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social sciences

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The largest city in Canada with 2,481,494 inhabitants and an urban area with a population of 4,366,508 (according to the 2001 census), Toronto is the capital of the province of Ontario, the center of Canada's financial industry, and the home of the largest concentration of Canada's cultural institutions, including three universities.

For diversity, Toronto has no rivals: over 100 languages are spoken and over 200 cultural groups are present, including the largest gay and lesbian community in Canada.

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Early History

The city was founded as York in 1793 and settled by Loyalists fleeing the newly independent United States. During the War of 1812, York was raided and pillaged by U. S. forces in 1813, leaving an enduring anti-American attitude. The city name was changed in 1834 to Toronto ("where there are trees in the water" in Mohawk). In the 1870s, the Industrial Revolution began to transform Toronto: between 1871 and 1891, the city's population tripled, and between 1891 and 1911, it doubled.

Toronto's gay history begins soon after its founding, when a successful merchant and justice of the peace, Alexander Wood, was accused of having misused his position to investigate the genitalia of young men. A similar scandal in 1838 involved George Herchmer Markland, the Inspector-General of Upper Canada. (Upper Canada was renamed Ontario upon Confederation in 1867.)

had been illegal from colonial times, and this prohibition was included in the Consolidated Statutes of Canada in 1859. The Canadian Criminal Code introduced the crime of "gross indecency" in 1890; and in 1892 a "bawdy house" law was passed to discourage prostitution.

Nevertheless, as Toronto grew, the city acquired more visible signs of gay activity. For example, by the turn of the twentieth century, the glory holes at Union Station, Toronto's main train station, were considered noteworthy in the memoirs of Gordon Hill Graham.

The Growth of a Subculture

The surreptitious nature of the gay subculture endured through the 1950s. However, by World War II, Toronto had a well established network of parks, laneways, bathhouses, and bars where men searched for other men for sex: Queen's Park, Allen Gardens, Sunnyside Beach, the YMCA.

Toronto's police were vigilant, and arrests for gross indecency were made of clerks and barbers, machinists and bookkeepers. During the 1950s, even private parties were not safe from police raids.

was given public expression each Halloween, when a mob gathered in front of the St. Charles Tavern on Yonge Street in order to jeer and pellet patrons, especially drag queens. (The police stopped this harassment in 1980.)

Despite this difficult atmosphere, by the 1950s there was not only a full panoply of laws used to restrict homosexuality, but also a growing gay and lesbian community in an increasingly diverse Toronto.

Lesbian History

While there is little evidence for Toronto's lesbian history before World War II, by the 1950s, lesbians gathered at the Continental Bar. As the feminist movement grew in the 1960s, lesbians worked within women's organizations, such as The Women's Place. There were few proponents of lesbian separatism.

The first national lesbian conference was held at the Toronto YWCA in 1973, and The Toronto Women's Bookstore opened soon after. In 1977, the Lesbian Organisation of Toronto (LOOT) was established as an umbrella organization open to all lesbians but ceased its activities in 1981. In 1984, Lesbians of Colour was formed.

New Attitudes

The first attempt to put homosexuality in a positive light was carried out by Jim Egan, who submitted articles and letters to such tabloids as Toronto's True News Times in the 1960s. The Maison de Lys, the first club where gay men and lesbians could go for same-sex dancing, opened in 1961; and the first organized, positive discussions of homosexuality occurred in the mid-1960s at the Music Room, a gay club. Such efforts were the beginnings of an attempt to build Toronto's own gay culture.

In 1969, the criminal code was amended to exempt from prosecution private, consensual sexual activities by adults of at least 21 years of age. This change marked a new attitude toward homosexuality.

Gay Political and Cultural Organizations

Gay political life began with the establishment of the University of Toronto Homophile Association (UTHA) in 1969, joined by the Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT) in 1970. (CHAT died in 1977; the university group continues to this day.)

These early groups were replaced by organizations advocating gay liberation, such as the Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE) of Toronto. The national voice of gay liberation became The Body Politic, established in Toronto in November 1971 and lasting until 1987.

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Top: A nighttime view of Toronto's downtown core. Photograph by Scott Wilkinson.
Above: A street scene in Toronto's gay village near the intersection of Church and Wellesley streets.

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