Lovers in a dangerous time

For Toronto’s gay community, the 1980s were our darkest–and finest–hour

[reprinted from summerplay! The 80s Issue – June 2009]

“I wish I’d been born in the ‘80s,” says Tim McCaskell, quoting a local high-school student who sighed, “The politics were so much more interesting and the music was so much better.”  McCaskell doesn’t disagree: it’s a typical reaction to what he calls, with a grin, “my dinosaur number”–the talk he gives to Toronto-area students on the 1981 bathhouse raids and the beginnings of the AIDS crisis. In a post-Queer as Folk culture, it’s hard for anyone born after 1980 to see that next decade as anything more than a brightly coloured, big-haired, synthesizer-scored time of frivolous excess but for Toronto gay community, it was a time of dark distress and eventual triumph.


“It was a huge change from Edmonton, let me tell you,” says playwright Brad Fraser.  On his first visit to Charly’s, a gay disco above the St. Charles Tavern on Yonge Street, “I almost fainted…it was intoxicating! I had on my jeans and nice new-wave shirt and pointy-toed shows and everyone was in 501s and muscle shirts or no shirts at all, doing poppers on the dance floor.”  Since those early Yonge Street gay bars stopped serving at midnight, the early ‘80s were big on after-hours clubs. Above the Parkside, “Stages was the most amazing club in the world,” says Woody’s manager Dean Odorico, “It was like a New York club in Toronto—state-of-the-art lights and all that.” Fraser agrees that it was “the hottest dance club on the planet…They couldn’t serve any alcohol so everybody was high.” And outside at Church and Alexander, he says, “The entire street corner would be packed with men at one in the morning, standing around smoking and talking.”


Another major component of the scene was, of course, the baths. “Why waste all night drinking beer?” laughs McCaskell. But on the night of February 5, 1981, an astonishing 286 men were arrested as 160 Toronto cops raided four bathhouses at once. It was the largest mass arrest in Canada since the October Crisis of 1970 and a young Odorico was working at the Romans bathhouse, watching “stormtroopers kicking doors down and mass arrests.” McCaskell says Gerald Hannon, fellow member of the pioneering gay newspaper collective The Body Politic, called and told him to get down to the nearby Club Toronto baths. “The paddy wagon was there and the cops were hauling people out,” says McCaskell. “This was before any human rights protections, remember. This middle-aged Portuguese guy said, ‘What’s going to happen to me now? My wife doesn’t know…is my name going to be in the papers?’  I didn’t know what to tell him.”


The Body Politic members planned a protest right away but, says McCaskell, “we were really worried that no one would show up.” Former BP editor Ed Jackson jokes, “You’ve always had a smaller group of people who are activists and a larger group who are kind of turned off by it and wish they’d shut up.” But at 11pm that next night, after the bathhouse raids had been front-page news all day, thousands of people poured out onto Yonge Street to protest. “The police were overwhelmed and surprised,” says Odorico, “It wasn’t just a little bunch of fairies, it was a huge and angry mob.” Chanting “Fuck 52!” roughly 3000 people marched to the police department’s 52 division at Dundas and University. It was surrounded by cops in riot gear. “Now we had a standoff,” recalls McCaskell. By this point, it was about one in the morning and, trying to avoid “a bloodbath,” organizers directed the crowd to Queen’s Park.


“Those demos went on until the spring,” says McCaskell, proudest of one crowd of 2000 people who protested police by simply sitting down Gandhi-style in the middle of Yonge Street. In June 1981, police raided two more bathhouses but this time the resulting protest on June 20th went badly. With gays vs. cops, homophobic gangs formed a third flank, armed with sticks with nails in them. “The whole crowd moved at them,” says McCaskell, “The police waded in. They smashed me across the top of the head. I went to hospital.” Despite the violence, Odorico says the protests “showed the establishment and the police that the gay community was a force to be reckoned with,” while Jackson says they “certainly brought more people into an activist frame of mind and a greater sense of being part of a community.”


Heroes emerged from this new sense of community. In response to the police raids, the Metropolitan Church’s Rev. Brent Hawkes staged a 25-day hunger strike, until the City of Toronto agreed to mediate between the police and the gay community. George Hislop, co-owner of the Barracks bathhouse, ran for public office in the spring of 1981 as a protest candidate. As such, he did surprisingly well, scoring nearly 10 percent of the total vote. Another protest, the gentle “Gay Freedom Rally” held in Grange Park, behind the AGO, became the first Pride Day, organized in part by future city councilor Kyle Rae.  In 1983, the Pride party would include the Parachute Club performing “Rise Up,” their anthem for this new sense of queer energy and optimism that the community was about to need more than ever.


“It was pretty scary,” says Odorico, as the first cases of AIDS were being reported in Canada in February 1982. “It’s from poppers,” Odorico was told as The Body Politic began reporting whatever could be learned.  Jackson collected a group that included activist Michael Lynch, the Hassle Free Clinic’s Robert Trow and social worker David Kelley. Using the same decentralized structure that helped organize the bathhouse raid protests, this new “AIDS Committee of Toronto” set up their tiny offices above a Kentucky Fried Chicken on Wellesley Street.  The top goal, says Jackson, was “getting safer-sex information out.”  Glad Day Bookshop owner John Scythes says, “For the first few years of AIDS, many gay men simply ignored it,” but by the summer of 1985, that was impossible. “I remember when the Enquirer read “ROCK HUDSON HAS AIDS” and the first thing I thought was, “He kissed Krystle on Dynasty!” laughs Odorico, “But Rock Hudson was important because he was an icon that now had AIDS.”


By the late ‘80s, says Fraser, it was “the height of AIDS paranoia in Canada…Everybody was living in total fear. And those men on Alexander Street?” he asks, “I’ll bet 90% of them were dead.” The playwright ultimately moved back to Alberta for a few years: “Everything that was coming down was so fucking horrifying.  I won’t lie, it was part of why I left.  A lot of people did that, tried to run from it by moving out of the big centres.” Odorico credits his friends with keeping him here but says, “I lost count of the number of people I knew that had died. We lost a whole generation of artists, DJs, brilliant people…gone.”


As the AIDS crisis tore through our community, it threatened to undo decades of struggle for gay rights. “The acceptance level had gone up, then AIDS knocked it down again,” says Odorico. Glad Day founder Jearld Moldenhauer had to fight Canada Customs banning The Joy Of Gay Sex and the police arresting his staff on obscenity charges. A Western Tech teacher named Kenn Zeller was viciously murdered in a High Park gaybashing by a group of students in 1985.  When McCaskell was asked to do some anti-racist work with the class, a student thanked him and said, “But sir, what about the queers?  We can still call them names, can’t we?” Any gay-positive teaching, McCaskell says, faced “huge resistance in the Board, even after the Zeller murder. They were very clear: ‘We don’t want you teaching our kids this kind of perversion.’” McCaskell eventually filled his book Race to Equity with such stories and says, “Nothing was couched in those days–you knew who your friends and enemies were.”


Fortunately for the collective sanity of the people in it, the ‘80s weren’t all angry protests and AIDS vigils. In his exhaustive online memoirs, Promiscuous Affections: A Life in The Bar, 1969-2000, historian Rick Bébout notes the saucy comings and goings of Toronto’s bar scene (“The Barn became for many of us, myself included, The Bar”) and considers the 1984 look of writer David Vereschagin: “wire rim glasses; a loose purple shirt; turquoise pants; canary yellow sneakers.” Representative, maybe, but not for gay dance bars Chaps and Boots, both with a strict “no new wave” dress code.” Fraser says, “I remember Chaps barred some gay guys because they were ‘too punk’…If you didn’t wear your 501s or Calvins or Lacoste golf shirt, you weren’t accepted in Toronto.”


Those rules would soon change: the punks joined a Queen West arts and music scene that had already spawned Carole Pope and Rough Trade, while 1986 saw the debut of JDs, a ‘zine co-edited by filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, aiming to blend gays and punks into what he called “The New Lavender Panthers.” Such a spirit informed activist Michael Lynch when he flew down to Washington on Saturday, October 10, 1987, for the March On Washington for lesbian and gay rights. By this point, AIDS had claimed more than 24,000 people in the US and about 1150 in Canada. A great many people wore T-shirts and buttons reading “Silence = Death,” the motto of New York activist group ACT UP. Inspired, Lynch spearheaded the creation of AIDS Action Now! in Toronto. Through mass protests like “die-ins,” aggressive posters and community organizing, “AAN was very effective in what it did,” says Jackson.


AAN was hardly alone in its success. Also in 1987, the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation was formed and ACT unveiled the first Fashion Cares fundraising event. But if there’s one thing that everyone remembers about gay Toronto in the ‘80s, it’s the Second Cup “Steps” at Church and Wellesley. Now replaced by a TD Canada Trust, the Steps were “a real gathering point,” says McCaskell, “You had people hanging out there all the time–even in the winter.” Immortalized in a recurring sketch by The Kids in the Hall‘s Scott Thompson, the Steps defined “that sense of Church and Wellesley being the place, the corner,” says Jackson, but what really sealed the deal for Church Street as Toronto’s gay mecca was the opening of Woody’s  in 1989. Flanked by Maple Leaf Gardens and a row of steakhouses, “People said we’d be closed within six months!” laughs Odorico. Jackson says, “I think Woody’s was very responsive to what the community wanted. They took the lead in raising a lot of money for gay and AIDS-related causes. They planted the foundation firmly.”


Brad Fraser came back to Toronto to see a community that hadn’t survived but triumphed. “By 1993, there was a real scene again,” he says, “We had raves and sex parties and backrooms.” More importantly, he says, “I think we have a much more physically diverse community now.” Jackson agrees, warning not to romanticize the past too much: “That gay community excluded a lot of people.” Sure, as gay Toronto grappled with police invasions, AIDS and homophobia, we had to stick together or die but now, says Jackson, “there’s more people who have differing opinions.” This seems like a natural evolution but McCaskell worries that “if gay people’s lives are now so different from each other, how will you ever get them together when a crisis comes?” The ‘kids today’ have gained a sense of individual possibility at the expense of the community purpose, he says, mourning a time when “that common gayness was enough to hold us together.” Well, says Jackson, “even then, nothing was simple but it was a pretty exciting time.  We were dealing with a lot but I think that we did it very well, actually.” All true, and one can’t help but walk by the Sobey’s supermarket on Yonge Street and think of Stages.


About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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