The Aussies really played both sides of the fence during their gay tourism promo Feb 16 at Yonge-Dundas Square. Held in a big white tent in the middle of Toronto’s biggest designer parking lot, it was billed as a Sydney Foam Party and was obviously targeted at gays, but not so obviously as to put off anyone else who just happened to wander by. When I arrived late Friday night, a gaggle of teenage girls in too-tight jeans was wandering away from the tent, giggling.
“Are you here for the event?” the security guy asked me. Yeah, the event, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Inside there was a stage, a couple of bars, a foam-filled dancing pen, some National Geographic pictures pinned to white cloth walls and a lot of puzzled-looking gay men wondering what to do next. It was too early (8pm to 11pm) for a real party and there was no way this one was going to sex up, not with so many clean-cut staff in attendance. There were dozens of them, all dressed in black and yellow shirts marked “G-Day Canada.” They looked like squads of anxious bumblebees.
I doubt the Aussies are really any more comfortable with gays than anyone else in the tourism world — the URL for their on-line promo ended with the rather snarky comment, “queen.htm.” Still, you’ve got to give them credit for promoting their country. It’s more than anyone in Toronto seems to be doing.
As far as I can see, the Toronto gay scene is alive and well (if barely) purely and simply because of tourists and immigrants. In the last few months alone, I’ve run into a Persian (his identification not mine), a guy from Kazakhstan (yeah, really, Borat country) and through him a couple of guys from Turkey.
But lord knows how they found their way here. No one seems to be doing much to attract them. You’re nowhere if you’re not on the Internet these days and virtual Toronto is a pretty vague place. Forget about promotion. Even the basic information is missing. If you live here you know where to look; you know the bars and the mags and the websites and it all seems terribly obvious. But if you don’t have local contacts, finding the necessary facts can be difficult.
A few months back I ran into some US tourists in town for business and I asked them how they found their way from their hotel in Vaughan (poor dears) to downtown gaydom.
“Oh, just searched on gay bars Toronto,” they said. Intrigued, I went home and tried the same technique and having tried it I wanted to give them an award for valour. I’m surprised they found Church St, let alone Woody’s.
Search on “gay bars Toronto” and the first thing you get is something called Toronto Pronto run by the Gay Toronto Tourism Guild (Gaytorontotourism.com/barsclubs.htm). It’s really helpful. Among the bars it lists are such graveyard favourites as 5iven [sic], Babylon, Bar 501, Sneakers, Slack Alice, Pope Joan, Trax V, The Toolbox and The Barn. Even when it gets the listings right, the descriptions leave a lot to be desired. “Side-by-side men’s bars (where women are welcome)” doesn’t really catch the gist of Woody’s.
Googling “gay sex Toronto” works a little better. In fact the top hit is Xtra.ca and the third is the tourism mag The Guide (published by Pink Triangle Press, which also publishes Xtra). But still no direct hits for the bars, baths or Church St.
Both Fab and Xtra have extensive on-line listings but you’ll need to navigate a few sub-sites to find them. Nor will any of this tell you pertinent details, such as the fact that you’re unlikely to meet anyone anywhere in the city on, say, a cold Tuesday in winter.
Toronto Tourism has taken a lot flack for not promoting homo Toronto but to its credit it has both a rainbow logo and “Proud Toronto” flag right on its main page. Good start. It’s just that the information is a little sketchy. There’s a link to the Toronto International Film Festival but not to Inside Out, links to the Drake and Bar Italia but not to Woody’s. There’s lots on how to get married in Toronto but nothing about how to have sex. There is lots on spas but nothing on saunas. Not a single bathhouse gets mentioned. C’mon, folks, people travel for a lot of reasons but one of them is sex and not to provide tourists with some basic information on local avenues of self-expression is self-defeating. I don’t know how many Americans I’ve directed over the years to Remington’s. The first thing every American seems to want to know is, “Where are the strip clubs?” The second thing is, “Do they take it all off?”
I have no idea why anyone wants to come to Toronto. It’s March and I’m having a hard time convincing myself that I want to be here let alone anyone else. But let’s just assume that they do. Shouldn’t we at least give them the information they’ll need to enjoy their stay? Stuff like who goes to what clubs on which nights and where you can catch a few rays or see a few queer films. This isn’t about altruism. It’s about survival and we owe it to ourselves to do it better.