arriving into Canada and coming into the gay community,” says Viviana Castro, a DJ at George’s Play. “There are also big numbers of people coming from Puerto Rico, Colombia and Mexico.”
Castro says that in the three years she’s worked as a DJ in the gay village she’s seen a marked increase in the number of visible minorities coming out.
“I think one of the reasons is that before we had more people probably hidden in the closet. Now they’ve seen that little by little Latin groups or members of the Arab community have come out. Now a lot of people are coming out of the closet,” says Castro, who emigrated from Colombia when she was five years old.
Castro finds that different cultural groups like to mix it up.
“Even the Chinese community coming out,” says Castro of her club night. “They love the salsa.”
With almost 300,000 immigrants arriving in the country each year, the impact on gay and lesbian life is only going to increase.
“Toronto gets the lion’s share of all immigrants in Canada,” says David LeBlanc, a lawyer with Ferreira-Wells Immigration Services. “We are talking in excess of 60 percent.”
LeBlanc figures that about 18,000 foreign-born gay and lesbian people arrived in Toronto this past year alone. And that may be a conservative figure. As Canada becomes a world leader in gay rights, more and more queer immigrants will be choosing Canada.
“We all need to appreciate that Canada has some of the most liberal and supportive same-sex legislation and laws and regulations in the world, and so whenever a Canadian meets a foreigner, it’s usually a much more attractive venture to both of them for them to consider co-habituating here in Canada as it would be to live almost anywhere else in the world.
“In the past, gay applicants were only maybe about 10 percent of our business,” says LeBlanc. “We are seeing it now between 25 and 30 percent of our business at least.”
But there are tensions between gay life and mainstream life, cultures of origin and Toronto culture. For example, not all new Canadians are interested in trying to recreate their home culture in the gay village.
Jose Perez (not his real name) came to Toronto as an exchange student from Mexico City three years ago. Rather than looking to gay Latino support groups, like Hola, for friendship, Perez hit the mainstream gay bars and clubs.
“At that time I used to go to Five and Buddies In Bad Times, mostly,” says Perez. “I pretty much partied my ass off.” After three years, Perez says that most of the friends he has made in Canada are white. Perez says that some new Canadians have difficulty integrating with Canadian culture and end up using cultural support groups as a crutch.
“Some people segregate themselves out of the rest of the community,” says Perez. “There are people who are running away from whatever problems they had in their country. Some people didn’t even want to leave their country, but they had to. So most of the time they are not prepared to come to another culture and they really struggle to mix with the Canadian culture.”
Perez says that many people who grew up in Toronto may not fully appreciate the freedom the gay village affords them.
“I think maybe what happens is that Torontonians take it for granted because it’s always been there. Maybe coming out sometimes here in Toronto is not such a big thing because the gay village is there and if they want to go they can go whenever they want,” says Perez.
“Most [new Canadians] don’t have a gay village in their home country, most of the time they don’t even have a gay club. So it’s a phenomenon where as soon as you get here, you find this place where you are accepted and you can go out and meet other people like you. It’s this process of getting used to a gay life that most people don’t have in our countries.”
For some, celebrating queer life in Canada doesn’t necessarily mean embracing stereotyped values.
“I find that when people talk about gay culture and whatever that means, it is generally defined as what is white. Especially growing up in Canada,” says Asif Kamal, a coordinator with the queer Muslim group Salaam. “And coming out as a queer person of colour you always found that you have certain groups of people who like you because of your skin colour or your ethnicity. And that was very well and good, but you don’t want to be attractive to someone because of where you come from and what you look like.”
Clearly there is much that makes new gay Canadians distinct from each other: religion, ethnic background, language, skin colour. What often becomes common is the love of good music.
“At least my sense is that for Queer Indian Mela and Maya and [the now roving night] FunkAsia it’s definitely more the music than anything else. It’s the music that’s bringing them together,” says Zavare Tengra, an outreach coordinator with Alliance For South Asian AIDS Prevention.
“And of course the whole feeling of being within your own community is also great. I’m sure if the music was lousy then no one would really go there. It’s the music that really makes the event,” Tengra says.
For some, music is a way to reconnect with their roots in the context of a new gay life.
“When I go to a [gay] Indian club and I hear Indian music that I recognize from when I was a kid, but now it can be in a gay safe space, it makes me feel extremely comfortable and it’s very nostalgic,” says Kamal.
There must be at least 203,296 foreign-born queers in Toronto.