The ‘Pride’ celebration in Toronto is a daily feature on the social feeds of several friends. It looks fun, colourful, inclusive and with just the right amount of political and social commentary. The posts help me realise that I don’t know much at all about gay history or life here, or the motivation behind the celebration. It doesn’t feel right to be as ignorant about something that’s clearly so important to some of my friends. Time to get my running shoes on and go to school! 

To begin this week’s learning I have a look at the ‘Driftscape’ App that features material from an organisation called ‘Queerstory’ (https://www.queerstory.ca/), and skim and follow links until I find something that really catches my attention.

“I have never felt that I had to change or do anything that wasn’t natural to me. I will never, ever be some kind of wishy-washy creature that pretends or lets others guide me. I guide my life. It is mine. No matter what anyone says, I’m going to be Jackie. That’s all I can be. That’s all I know. It’s what I feel from my heart and my soul. If I was not doing what makes me live the way I do, makes me think, makes me feel, makes me be the person I am, then there’s no point in me being at all. I’ve got to be who I am. Most people are planted in someone else’s soil, which means they’re a carbon copy. I say to them, uproot yourself. Get into your own soil. You may be surprised who you really are.”

I read this and know that I want to know more about the speaker. Then I hear her sing…

This is Tina Turner, Little Richard, and James Brown meets the Northern Soul and Ska sounds of my youth. There are chord changes and grooves in there that a remix DJ could blend seamlessly with Hendrix (listen to ‘Walking The Dog” alongside ‘Foxy Lady’ and ‘Can You See Me’). And a controlled rawness that suggests the earth using a human voice as a conduit for ‘original expression’. This is fantastic. This is Jackie Shane.

I listen – and read – on. Jackie was a black transgender artist who for a few years in the mid to late 60’s was one of the most popular singers in Toronto. By all accounts she never tried to hide any aspect of herself, appearing dressed in a way that caused many to ask if she as male or female and encouraging people to express themselves any which way they chose. “Baby, do what you want, just know what you’re doing” she’d rap between verses in the song ‘Money’, “as long as you don’t force your will or your way on anybody else, live your life, because there ain’t nobody sanctified and holy…”. 

With those words Jackie was urging us to climb out of the coffins that are there to compartmentalise personal issues like gender, or how we express ourselves creatively, and once we get clear of them to look at ourselves and society with clearer vision. David Bowie and Will Munro also offered us the same advice, and in doing so they all helped to create fertile ground for increased personal contentment and harmony, as well as societal change.

I understand that I’m being very basic in my introduction but one of the points of these learning/relearning runs is to face up to how little I know, and to do so in plain language. To admit ignorance, to own it and talk of it, and then to attempt to change the situation for the better. We also, I think, need to relearn trust for the media, and that starts with people like me not hiding behind words or using them for some other purpose than honest communication. Keep it simple, keep it honest, don’t try to convince anybody I’m smart, just talk straight from the heart. Write like I’m offering a Swahili handshake. That’s where I’m coming from.

I discover a little more – where Jackie used to play in Toronto, the location of her mural downtown – and am eager to construct a run to see it all but decide to learn more about the history of the gay scene in Toronto first. Intending to spend a few post-breakfast hours researching I find so much material that it seems wise to settle in for the day and postpone the run.

A couple of links I would advise anybody interested in recent gay history in Toronto to check out are;

1/ The 1981 Toronto bathhouse riots

2/ https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5216&v=iN4_8eurids&feature=emb_logo This 90 minute film (which is also embedded in the article above), is an introduction to the recent history of the Toronto gay scene focusing on the 1981 Bathhouse police raids/abuse and subsequent protests. It’s an excellent film that really added to my understanding

3/ This wiki link is also very good for LGBTQ info in general – https://lgbt.wikia.org/wiki/Main_Page

The next morning I’ve a long list of places to visit and an easy run to start with along College St through Little Italy, heading for the newly renovated ‘El Mocambo’ club on Spadina Ave.

Just after I’ve passed Sneaky Dee’s I’m stopped sharply by this sculpture outside St Stephen in the Fields Church. It reminds me of the ‘Anonymous’ statue in Budapest and it’s positioning – low on the ground, devoid of pedestal, and not drawing any attention to itself in any way – makes it all the more powerful. The statue, created by sculptor Timothy Schmalz (who also has his work installed in churches in Rome and at the Vatican), is titled ‘Jesus the Panhandler’. It offers a visual representation of charity, and is a reference to Jesus’s statement, “Whatsoever you do for the least of these, you do it for me.”

There is no explanation board or title displayed so passers by are asked to consider, who could this beggar be? Somebody we know? Us? So many of us are just a few paychecks away from this reality. Covid has put many out of work and the governmental handouts aren’t available for everybody. According to a recent city survey, more than 5,000 people are homeless in Toronto, including an increasing number of seniors. Some spend the night in shelters, others in parks and ravines, or on street corners. Some, especially those who sleep outdoors, rely on panhandling for their basic needs.

The panhandler depicted by this bronze cast is a silent, huddled figure, a person whom crowds walk by and ignore. But if you look carefully at his hands you will see the stigmata, the wounds of Christ.

This sculpture asks us to look again, and to look carefully, and to see that the person before us is, indeed, the presence of Christ for us in this moment. Christ comes to us in the hungry, the needy, the marginalized and lonely, and demands our response.

“Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (from the First Letter of John).

Seeing this message is, I believe, a perfect way to start today’s run. Whatever our gender, our colour, our faith, or our species, we are each the incarnation of that which we worship. We would do well to bear this in mind as we make our way through this short life that we’ve been gifted.

Just around the corner is El Mocambo.

Will Munro – a gay artist, club promoter, activist, and fellow vegan – will be the first influential gay figure I meet on my running tour today (he’ll also be the final; I’ll finish at the cafe he co-founded on Queen West, ‘The Beaver’). He hosted the hybrid music and art parties ‘Vazaleen’ at El Mocambo in the early-2000’s as a way of creating an inclusive venue outside of the city’s Church Street scene. He said at the time of starting the club, “I’d like to do something that’ll encompass all the freaks out there, myself included…”

“When I started doing Vazaleen I was like, finally there is a space where you can do fucking anything and no one is going to turn their nose up at you.” Will Munro.

Toronto has seemed a beige, cold, frightened, bloodless sort of city at times since I arrived in 2015 but learning about Will, his work and his friends has helped me see it as far more human, and admirable. In the online interviews and statements I’ve found he comes across as sweet, humorous and inclusive when discussing and planning his work, and rarely with a bad word to say about anybody. Other artists may ‘wow’ you with their work – prolific, inventive, and fascinating Picasso is a fine example. But when you read about how he lived, his tantrums, his poor treatment of people around him, the self aggrandisement, he comes across as the sort of guy you wouldn’t want to spend much time around. Will is different. His work is good and occasionally great yet where he consistently shines is in his daily life, how he treated others and offered hope and inspiration, and also stayed alive as an artist whilst fight a continual battle against a conservative, claustrophobic, homophobic and frightened society. Hence I believe that to get the most from Will you need to spend some time around the work and interviews he left behind, as well as commentaries that others have made.

Here’s a short intro to his work. The first video features footage of his club nights at El Mocambo.

And Will talking about being an artist.

I really enjoyed this next short film by Will. The music, footage and feel has clear lineage from Warhol’s ‘Factory’ and The Velvet Underground but it’s also very much its own thing.

‘Now’ magazine wrote of Will’s club night, “These days it’s normal in Toronto for hip gay scenes to flourish outside of the queer centre and to attract a wide spectrum of genders and orientations, but that didn’t really happen until Vazaleen took off and became a veritable community for everyone who didn’t fit into the mainstream homo world. For too long, it was too rare to see dykes, fags, trans people, and breeders hanging out together, and Munro changed that.”

First new word of the day for me (and there will be many) is ‘breeders’. In short, Breeder is a slang term (either joking or derogatory) used to describe straight people, primarily by gays. But like much terminology it’s not as simple as that and since it’s easy to trip yourself up or offend by getting things mixed up, it’s not a bad idea to check the urban dictionary – https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Breeder

Finally, you can find out more about Will Munro here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Munro

And his parties at El Mocambo here – https://www.queerstory.ca/project/el-mocambo/

Whilst researching the El Mocambo venue I also discovered that the Rolling Stones recorded a live album there in 1977. You can hear the Stones ‘Route 66’ live at El Mocambo here.

Other acts to have played El Mocambo include Blondie, U2, Duran Duran, Jimi Hendrix and The Cars. I’d have liked to have worked as a sound man from, say, ‘67 to ‘83, what a life that would’ve been! A general history of the El Mocambo venue is here – https://torontoist.com/2014/09/a-brief-history-of-the-legendary-el-mocambo/

I jog down Spadina with the Stones’ Route 66 playing on the headphones, it’s a solid running soundtrack as I veer right into Kensington Market, a favourite part of Toronto for me. It’s where I stayed when I first visited the city in 2012. There’s more than a hint of the optimism, equality and energy of the 60’s here, every second person seems like an individual (which is a pretty good average in a modern city) and they know it. I love the place.

Heading through central Toronto I pass ‘The Corners’, the area around the intersection of Bay St and Queen St which in the 1940’s and 50’s was a mingling point for closeted Bay Street business, rent boys, and straight trade. Along Richmond now, not so much traffic makes for easy running, and the sky is dramatic.

Before long I’m at 20 Richmond Street East, home to Confederation Life Insurance and formerly a live music venue called the Saphire Tavern.

It was here at The Saphire that Jackie Shane had a residency in the 60’s, recorded her live album in 1967, and made a name for herself as an astonishing talent. She had chances to make a bigger name for herself outside of Toronto but she wasn’t willing to be anything other than herself and at the time, being herself wasn’t acceptable most places. When a scout from the Ed Sullivan show asked her to appear Jackie turned them down flat. “His scout came and said: ‘You’re going to have to do this without makeup,’” she explained in an interview with The Guardian. “I said: ‘Please stuff it.’ Ed Sullivan looks like something Dr Frankenstein had a hand in. He’s going to tell me what to do?” There was also interest from large record labels such as Atlantic, but still the answer was no. “I’ve never really wanted to record,” she said. “I get my charge from performing in front of people. That’s my energy.” Here’s a paragraph about Jackie from a CBC article.

“Jackie Shane is a soul singer born in Nashville who, after moving to Canada, built a loyal audience on Toronto’s Yonge Street strip in the ’60s. Shane, a black transgender artist with a riveting, distinct voice and look, drew large crowds and even had a top 10 hit in Toronto with her song ‘Any Other Way’, which helped to shape the Toronto Sound. Today, she identifies as a transgender woman, but long before there was a vocabulary to describe who she was, she was just Jackie – one-of-a-kind, proud and powerful.”

You can hear the full CBC interview with Jackie here – https://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/friday-feb-8-2019-david-foster-jackie-shane-and-more-1.5009904/the-late-jackie-shane-in-her-own-words-a-rare-interview-with-the-pioneering-musician-1.5010217

And here’s another good article – http://www.myseumoftoronto.com/programming/jackie-shane/

I have great respect for Jackie. She was black, gender queer and brilliant at a time when Toronto – and the music business in general – didn’t particularly respect any of those things. If like me you don’t quite understand what ‘gender queer’ or non-binary’ mean, it’s worth checking this wiki page out for an introduction – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-binary_gender

You may also enjoy learning about Fa-afafine. Many say the future isn’t binary. A brief study of the spaces between the lines of history tells us that the past certainly wasn’t, either. 

Jackie had a strong musical pedigree, was by all accounts a fantastic drummer, and played alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Etta James. I put on her version of ‘Shotgun’ and head up Yonge St, once home to numerous bars where Jackie would have also played along with some of the great names in music at the time.

At 333 Yonge used to be Le Coq d-Or Tavern, then comes 351 Yonge which was the location of A&A Records where interest in Jackie’s career was rekindled thanks to members of the public asking for copies of her single ‘Any Other Way’. Staff had to go to Buffalo in the States to order copies and it was shortly after this increase in sales that arrangements were made to record a live album of Jackie at the Saphire Tavern. ‘Shotgun’ has finished on my headphones and now comes her version of ‘Money’, complete with her rap about walking up Yonge St…

I pass the still functioning Zanzibar and come to 372 Yonge, the site of The Blue Note. It’s now a falafel and kebab joint, with shisha lounge upstairs.

The club was popular with well-known international artists such as Stevie Wonder, the Righteous Brothers, and the Supremes, who performed impromptu late-night sets there after giving concerts at major venues elsewhere in the city. Jackie also performed here at times. Along with El Mocambo, The Blue Note is another venue where I’d have loved to have been a sound engineer!

At 423 Yonge there’s a couple of huge musical murals on the building’s ends. Jackie Shane is pictured halfway up one side.

I think she would’ve been thrilled to be featured here. She loved Toronto, as is clear from this quote from her last interview before she passed away in February, 2019.

“One cannot choose where one is born, but you can choose your home. I chose Toronto. I love Toronto. I love Canadian people. I consider myself a part of them. The Canadian people have been so good to me. At first, there were people who are ignorant and talk and talk and don’t know what they’re talking about. They were curious, but when they got to know me and we grew to love one another – I loved them first. I had to. I could not allow myself to be angry. We became real lovers. I love Toronto.”

These 2 walls of street art really are impressive. I make a note to learn more about the figures portrayed in them – they’ll likely be a window into the history of the local music scene – and Adrian Hayles, the artist who painted them. Fantastic work. 

These links tell about the artist, and more about the murals.

https://sidewalkhustle.com/adrian-hayles-the-artist-behind-the-yonge-street-murals/

https://nowtoronto.com/music/features/toronto-is-getting-a-giant-mural-dedicated-to-the-yonge-street-music-scene/

Carrying on I pass the corner where straight people would stand to throw eggs at drag queens on Halloween in the 70’s and 80’s, and 2 of the most important gay venues of the 1980’s; at 488 is the site of The St Charles Hotel, and at 530 is The Parkside Tavern. I learnt about them from the film I told you of earlier. There’s a good article about ‘Stages’, a club above the Parkside, here – http://thenandnowtoronto.com/2014/10/then-now-stages/#more-1227

Here’s an excerpt from the article.

“The Parkside’s owners allowed police to regularly spy on patrons in the washrooms, waiting to nab men engaged in any sort of sexual acts. Arrests were made, and the practice continued throughout the 1970s, even as gay activists organized leafleting campaigns and called for boycotts of the bar.

These conflicts were characteristic of the time. During the mid-to-late-1970s, Yonge Street was the main artery of Toronto gay social life (it would shift to Church in the mid-1980s)….

“Those were the days when, on Halloween, people would throw eggs and ink at drag queens,” says Arnie Kliger, the man who would open ‘Stages’. “It also wasn’t particularly safe for gays to walk around the side streets.”

Kliger had both safety and glamour in mind when he worked with partner Stephen Cohen to open after-hours gay disco ‘Stages’. Its location, above The Parkside, had housed numerous clubs since the late-’60s, among them The August Club, Mama Cooper’s, The Milkbar, Quasimodo, and Bimbo’s.”

The site of the Parkside Tavern and ‘Stages’ nightclub.

I turn into Wellesley and reach Church, a centrepoint for today’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer communities in Toronto.

Like Kensington it’s a homely place for those who enjoy an honest vibe. For me it’s also an easier place to be; there’s more space in the streets to move, and the artwork is heavy on loving acceptance and less so on revolutionary edge. Life also feels softer here, more gentle, although that’s likely just because of my pre-conceptions of the LGBTQ communities and the fact that I only come here in the middle of the day. A person well embedded on the local scene may see it through a very different lens. This short video tells of one of the art installations – https://www.queerstory.ca/project/nataliewood/

I run back to Yonge St via Isabella, which in the 70’s and 80’s was a street that Toronto police identified as a focal point for prostitution. There’s a large congregation of people living in tents along a strip of greenery there today. I’ve read that it’s safer to live in tents at the moment as the likelihood of getting Covid, or your stuff stolen, at homeless shelters is high. Shelters also have curfews which makes finding work (much of which is shift based) more difficult. The atmosphere among the people congregating around the tents is akin to a cultural festival, I can see why folks opt for this way of living in the summer if they’re having problems finding or affording an apartment.

I cross Yonge (just north of here is the Bloor/Yonge subway where police officers used to crawl into air vents above the public toilets and try to catch gays ‘in the act’) and head down tranquil backstreets towards sites associated with the 1981 bathhouse raids and subsequent protests. For those unaware of the raids, here’s a paragraph from the Daily Xtra that gives a brief intro.

“On Feb 5, 1981, more than 150 Toronto police descended on that city’s gay bathhouses, arresting more than 300 innocent men. It was part of a deliberate and organized campaign by government and police to push gay baths and bars out of business, to silence the gay press and to remove gay voices from public discourse.”

You can read much more about the bathhouse raids here – https://www.dailyxtra.com/the-1981-toronto-bathhouse-riots-34317

The first site I pass is of one of the bath houses, the ‘Romans II Health and Recreation Spa’ at 742 Bay St. There’s no sign of the spa now. Next up is the Precinct 52 police station. The officers from this station were well known for their antisocial behaviour in the 70’s and 80’s and it was here that the protests after the bathhouse raids first centred. 

Here’s a short video about the protests. The crowds were demanding police accountability to gay and other minority communities facing police harassment. Sadly, there were several members of the Toronto Secret Police identified within the parade, amping up the volume and anger in order to give the parade a bad public image – https://www.queerstory.ca/project/52-division/

Later I’ll pass the site of ‘The Barracks’ bathhouse at 56 Widmer St. where one of the most shocking incidents of the raids occured. While detaining some naked men inside a shower room there, a police officer pointed to the shower pipes and said “gee, it’s too bad we can’t hook this up to the gas”.

Later, one Jewish man present whose parents had survived the Nazi holocaust said the whole police operation had helped him understand his parents’ experiences back in a concentration camp on an emotional level, whereas before he’d understood it only intellectually. The Blitzkrieg style of police operation – swift, noisy, violent, malicious – the gratuitous violence he saw as police officers smashed up the spa buildings for no reason, the way the police made men strip naked and stand in the showers, it was clear that some cops were very mentally troubled at the time. “I’m just doing my job,” said one cop to the Jewish man in question. How many times did the Jews in Europe hear Nazi’s saying that, I wonder?

No wonder the gay community protested after these raids. 

Leaving Precinct 52 I run to Grange Park, where the first Pride Parade began on 28th June 1981, the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Protests in New York. There’d been months of protests associated with the Bathhouse Raids and some members of the gay community began to think that they wanted to celebrate and be proud of their community rather than just protest injustices perpetrated against it. That’s how the Toronto Pride parade came into being. The crowds congregated in the park then marched up Yonge St, you can see a nice video of this parade here https://www.queerstory.ca/project/pride-picnic-1981/

Next I pass 24 Duncan St, once home of the influential newspaper ‘The Body Politic’. This was a monthly magazine published from 1971 to 1987 that was one of Canada’s first significant gay publications, playing a prominent role in the development of the LGBTQ community in Canada.

See a short video of the Body Politic and its role in the protests here – https://www.queerstory.ca/project/the-body-politic-1981/

Nearby is Widmer St; the site of ‘The Barracks’ bathhouse is now given over to construction.

I read a few paragraphs about the raids from the Canadian Encyclopedia. “Bathhouse patrons were subjected to excessive behaviour by police, including verbal taunts about their sexuality. When the night was over, 286 men were charged for being found in a common bawdy house (a brothel), while 20 were charged for operating a bawdy house. It was, up to that time, the largest single arrest in Toronto’s history. Most of those arrested were found innocent of the charges. The raids marked a turning point for Toronto’s gay community, as the protests that followed indicated they would no longer endure derogatory treatment from the police, media and the public.”

Read the full encyclopedia entry here – https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/toronto-feature-bathhouse-raids

To get an idea of the atmosphere within which the police acted on the night of the raid here’s an editorial from the March 1979 edition of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Association (MTPA) newsletter ‘News & Views’, written by Staff Sergeant Tom Moclair, a 22-year veteran of 14 Division.

“I was saddened and desolated that the Mayor of Toronto recently sanctioned acts of perversion which symptomize the decadence of our society in his liberal and flippant show of appreciation to a few hundred homosexuals who helped him get elected. These “weirdos” may need our tolerance and acceptance, but certainly not our approval to continue their psychological sickness in foisting their acts of depravity on the long-suffering public.

Segments of our society suffering from homosexuality which calls itself “homophile,” “gays,” “fags,” and “fruits,” etc., provide us with a vivid example of how far we in Canada have gone down the “road to debauchery.” Just look at them; victims of emotional sickness, misfits of their environments, attempting to turn their aberration into a right, as well as a virtue.

Just listen to them talk (if you can stomach them); and they sure like to talk, because talk is a penchant of homosexuality especially in the physically deprived and cowardly male. If you were ignorant of what they are and what they represent, you would think that their type of deviance was a valuable asset. But let us remember that homosexuality is nothing new. Many cultures throughout history have dealt with them almost universally with disdain, disgust, abhorrence, and even death.”

It was probably considered normal to hold these views in straight white society back then – I certainly remember similar views being expressed by adults around me when I was a kid in the 70’s – so I’m not singling the guy out but still, it’s quite unbelievable that a Staff Sergeant in the Toronto Police Force would think it was ok to write this. He must have been so sure of his immunity, that as a police officer he could do as he wished. Much the same as the 4 police officers who murdered George Floyd on camera must have felt. More on this story here – https://torontoist.com/2016/06/historicist-all-the-news-views-that-arent-fit-to-print/

I’m on my way home now along Graffiti Alley, where I see there’s been a large amount of powerful new work done. We absolutely need more than street art and a few changes of places and products named after slavers or racist concepts but it’s good to see the creatives doing what they can here…

…and then past The Beaver Cafe, which is closed at the moment. I’m unsure if this is just because of Covid or not. A paragraph from the cafe website – 

“The Beaver Café is a queer and alt-culture oasis located in the heart of Queen West. Established in 2006 by Lynn McNeill and his then business partner Will Munro, The Beaver was ahead of the wave that has transformed the neighbourhood into a hub of dining and nightlife.” There’s a nice article written from a personal perspective about Will Munro and The Beaver here – https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/vvnyyb/will-munro-the-beaver-toronto-lgbtq-collage-series

If the cafe opens again after the pandemic I’m going to visit. I like the history, it’s statement of tolerance and encouagement of creativity, and the prices on the menu look fair, too. 

Half an hour later I’m home, decompressing. It’s been a hot half marathon run, certainly, but there’s also been a lot of thoughts that need to be filtered and acted upon, as well as songs and artwork to be enjoyed and appreciated. 

My 13.1 mile route.

I started out with Jackie Shane as my guide and I’m still eager to explore all her music but learning about Will Munro has been an act of unearthing unexpected treasure. My own five years in Toronto have seemed largely devoid of depth when it comes to art. The art openings and galleries I’ve visited, and the modern work I’ve seen, have mostly been corporate, bloodless affairs created, it appeared, by those who wished to have dialogue with the bank manager rather than the subject of art itself. But Will, and his legacy of living bravely, actually being interested in art more than money, and clearly referencing idols that gel with me (such as Klaus Nomi, an artist I’ve been introduced to via Will – see his collaboration with David Bowie here), have stirred strong feelings of creating in a free, accepting, honest and inclusive way; something I haven’t done 100% for many years.

Perhaps a key to finding your own voice is taking a step to the side and looking at the landscape from a different perspective. It’s a tricky business but we can be thankful that there is help on hand, from the examples that Jackie Shane, Will Munro and so many others from the LGBTQ community have set for us all. 

I found this collection of letters to Will inspiring. https://www.cbc.ca/arts/dear-will-munro-love-letters-to-a-beloved-artist-and-community-builder-10-years-after-his-passing-1.5577223

And, by way of goodbye for now, here’s one more from Jackie.