At the end of this shitty day I find myself running away to Church St. It’s pouring out, there’s folk pop playing at Lettieri’s, gay boys in baseball caps, solitary old men, middle-aged white women and here I sit feeling completely at home without really knowing why. I feel a sense of ownership over this piece of Toronto even though I wasn’t born here, have never lived here, am regularly not represented here.
In memory, my first trip tothe village was like a carnival sideshow: perpetual Pride, coloured lights twinkling, a group of girls in skater shoes smuggling beer into a cab, getting wet just by sitting on each others’ laps. I took pictures of bra straps on somebody’s balcony, felt giddy ’cause it was such a novelty to be queer then. I had keys to the garden, the bridge to Terabithia and I kept going back from my so-called life to the secret land of magic at the end of Wellesley station.
Church St was high contrast to Scarborough. It was amazing not to be stared at. I was enthralled with the sight of girls kissing, girls holding hands spilling out of apartment buildings and coffee shops. I felt like there were thousands of them until I realized that they rarely stayed anywhere for more than 10 minutes and spent most club nights making drama in different places. I remember seeing my first drag queen show and thinking they were more “out” than any of us because they were the furthest from “natural” (did I think they looked like that all the time?).
Back then I painted everyone with the same rainbow brush. We were all “gay” so we were a) on the same side, b) experiencing similar struggles, c) interested in collective progress and d) mutually respectful. I didn’t notice that gay men ran most things, that white queers ran most things, that so many people were high, that lesbian venues were closets beside the gay male mansions.
I link my first years on Church St with the film I Shot Andy Warhol and Ani’s album Out Of Range. Activism was so much simpler for me then; there was the “gay” fight, which became the “queer” fight,” which became the “mixed race” fight, became the “boi” fight, became the “body image” fight, became the “depression” fight, which is now becoming the “Why do I have this sneaking suspicion that the external fights might be waged within me?” fight.
I was full of the anger that feels like fun, knee-jerk anger that comes with your first realization that something is wrong. You don’t really get how widespread the problems are, how ingrained they are in both the world and in your head. You don’t really get life after the rally. Activism back then was bitching at straight boys and telling off your family, speaking out in class and writing essays about how the curriculum is fixed to oppress you (because back then it was, most often, All About Me).
It’s less sparkly here now; have they taken some lights down? The bars change, the ads change, but the people change less and I relax inside my skin here even though I haven’t seen a lesbian my age all night. I think about the myth that lesbians are happy to cuddle indoors on rainy nights like this, with their lovers and their cats. We are definitely not always doing that, not always happy or cuddling, with cats, or indoors.
I remember laughing 10 years ago at someone’s imitation of straight people walking through the village, how they cling to each other like climbers on a cliff. It’s not so funny now that I recognize lesbian couples do that, too, and that maybe the only thing we really all share is insecurity. Some nights I have more in common with those straight couples clinging to each other than I do to the cool collected lesbians with hair in their eyes, who smile like it hurts and check me out only to see ifI was watching them first.
Are we all just looking for home? I don’t come here to feel queer anymore, to feel defiant anymore or to see people who look like me. I come here instead, at least on nights like tonight, because it’s the only place in the city overrun by gay men, which means no one looks at me or notices me at all. Maybe I come here and feel at home because on a Wednesday night in the village I am completely invisible.
Maybe I love it because one day back in the 1990s I felt like it loved me and I am clinging to that connection, naive as it was, because back then the village was truly instrumental in saving my life.
Of course, my life still needs saving but the salvation is so much harder to find now. I look back with envy at the times when I thought all it took to fit in was a trip to Church and Wellesley, a rainbow bracelet, bad retro, a collection of people who looked freakier than me, someone to call me sweetheart, someone to poke fun at my army pants and someone to kiss me who wasn’t a boy.