Sunday, 27 June 2010

Toronto and Civil Liberties

News of heavy-handed police tactics in Toronto, following protests around the G20 summit, reminded me of the force's dubious track record when it comes to civil liberties.

This is something I researched a few years ago as part of my MA dissertation, which was on depictions of Toronto in Canadian literature. Concentrating a great deal on the history of minorities in the city, a troubling picture emerged of Toronto's police force, particularly in their attitude towards the city's gay residents.

I managed to secure an interview with Margaret Atwood, and her incisive comments on the situation are contained within the article.


Toronto’s gay district is situated to the east of the downtown area, and centres around the streets of Church and Wellesley, where most of the city’s gay clubs, bars and shops are located. Interestingly, the lower part of Church Street is also a red-light district, which mirrors the nature of the Bowery area of New York, where the gay area and a red-light district co-exist.

This would suggest that sexualities which are viewed as deviant are relegated to one area. The vibrancy of Toronto’s gay area is testimony to the strong presence that the gay community has in the city; with the annual ‘Pride’ march and several free newspapers and magazines widely available, the gay presence is hard to ignore.

Despite this feeling of a strong community identity, however, and indeed of an outward acceptance of gay people, the city has a history of intolerance and homophobia. This intolerance is also evident in Canadian law’s attitude to homosexuality. Canada took on many of Britain’s antiquated laws concerning homosexuality, and then added some even more stringent ones of its own. For example, there are laws concerning lesbianism, something that has never been criminalized in the UK. Although the Canadian Criminal Code has been amended over the last three decades, a clause remains about the illegality of homosexual acts in ‘public’ places. This definition of ‘public’ is unclear, and has led many of the country’s gay bathhouses, including several establishments in Toronto, to be raided.

The beginning of the 1980s was a particularly conservative time in the city, when, as Gary Kinsman explains, ‘[t]he elections witnessed an emergence of a vocal anti-gay right-wing, which had the tacit backing of the police department.’ 5 February 1981 was the lowest point in the relationship between the gay community and the Toronto Police Department, when bathhouses across the city were raided, premises were damaged, and gay men were mocked, threatened and arrested. The Toronto Star, in an article entitled ‘Homosexuals fear suicides and broken marriages in wake of raids’ reported that,

Rev. Brent Hawkes, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, said one police officer taking part in the raids had told a group of men, found in a shower room: “It’s too bad the showers weren’t hooked up for gas instead of water.”

Richard Brown, president of the Lambda Business Council, a group representing gay businessmen, charged the police with a “wanton rampage of destruction.”
“Look at history and see what the blackshirts did in the ‘20s and ‘30s. We’re the new Jews.”

This comparison between the fate of the Jews and the gays is interesting; Brown was of course making a reference to Nazi Germany, not the formerly anti-Semitic Toronto. There are, however, many similarities between the sudden attacks in the city on the Jewish community in 1933, and the sudden attacks on the gay community in 1981. A major difference is in evidence, however, in the reaction to those attacks; whereas the anti-Semitism of the city’s past has been largely forgotten by Torontonians, the gay community’s response to the victimization they experienced at the hands of the police has been strong and enduring. The night after the raids, for example, a massive demonstration marched through Toronto, bringing the city to a standstill. The raids served to politicise, radicalise and organise a community which before had perhaps been a little too reticent in its actions against prejudice.

The events of 1981 have been the subject of some of the city’s gay literature, such as John Grube’s short story ‘Raid’, published in 1997. Grube’s story highlights the way in which the city’s police attempted to demonise the gay community at a time when the public were perhaps beginning to tentatively accept the existence of homosexuality. The handling of the factual material is perhaps somewhat laboured on Grube’s part, although this does not detract a great deal from the power of the story. For example, the Police Chief’s dialogue is slightly improbable when he says, “By the way, here’s our press release...what do you think? This bathhouse bust is really about breaking a boy prostitution ring, how does that sound?” Despite the overtly polemical nature of the story, it is nevertheless factually accurate. Toronto’s police, along with the city’s media, had a history of attempting to link crime and homosexuality, and claimed that ‘much crime [could] be traced to homosexuality.’ In 1977, for example, a twelve year old boy called Emanuel Jaques was found murdered and sexually assaulted on Yonge Street, near the city’s gay district. Gary Kinsman has claimed that ‘by constantly referring to [it as] a “homosexual” murder, the media suggested a relationship between homosexual behaviour, pedophilia and murderous acts that cemented in the public mind.’

As already outlined, however, Toronto in the twenty-first century does seem, outwardly at least, to be very tolerant of its strong gay community; a community which has been forged and strengthened by adversity. The phrase ‘gay community’, however, could be seen as somewhat misleading, suggesting as it does that the gays and lesbians of the city exist as one homogeneous group who concur on all issues. Furthermore, the city has been keen to encourage enclaves, such as China Town, GreekTown and Little Italy, to name but a few. To what extent, then, is Toronto’s gay district, or ‘village’ as it is often known, a similar enclave or ghetto?

On visiting the city, one does get the impression that the facilities set up to serve the gay contingent are very much ‘squeezed’ into the Church Street area, with very little evidence of gay activity elsewhere. Julia Gonsalves, herself a lesbian living in Toronto, wrote in August of this year:

I spend a lot of time complaining about the absence of a visible queer presence outside of the Church-Wellesley village. I bitch about being the only one holding hands in Scarborough, in Little Italy, in Bloor West Village.

Gonsalves concludes however, after visiting the Dominican Republic and meeting a gay man who has to hide his sexuality because of extreme homophobia, that ‘I am not alone in Toronto and never will be.’ Her original point, though, is a valid one; why, if the city is so tolerant, is the gay community squeezed into such a small area of the city?

This lack of tolerance outside of the gay village, as well as the lack of tolerance outside of Toronto, is one of the themes of the city’s plethora of gay literature. In Peter McGehee’s Sweetheart (1992), Zero and his lover Jeff experience homophobia whilst onboard an aeroplane. The ‘rules’ of political correctness are seemingly abandoned in this no-man’s land in the air, as are the ‘rules’ of how one responds to homophobia. Jeff challenges the bigot and asks every gay passenger to raise their hand, which they duly do. Their inability to evade the issue means that an honest exchange is possible; honest in its unfortunate prejudice, and honest in its reaction to that prejudice.

Similarly, in Andy Quan’s short story, ‘The Polish Titanic’, the narrator finds himself amongst strangers on ship that has been temporarily marooned due to storms. His reticence in expressing his gay identity to the strangers is because he fears their rejection:

In the back of my mind, I wonder if we would be sitting here together if they knew I would rather flirt with Piotr than with either of the women here. All the camaraderie and laughter, the french fries and jokes, what would be left?

The narrator, then, realises that his acceptance in the group is perhaps based on a false premise. He eventually tells one person onboard the ship, who spreads the news, and, on disembarking, the narrator finds that he has been abandoned by his new ‘friends’. This device clearly shows that outside of the gay enclave in Toronto, its gay citizens often face the same prejudice which was the norm in previous years.

Quan’s collection of short stories reads in many ways like a disjointed novel. The protagonists, with only one exception, are young gay Chinese males, who, throughout the collection, gain in confidence regarding their sexuality. This gain in confidence is despite the fact that the protagonists often face discrimination at the hands of other members of the gay ‘community’. This, we learn, is because of their Chinese origin. One protagonist, for example, bemoans the fact that as an Asian male he is viewed as asexual:

Anyway, what I really hate are gay Asian clubs. [...].
Why do we have a separate club night anyways? Does this put us into the category of leather nights, rubbermen, underwear parties? Are we a fetish or a themed party? [...].
But I’m being facetious. I know why there are separate club nights. [...].
The fact that we can’t get sex at other clubs, and don’t know whether some white-black-latino-whoever is going to just look right through us, or that guy we’re interested in is going to turn his back, but before doing so, snarl, as if to say, how dare you? Since we’re not sexual, not masculine, since they don’t go for Asians.

Here we see evidence of fractures and bigotry inside the so-called gay ‘community’. Asian gays have their own club nights because they are thought only to appeal sexually to each other, and to no one outside of this category. Such is the discrimination, in fact, that Asians are sometimes barred from non-Asian gay clubs, according to the Quan short story ‘Immigration’. This confirms Margaret Atwood’s assertion that “you assume that bigotry is Anglo-Saxon people being bigots about other people. It’s not true. It’s also people amongst those groups being bigots towards other people.”

Evidence of this phenomenon can be seen in Barbara Gowdy’s depiction of 1960s Toronto in her novel Mister Sandman (1995). Bisexual American Al Yothers, eating what he terms “Chink chow” with his lover Gordon Canary, opines loudly about his views on Chinese people, as well as mocking the Chinese waiter:

“Famry man,” Al mimics, before the waiter is out of earshot.
Al holds the floor, the theme being “Chinks”, their eating habits (slurping, shovelling it in), the food they themselves eat (Labrador retrievers and stray cats), their feelings (none).
(MS, pp.33-4)

Here we see that despite being in a sexual minority, Al Yothers has no qualms about discriminating against ethnic minorities. Thirty years later, Quan depicts Chinese gays in 1990s Toronto as still suffering from discrimination, even inside the gay ‘community’.
Indeed, Quan’s protagonists remain largely invisible on the streets of Toronto’s gay enclave, until, that is, they learn to assimilate and conform to a stereotypical gay image. In the story ‘Hair’, the protagonist explains that because he grew his hair very long he was repeatedly mistaken for a woman. He asks,

Where have these people been? I thought. Have they never seen a Chinese face? [...].
Or do people not look? Do they see only a flash of black hair? A flash of something strange and foreign and unlikeable, so they turn their heads? [...].
At the same time, I enjoyed hiding behind that hair. [...].
With long hair I could be almost anything.

He ‘could be almost anything’, we are told, and yet he cannot be what he really wishes to be, which is a visibly gay man on the streets of Toronto. Only when he shaves off his hair, having heard that the closely-cropped look is the one currently in vogue with the city’s gay men, does he give – and receive – the ‘backwards glances’ that Mark W. Turner has argued are an established part of gay urban life. Quan’s newly shorn protagonist notes that

Most importantly, I walked along sunny Church Street and felt the weather on the very top of my body, and, amazingly, like a miracle predicted but not believed, heads swivelled, other eyes caught mine. [...]. I had never known what it was like to be recognizably gay, and to walk in a gay street on a hot summer day. With all that mess of hair, the denizens of my gay world only saw an exotic creature with foreign roots. [...]. For with my skin already a different colour, they needed another signal to call me their own. Shaving my head, I had learned to play the game I wanted to play.

The need to give a ‘signal’ to the gay community that he is one of them is significant, and this can be related to Judith Butler’s assertion that ‘gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original [...].’ [her italics]. The protagonist’s conformity to, or ‘imitation’ of the stereotypical gay image allows him to be accepted at last into the gay community. Similarly, in the Quan short story ‘On The Paris Metro’, the gay narrator, whilst staring at an attractive man on the Parisian underground, considers how he became visibly gay. Unaware that he was supposed to ‘act’ in any specific way, two friends decided to ‘teach’ him how to be gay:

They both approached me, one on either side. To my bewilderment, each rolled up one of my shirt sleeves, exposing a thin, round bicep. “Now walk!”
And so I did, giggling, thinking it was a joke.
“No, pretend you have something really big between your legs. Stick your chest out. Walk slowly.”
Much to my surprise, horror and amusement, that evening, I got the most attention I’d ever had at a club.

The fact that this pretence is what necessary in order for the protagonist to be visible, and, therefore, for him to get sexual attention, confirms that gender behaviour often amounts to a performance. That a certain code of behaviour, and a certain conformity to stereotype is essential in order to be accepted shows that identity categories are somewhat limited, and indeed, limiting.

Edmund White, writing of the attitude of the French gay community, has claimed that the French do not like to be labelled with their sexualities. For example, gay French writers do not like to be termed ‘gay writers’. Judith Butler, who claims to be ‘permanently troubled by identity categories, [and] consider[s] them to be invariable stumbling-blocks’, would presumably agree with the French stance on this issue. However, as White has argued, this lack of a clear gay French identity has led to an ignorance about many gay issues, and therefore, to the high levels of HIV amongst gay Frenchmen.

This issue of the response to HIV is an interesting one when we compare France’s response to Canada’s, or, more specifically, Toronto’s. In recent years, the city has become very proactive about preventing HIV and in giving help to AIDS sufferers. Indeed, there is currently a high-profile campaign in the city, in order to encourage the use of condoms. The campaign posters are quite explicit and can be seen across Toronto, on the side of recycling bins and streetcar shelters. If the gay community did not have such a loud voice, these posters would not perhaps have been possible. This would therefore seem to support the notion that ‘identity categories’ can serve their purpose, even if they do, to a certain extent, limit the behaviour that is possible for a gay man who wants to be recognizably gay on the streets of Toronto.

As I have argued, the gay population is not always deserving of the word ‘community’, which would suggest an all-encompassing group who welcome gay people into their enclave without prejudice. As Quan’s stories illustrate, this isn’t always the case. However, if we compare the depiction of Gowdy’s husband and wife (and closet gay and lesbian) characters Gordon and Doris Canary, in the 1960s Toronto of Mister Sandman, we can see just how much the existence of a gay community, unprejudiced or otherwise, has meant for Toronto’s homosexuals.

Gordon, in a desperate attempt to understand the feelings he has for other men, takes to looking in medical textbooks in the library:

Back then, these books were catalogued under “Mental Disorders” and “Sexual Deviance” and were not on the open shelves. [...]. Bland passages would explode into such graphically clinical description that he would be driven to the washroom to masturbate.
Which was not at all why he was there that August. He was there for information. And for a kind of punishing reassurance that it was true. He was sick. [...]. The premise of Curing The Male Homosexual was that you should enter into a study of ‘real’ men. [...]. In this book there were diagrams showing you how to walk and sit in a masculine manner, how to cross your legs [...].
(MS, pp.71-2)

This passage, of course, makes for interesting comparison with the Quan short story, where a man is ‘taught’ how to walk in a way that is perceived to be gay. Gowdy notes that ‘[i]t was the strangest time’ (MS, p.72), and although her depiction of Gordon, and indeed of his wife Doris, who seduces the Avon lady on the living room sofa (MS, pp.64-66) are written with much humour, what they clearly show is that before there was an established, strong gay community there was a lot of confusion, denial and loneliness.

In conclusion, therefore, beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Toronto’s gay contingent established themselves as a vocal minority. They have memorialised their past and dealt with discrimination, rather than sweeping away that history. This is perhaps in contrast to what has happened with the histories of some of the other minority groups in the city. The existence of a gay literature which problematizes the very notion of ‘community’ and uses the past as a site of exploration, ensures that the strength f the population is something the city is well-known for, as detailed in most of Toronto’s guide books.

The depictions I have chosen to centre on in this chapter have been those of gay writers Andy Quan, John Grube and Peter McGehee, as well as the heterosexual writer Barbara Gowdy. Lesbian writers were not included, simply because I was unable to find any who dealt with lesbianism in a way which was ‘Torontocentric’ enough for my purposes. Indeed, the gay scene in Toronto, as is often the case in urban gay enclaves across the world, is largely dominated by gay men rather than lesbians. This, however, will surely change, as lesbians become increasingly politicised. Just as the bathhouse raids of the early 1980s radicalised the gay men of the city, perhaps the recent police raids of the first lesbian bathhouse events will shift the balance between the sexes.

For although the public show increasing acceptance of the gay populace within the city, as Ceta Ramkhalawansingh has pointed out, “the police are a whole other issue. [...]. There have been difficulties in getting the police to fall into line.”

Margaret Atwood concurs with this appraisal of the situation, concluding that Toronto is “reasonably tolerant except for some police problems we may have had.” Atwood also notes that, when it comes to the annual ‘Pride’ Parade in the city, “[t]he Mayor now goes as a matter of course. It’s no longer a minus for a mayor to appear at such an event, it’s a plus – in fact it’s a necessity.” This turnaround in opinion – that the attendance of the mayor at a gay pride event would be a vote-winner rather than the opposite – shows the extent to which the gay community in Toronto has made the larger community accept their presence, and even learn to celebrate it. This must be due, in no small part, to the rich and diverse gay literature that is stocked by the city’s many gay – and mainstream – bookshops, which serves to problematize, celebrate, and moreover to historicise gay Toronto.

1 comment:

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