With Open Arms: Queer immigrants in Toronto

(photo by Neal Jennings)

[originally printed in Summerplay! The Diversity Issue – Summer 2011]

Last year, I travelled a bit in the southern United States, including Louisiana and South Carolina. The hot sunshine was gorgeous, the locals were friendly and the tiny gay bars were lively. Yet something felt off, something that was never apparent at first and took my partner and I a while to recognize.

The towns and cities we were visiting were just too white. Nearly everyone we encountered was Caucasian. There was precious little mixing amongst the various racial groups we saw and some groups (like South Asians, to pick one example) were hardly visible at all. Even for a pair of Wonder-bread travellers like us, it was jarring and we were fascinated how these smaller southern American cities, with their tattered history of racial prejudice, felt so bland compared to the eclectic, multicultural Toronto we call home.

As Canada’s largest city, Toronto has always been a main entry point for new immigrants and nearly every region on earth is now represented by someone living in this city. It’s a foodie’s paradise, for starters, and in 1998, the municipal government adopted the motto, “Diversity Our Strength.” It’s especially impressive considering it wasn’t quite so long ago that Toronto was the opposite–one of the most White Anglo-Saxon Protestant of cities, its British founding and Presbyterian faith still the most powerful influences on “Toronto the Good.” As author and historian Peter C. Newman wrote in Macleans in 2005:

When I was growing up in Toronto in the 1950s, it was bicultural: English and Irish, except for the bankers, who were Scottish. That hegemony has vanished, with WASPs now the city’s most visible minority, and roast beef rapidly becoming an ethnic dish.

In his book, Toronto in Transition: Demographic Change in the Late Twentieth Century, Ryerson geography professor Michael Doucet writes, “the velocity of demographic change in Toronto has been striking…According to a report prepared for the then-Metropolitan Toronto government in 1990, the proportion of racial minorities within Metropolitan Toronto stood at less than 3 per cent in 1961. By 1986 it had risen to 20.7 per cent,” and the most recent census in 2006 put the number at roughly 47 percent.

And all during that same period, of course, Toronto came out of the closet, with our ever-growing community of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people now holding a Pride parade that attracts about a million attendees. At this point, there may be no better city for a queer person of colour to emigrate to and feel welcome within. But is it really so simple to adapt to a new language, a new culture? A group of people from South America, the Middle East and Europe have had wildly different experiences settling into gay life in Toronto.

22-year-old graphic designer Mohammad Najafpour (“Mo” to his friends) agrees that settling in after his move in Toronto from Dubai in January 2006 has gone smoothly. “The gay community has been great,” he says, “I love the friends I’ve made over the years here.” Najafpour credits the student residence at Ryerson he lived in for his first year as being “extremely helpful” in his acclimatization to Toronto. “It created an environment where students were there for one another,” he says, giving him a home base from which he could explore his new city.

That sense of place is important, says 46-year-old physiotherapist Damian Wyard, even for a British white guy like him. When he moved to Toronto in 2003, he lived at Yonge and Eglinton but soon, he says, “It was obvious I had to move to the village. I found it an easy way to make friends. Generally, I found people open to visitors and genuinely interested to know where I was from.”

Toronto’s Church and Wellesley village has long been a well-known destination for new arrivals, akin to New York’s Chelsea district or San Francisco’s Castro. While the LGBT community has in recent years begun creating new enclaves throughout the city (slowly making most of Toronto very queer-friendly), the decline of the village is still a worrisome trend. “Toronto’s village is more of a community than London UK’s gay scene,” Wyard says, “I’ve met a few other British guys who have visited or are living here. Most of them love it here because there a gay community like this that doesn’t really exist in the UK, even in London.”

Wyard says that for him, like with Najafpour at Ryerson, the stability of having that sort of ‘home turf’ allowed him to meet people and later discover the “very welcoming” Out and Out club and the Metropolitan Community Church. “I really can’t say I had any problems integrating here,” he says, “Being British, without language and cultural differences, it was easy.”

Sure, says Nedal Sulaiman, but that’s the case when you come from London instead of Riyadh. Having also come here to study at Ryerson in 2006, the video producer says, “I have a love-hate relationship with Toronto…The city prides itself on being ‘multicultural’ and ‘gay-friendly’ but, like any city, it contains the same prejudices towards those who do not fit the privileged status quo. The general gay community actually shocked me with its racism and conservatism when it comes to sexuality, gender and politics. I, along with friends, experience all sorts of ongoing racism and queerphobia.”

“I had tremendous racist situations in Toronto,” agrees Julian A. Daniel Perez, a 25-year-old from Venezuela, “They’re invisible but they exist.” While many gay men speak glowingly of the village, Perez says there just isn’t enough support there for youth and women, who have become increasingly better served by the growing and “more inclusive” Queer West village, but does cite volunteering at the 519 Community Centre as a huge help with the frustrations of adapting to Toronto. “Newcomers are really taken aback by the majority of Caucasian individuals here and they’re intimidated by trying to speak English and being judged for their accent. As soon as we speak, a stereotype is put on us.”

Perez’s parents both have degrees but have been unable to find work in their respective fields. “You can’t find a job and even if you do, it’s not in your field because you don’t have that ‘Canadian experience,’ Perez says, “Some newcomers are poor and can’t get help with their resumes so they do it themselves and get rejected for not meeting a Canadian standard that everyone else is used to.”

That everyone includes other queer people, says Sulaiman, who declares, “the liberationist framework of the historic queer movement is being largely overshadowed by the assimilationist view, which is more interested in satisfying the heteronormative mainstream.” Fed up trying to mainstream himself, he says he now limits himself to “sub-communities (the political queer community, queer communities of colour) and eventually identified better within those circles.”

So is Toronto’s multicultural friendliness a grand PR scheme? A shiny wrapping on a box full of ignorance and indifference? It’s a little more complicated than that, says Miguel Cubillos, a job developer working to solve the issues Perez is talking about. He came to Toronto from Bogotá, Colombia in June of 2006 and, like Najafpour, he says, “I didn’t experience any type of discrimination. I found good people in the LGBTQ community who gave me a hand in terms of where to go, where to socialize, where to party, where to have sex and where to find adequate support depending on my necessities at that time.”

“At the beginning, everything is new and kind of exiting,” Cubillos says, “but after some time, you identify that the people who gave you their hand are people not originally from Ontario or Toronto. These people were also newcomers–not coming from other countries but from other provinces.” Over time, Cubillos says, it became more and more apparent that a great many gay men born and raised in Toronto really were indifferent to newcomers: “You really have to fight for their attention, friendship and hearts.” He credits “angels” like U of T’s Denise Gastaldo and Doctors Without Border’s Kenneth Tong with helping him assimilate.

Cubillos says that the toughest thing for new arrivals in Toronto, after finding work or a career, is dating. While he credits his friend Andrew Brett with helping him understand queer Canadian issues and politics these past six years, “the most important thing is trying to understand gay Torontonian men, especially the do’s and don’ts with them!” Cubillos says, “Most of the Canadian guys I have dated wanted me to change some of my nature and essence and I can’t…Being Latin is in my blood and is part of my culture and who I am. That’s why, now, I’m over with dating Canadians/Torontonians and I hope I can meet a Latin guy with a similar background. I had a Brazilian partner for almost six years here in Toronto and now that I’m back on the market, the difference is humongous.”

Cubillos is quick to point out, however, that it’s not exactly racism at work here per se, but issues of identity, cultural barriers and cultural competency from others. He calls them, “gray areas in which I’ve had to learn how to fall-down and stand up.” After years in Toronto, he says, “I know to take short cuts and I can identify easily red flags in some people, but there are some people who really knows how to hide them pretty well.”

“I didn’t choose to come here,” says Perez, having been dragged to Canada at 19 with their parents, “It was a horrible process but because I came here, I was able to discover that I am queer.” Born a girl, dressing as a boy, Perez now identifies as genderqueer but says, “One of the big problems in Toronto is that most of the support groups that I see are led by English-speaking Caucasian people. There’s nobody to identify yourself with.”

Scott Clarke at the 519

Scott Clarke, Volunteer Development Officer at the 519 Community Centre, is one such Caucasian who completely agrees with Perez. It’s why, he says, the 519 sat down with a group of newcomer volunteers a year-and-a-half ago and asked, “What would you want to work on?” The result was Breakthrough, “a network for LGBTQ newcomers to Toronto,” Clarke explains, “They hold monthly events and run a Facebook group and an e-newsletter and what’s unique about this program is that it’s completely volunteer-driven. A team of ten volunteers come up with ideas of what events they want to do, they find people to put the events on, they emcee the events, they do all the promotion, they create the posters, they do the outreach…I just support them with training and the space here.”

Clarke agrees that it’s important for a more grassroots approach to helping people adapt to a new culture. “For many people, the process of migrating and settling in Toronto is their biggest asset,” he says, “By bringing people together to share their stories, we’re creating informal support networks of people with similar cultural backgrounds dealing with similar issues. That’s far more important than having one staff person with one particular experience try to assist an array of different people with different experiences and it’s the goal of a lot of our volunteer programs.”

Cubillos credits the 519 with providing him a lot of resources and, three years ago, he turned his dating experiences into a relationship workshop for gay Latino men at the  Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples, as part of the Mano en Mano research project with the University of Windsor. “I help the participants to navigate in the turbulent ocean of dating,” he says, “Understanding what makes a ‘date, the differences in dating a Canadian guy and some basic tips of how not to lose him after the first date and possibly get a second date.” He laughs that one day he’ll completely adapt to Toronto: “I’m still trying but my clock is ticking!”

For his part, Nedal Sulaiman turned his political dissatisfaction with gay life in the city into founding an alternative media collective with some friends. “Deviant Productions,” he plugs, “advances social justice through its video reportage. We felt that many important events and stories are overlooked by the media (both mainstream and queer) so we decided to point a lens at them. Because really once you scratch the glittered surface, Toronto is full of areas that desperately need reconstruction.” All criticism aside, Sulaiman is delighted to give back, “by volunteering, organizing and celebrating the city. Regardless of the many issues in the gay community, Toronto has become home for me and that means treating it like one.”

“Racism exists everywhere,” says Ann Marie Peart, a 28-year-old who came here from Jamaica and found support through the Supporting Our Youth (SOY) program Express, which meets Tuesday nights at the Sherbourne Health Centre. “You can’t get away from racist attitudes,” she says, “but here, you belong, you have rights. Where I’m from, you don’t have any rights.” Growing up in Jamaica, Peart says, “I felt like I was the only lesbian on the island, isolated.” When she came to Toronto in October 2009, some friends took her down to Church Street on Halloween. She saw wild costumes and glittering drag queens but what really ​stopped her in her tracks was the sight of two men making out in the street.
“It was the first time I’d seen two men kissing. Like, live, not on TV, and I lost it, I was in tears. That doesn’t happen where I’m from. Not in public anyway and never so open and never so free.”


About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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One Response to With Open Arms: Queer immigrants in Toronto

  1. Javier Cahcheiro says:

    Interesting article! I have noticed more and more dialogue about this topic. Personally, I have had a very good experience settling in Toronto, but while I was reading this article what stood out most was Cubillo’s mentioning meeting friendly people “in” but not “from” Toronto. Reflecting on this statement I can say it has been the same thing for me, in fact, I get more taken aback by people who tell me they were born and raised in Toronto than by someone telling me they are from a country I’ve never even heard of. Perhaps “real” Torontonians are a minority too?

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