The first Pride was a riot.
In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, as police began to raid a prominent New York City gay bar called Stonewall Inn, something unexpected happened — the LGBTQ community fought back. The resistance is widely recognized as kicking off the global gay liberation movement.
Twelve years later, something similar occurred in Toronto with the bathhouse raids of 1981, which saw at least 300 men arrested in four gay bathhouses across the city. The Church-Wellesley Village community also fought back, much like Stonewall, starting what’s now known as Pride Toronto.
For some members of Toronto’s LGBTQ community, the theme for this year’s Pride festivities — honouring the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — feels like a necessary return to the roots of a movement.
Joey Ferguson, 70, remembers being a closeted gay man who went to the first iteration of Toronto Pride in 1981. “Since those early years, Pride’s constantly wanted to become bigger than it already is,” said Ferguson, sipping coffee at a Second Cup on Church St. with friends from the Village.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW
“The organizers want people from across the world and other cities to come here and they keep making it bigger, but they’ve sort of forgotten the roots of where Toronto Pride came from over the years,” he said. “This theme is a welcome step, of course, in maybe changing that — it feels like a homecoming.”
Toronto’s Pride parade kicks off 2 p.m. Sunday from the corner of Church and Bloor Sts. Several road closures will be in effect, starting with Rosedale Valley Rd. around 8 a.m.
This year’s theme recognizes that some of the issues activists protested 50 years ago — like gay conversion therapy, blood donation for men who have sex with men and equal accommodation for trans people — continue to be problems and to remind festivalgoers the first parades weren’t celebrations like they are today, said Pride Toronto executive director Olivia Nuamah: “They were riots.”
Nuamah said this year’s Pride will also commemorate the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson, an African-American gay liberation activist and self-identified bisexual drag queen, for being a central figure of the Stonewall uprising through a celebration of drag performance.
“I myself am bisexual and black like Marsha and nobody ever wants to talk about us bisexual folks,” said Eshe Lewis. She said this year’s Pride theme is particularly important to her because of a historical lack of acknowledgment for figures like Johnson and other people of colour within the LGBTQ community.
“Recognizing her and her achievements for all of us to enjoy our rights today allows for us to be able to recognize our bisexual history in the struggle for the movement,” said the 31-year-old. “It’s a way for us, regardless of what gender our partner is, to feel seen in the community when you recognize people like Marsha.”
Elise Chenier, a history professor at Simon Fraser University who studies Canadian queer history, says the reason Stonewall resonated across the world, including Toronto, was because of its universal symbolism.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW
“Stonewall, and the idea of what that is and was, is not limited to just one gay bar in Greenwich Village in New York,” she said. “It’s a symbol for how communities have historically acted when their people are being attacked and their human rights are being stripped away.
“It’s a borderless idea, the idea of … allowing people to love who they want to love.”
For Ferguson, however, a more Canadian theme remembering local Toronto LGBTQ heroes “would have been better,” given the intention to bring the movement back to its roots this year.
Doug McGee, 66, agrees with his friend Ferguson, emphasizing that young queer Canadians need to “learn more about where the rights they enjoy today came from.”
“What younger gay kids don’t realize is the way things are going politically, some of these rights could very well be taken away from them again, and that’s why knowing the battles we fought for them is crucial.”
“They might even have to fight similar other battles again in the future.”
David Choo Chang, out with his friends on a sunny day in the Village, says only in the last few years has he concluded that he needs to know more about Stonewall.
“The most I really learned about it was from RuPaul’s Drag Race or my older gay friends,” said Choo Chang, 26.
“For me, and like all of my younger friends, themes like this that inspire events around them during Toronto Pride are the only way we can really learn more about it, because it’s not like we’re taught this in schools or anything.”
It is important history, says Choo Chang’s friend, David Arnold, 57.
“Stonewall was that moment in our movement, that pinnacle of our struggle to be acknowledged as equal to everyone else with our rights in society,” he said.
“Whether you’re young or old, out or not, and even if you haven’t really been taught about it or learned about it, Stonewall will always be the reason you can march proudly today and say ‘this is who I am, deal with it.’”
Temur Durrani is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @temurdur