Toronto
7 min

Won’t you be my neighbour?

Queers find serenity in the burbs

FAMILY OF FOUR. Humberto Carolo and David Burton and their matching basset hounds living it up suburban style. Credit: Joshua Meles

When Humberto Carolo and his partner David Burton first decided to make the move to the suburbs they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into.



“We were apprehensive,” says Carolo. “We’re a couple, we’re out and we were afraid we were going to land in heterosexual land.”



They’re part of what may be a growing trend – homos choosing to settle in the suburbs, long considered the stronghold of the heterosexual lifestyle.



“It’s not what we had expected,” says Carolo. “We thought we were going to be the odd couple on the street, but we’re not. There’s definitely an interesting pattern, sort of a gay exodus to small towns.”



As an outreach worker for the Aids Committee Of Toronto, Carolo knows all too well that the burbs are still a hard place for queers.



“I work with a lot of queer youth that continue to tell me that life in small towns is very difficult. Everybody wants to come to the big gay city and I could count myself as one of them.”



Carolo says he hasn’t forgotten how isolated he felt growing up in small town Portugal.



“When I moved to Canada I thought ‘Woo hoo! I’m gonna live in the big city and to hell with small town life,'” he says. But in the end the charms of suburban living called him back.



“I enjoyed [living in Toronto] but I started to long for small town life – that easygoing atmosphere. I wanted to get away from the concrete jungle.”



So he and Burton gave up their penthouse apartment at Sherbourne and Bloor and started hunting for a new love nest a year-and-a-half ago.



“We came across a new subdivision right on the lake, right beside a conservation area. It was beautiful, a pond and then the lake further on. It’s all nicely landscaped.”



Once they’d established their interest in a home, they shared their concerns with their real estate agent.



“We very quietly asked, ‘Have you sold any houses to other same-sex couples?’ and she said, ‘Oh yes, lots!’ and started pointing them out.” She told them that there was even a street nearby nicknamed “lesbian row.”



“As time went by we met more and more same-sex couples. Right at the entrance of the subdivision there’s a great big house with a great big rainbow flag on the outside of the house.”



Carolo says that one of the best things about the suburbs are all the green spaces close by.



“It’s even better than Cherry Beach,” says Carolo. “People will know what I mean by that. There is lots of sex in the parks, but there’s lots of police activity, too.”



***

Cindy Wahbroth and Fran Mutton toyed with the idea of springing for a swank little downtown condo when they first decided to buy a place together. But in the end they settled on a spacious home in downtown Oshawa, “a quiet older part of town, an established neighbourhood.”



“I guess you’re either cut out for the city or you’re not,” says Wahbroth. “The hustle and the bustle and all the people…. We wanted something a little more peaceful.”



But what they’ve gained in size and serenity, they lack in queer social spaces.



“We’re constantly trying to make our own place to party because we can’t find what we want,” says Mutton.



For a brief while, the region boasted not just one, but two queer bars – a rarity in the burbs. Divas, a drag and dinner destination, was run by two gay men up from Toronto trying to make a go of it.



“People gave their time to try to make it work,” says Wahbroth, who would waitress there occasionally.



“It’s not that we wanted them to be a success,” adds Mutton. “We wanted a place to go.”



The women say that Club 717 – run by the local non-profit organization the Durham Alliance Association – lacks the flare and ambiance of Divas. It’s located smack dab in the middle of an industrial park.



“It’s so underground that even the taxi driver didn’t know that there was a gay bar in the neighbourhood,” Mutton says of their last visit.



“There was one incident where someone threw something at the window. It was plexiglass, it bounced.”



And then there’s the bar in Whitby, appropriately named The Bar.



Wahbroth explains that it had been a Newfie bar before it was overrun with queers.



“It’s often the way gay bars become gay in the burbs,” she says, adding that it only takes a couple of queers to start a run on an otherwise straight bar. “Word gets out that that’s where people go.”



***

Ian McCallum, co-chair of Pride York Region, thinks that queers have been colonizing the burbs for quite sometime now.



“I think it’s been steady,” he says. “I think they’ve been there all along.”



McCallum has lived in Richmond Hill for the past 20 years but only came out six years ago, which caused a bit of stir on his quiet residential street. The next door neighbour that he’d chatted with amiably for the previous 15 years didn’t take too kindly to suddenly finding herself living alongside a homo.



“They said to another neighbour that they were going to move [rather than live next to a me],” he says. But the second neighbour turned around and offered their support to McCallum and others followed suit. Now he says he has a better relationship with his neighbours than he did in all the years he lived there as a straight man.



And McCallum says that his problem neighbour is finally coming around. She shovelled out McCallum’s driveway after the last big snowfall of the winter – an all-important indicator of neighbourly goodwill.



McCallum says it’s a lot harder finding other queers out in the burbs.



“There’s no gay community up here, there’s no place. There’s no bar, no coffee shop, no drop-in centre. But there are a lot of gay people up here.”



He first connected to the local scene after reading about the group Gays And Lesbians Association Of York Region (GLAYR) in Xtra. He ventured out to a couple of meetings and wound up on the board of directors, eventually becoming president.



McCallum has since moved on to Pride York Region, where he and co-chair Cheryl Cooke Harrington, have been busy wrangling Pride proclamations out of the municipalities that make up the region. Last year they scored eight out of nine of the municipalities – Vaughan was the stickler.



But having Markham mayor Don Cousens declare Pride Day was particularly satisfying, says McCallum. Back in 1994, Cousens voted against same-sex spousal rights as a Tory MPP and in 2000 he tried to have a PFLAG [Parents And Friends of Lesbians And Gays] billboard taken down on the grounds that it was too controversial. The billboard read, “Someone you know and love is gay.”



“I think that was a huge step for us getting the Pride proclamation in Markham,” he says. “You just have to know how to twist the right arms.”



But getting other queers involved in the region is a challenge.



“Our biggest problem is community support. People tend to be very insular. There’s no community as such. Everyone has gay friends but it’s always little groups.



“A big part of the problem is that we’re too close to Toronto. If someone wants a gay event they’ll hop in the car and come down to Toronto…. It is a huge support because all the services are here, but it’s also a huge detractor because we can’t build them here ourselves.”



***

Nancy Davis lives up in Richmond Hill with her partner Marg Tope, their five-year-old son and their 19-month-old twins.



“Since we’ve had kids we couldn’t hide anything ’cause that sends a message to the kids. So we outed ourselves just before the babies were born.



“I really didn’t think that they were too cool with the two mom’s thing,” she says of her neighbours, but adds that when the twins arrived they came by with gifts. Like Carolo, Davis says they were lucky to land in a neighbourhood with so many out or supportive folks.



“The person who set up PFLAG York Region lives three doors down…. There are a number of [queer] people on this crescent. That’s just pure luck.”



It’s also lucky that Tope was able to transfer to a position as vice principal at the school where their oldest son is currently attending senior kindergarten.



Davis and Tope moved out to Richmond Hill ten years ago from an apartment they shared at Kipling and Eglinton. Although they don’t get down to Church St much now that they’ve got kids, Davis says she’s glad to know it’s there when they need it.



“We went out last year sometime and had dinner downtown on Church St. It’s nice to know there is a place where you can relax.



“We used to play hockey down there on Friday nights… and we came for a couple of protests around legislation. We used to go to Pope Joan’s, though it wasn’t called that then.



“We’re kind of boring now actually. We don’t really stay up late. These guys get up early,” she says, referring to the howling babies in the background.



***

Marcus Logan and his partner moved to Oakville from downtown Toronto four years ago and found a community they could commit to.



“I find that we know more people and we’re much more involved in the community,” says Logan. “I’m the type of guy who likes the beginnings of things, so when we moved out there we immediately got involved with the first Pride Day they were having.”



Since then he’s become involved in half-a-dozen committees around the region including the local anti-homophobia group, youth support group and queer parents group.



“There is no Church and Wellesely in Oakville so we’ve helped develop these kinds of groups to help people come out and fight any homophobia that’s out there.”



Logan says the key to being comfortable in the burbs is to be comfortable with yourself and to make the effort to get to know folks.



“My advice is get out in your community, talk to your neighbours. We stopped gardening and started talking, invited people into our home. Then people see that we’re no different then they are.”



Logan is currently working to organize Halton’s fourth annual Pride Picnic, complete with pickup baseball game and three-legged races.



“There’s been so many great things that have come out the picnic. People knowing that there are other gay people in Halton and Oakville, gay parents meeting other gay parents. We always have a big kid’s section with face painting and that sort of thing.



“We’d love anyone from Toronto to come to Halton Pride and enjoy the day,” he adds. “Bring a picnic basket and a blanket and hopefully we’ll have sun.”



* To get involved with Pride York Region e-mail yorkpride@yahoo.ca or go to www.gaycanada.com/-prideyorkregion. For more info on Gays And Lesbians Of York Region (GLAYR) check out www.gaycanada.com/glayr.



* Halton Pride can be reached at info@haltonpride.org or by phone at (905) 690-4986. Their annual Pride Picnic will be held on Sat, Jun 7 at Bronte Provincial Park in Oakville.