Now Showing: Toronto’s Colossal Gay Pride
Headwinds and rain pelted the Porter Airlines plane as it bounded, herky-jerky, into Toronto's Billy Bishop airport. Heavy downpours snarled downtown traffic. Drenched but not drowned, I reached my destination: the bright and bustling corridors of the Delta Chelsea hotel, a downtown Toronto oasis.
Soon afterward, I set out, as I do each year, to report on the behind-the-scenes happenings of the Big Event: Toronto's Pride Week, set for June 22-July 1. Pride Toronto is colossal: ten days of street festivals, rainbow flags hoisted on every public flagpole, a raucous parade down Toronto's main arteries, a Dyke March, a Trans March, family events, and risqué gatherings.
Oh, so you want visuals?
How about a parking lot morphed into a dance floor where bump and thump-thump music is piped onto loud speakers as jock-strapped men onstage super-soak the hordes of sweaty revelers with cascades of ice water?
Free Music Everywhere
Did I mention the Cannabis Canada Bus, all blue-green paisley and retching pungent smoke out its windows, zigzagging along the parade route? Someone said they were distributing joints to the crowd -- like beaded necklaces tossed during Mardi Gras -- but I can’t confirm that.
Or the Elvis impersonator I sighted on Church Street shaking his booty, naked except for his bling and Converse tennies? He wasn’t alone: if I only had a dollar for each bare tush I saw during the parade.
There’s free music everywhere by local and international performing gay artists at stages throughout the city. And along the closed-to-traffic streets in the Church-Wellesley neighborhood, vendors serve up tasty arrays of street food.
And every year, at least one happy couple ties the knot on a mobile marriage float, while everyone cheers.
Are you game for Toronto Pride?
Toronto’s Tenacious LGBT Community
Pride Week began humbly as Gay Day over 32 years ago, promoted by a tenacious LGBT community who held picnics in Toronto’s public parks to celebrate summer while also lobbying to end the wide-ranging anti-gay discrimination that prevailed at the time (gay bashing by police at the city’s gay bars and other pre-Stonewall brutalities).
Over the years, those discriminatory practices have abated. National same-sex marriage is sanctioned by law in each province. Pride is burgeoning (with plans for World Pride in Toronto in 2014 - more on that later).
Yet controversies abound.
"I like to think we’re getting a better handle on it all," said Kevin Beaulieu, an Ontario native who serves as the newly installed executive director of Pride Toronto in an interview at Pride’s offices on Dundonald Street.
Beaulieu’s resume includes an eight year stint working at City Hall. He’s been on the job for six months, and says he is well aware of the rocky histories of his predecessors.
"Pride Toronto did not have a process in place to work on dispute resolution," Beaulieu said. "We have a process in place now."
Beaulieu refers to Queers against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) who insisted on bringing their anti-Zionist message to the Pride parade. An uproar ensued when then-Pride director Traci Sandilands made a decision to bar them. The decision was overturned. Sandilands, recruited to Toronto from her native South Africa, was dismissed.
Church-Wellesley Gay Village
This brings us to the present day. QUIA has filed an application to march this year, too. It is one of the few political organizations to do so (the Socialist Party of Ontario is another).
"It works like this," Beaulieu explained. "If there’s a dispute, we now have a process, and a hearing, and if a group is to be barred, it is a decision that is reached by a board composed of representatives from outside Pride."
As of this writing, no decision has been made on QUIA’s application to march in this year’s Pride parade.
The QUIA fracas got so ugly, it almost succeeded in jeopardizing provincial and federal funding last time. But this time around, Beaulieu seems sure Pride will get what’s due.
"We receive $125,000 from Toronto city council, and $276,000 from the Province of Ontario, which we were awarded in April. We get another $52,000 from Ottawa, and this is based on the fact that Pride brings to the city an estimate $136 million in revenue each year," he said.
And Beaulieu said the almost $500,000 deficit that Pride had amassed from previous years has been eliminated, thanks to year round fundraising efforts.
"We are actually in the black by $20,000 or so," he said, "so things are looking up."
The nexus of gay Toronto is the Church-Wellesley neighborhood. As a designated Business Improvement Area (BIA), it is governed by a board of directors, composed of business owners. David Wooten serves as the only paid staff member.
"Visitors can expect a vibrant scene on Church Street during Pride," Wooten told me over lunch at the Vic Pub. "Some businesses have closed, while new ones have opened up. The scene here is ever-changing."
When you go to Church Street during Pride, expect to soak up the eye candy: strapping actors all greased up with baby oil who stand around in the hot sun wearing Roman gladiator costumes, passing out free Trojan condoms. Or the bikini clad boys (and girls) who stand in front of Eyes on Church. Or the TD Bank’s bevy of beauties strategically positioned near the misting tents, so you can cool down if you get too worked up.
World Pride 2014
Wooten has plans for the village once the streets are swept of all the Pride glitter and litter.
"We have a mural project in the works," Wooten tells me. "We’re planning to make this a colorful and cultural gay mecca, with installations, art work, and spruced up buildings. And more programming of events like Halloweek that bring in residents and tourists alike."
Tourism Toronto’s fab go-to guy, Christopher Barry, tells me over a scrumptious dinner at Nota Bene restaurant that within a week he’s heading off to the UK to represent Toronto in World Pride, and expects to be returning to Toronto to bring all that he learns in London to share with folks now busily preparing for World Pride in Toronto in 2014.
"It will be so outstanding, and we’re planning incredible programs," Barry tells me. "All of our experiences have led up to us bringing World Pride to our world class city. It’s going to be unbelievable."
While there have been costly battles between factions, there have also been many lessons learned. The future for Pride Toronto glitters bright on the horizon.
Where to Stay:
In past years, I stayed one block from the Pride parade at the landmark hotel, the Sutton Place. But earlier this year the owners announced the hotel was being sold to make way for condominiums. Their loss is the Delta Chelsea’s gain.
As was the Sutton Place, the Delta Chelsea, the largest Delta hotel in Canada, is one block from the Pride parade route, and a few minutes walk away from Church-Wellesley gay neighborhood.
The hotel is abuzz with activity: it has several restaurants, a full service spa, swimming pool, grocery store, and bars, and it affords the traveler opportunities to connect to the rich nightlife in the city (they have a ticketing service to connect you to Toronto’s first rate shows at nearby Mirvish theatres as well as other arts events).
"We are offering a Gaycation package," Tracy Ford, Delta Chelsea’s spokesperson, tells me."Starting at $119 CDN, it includes a ’toast’ from the hotel with a complimentary drink, and it puts you in the heart of Toronto Pride." Additional savings can be found by presenting your room key at Church-Wellesley village for discounts to performances at Buddies in the Bad Times theatre, Zelda’s restaurant, and more.
Flying in to Billy Bishop airport on the way back to the States was far less dramatic. The airfare is affordable and quick from most U.S. cities.
And for other international flights there’s Pearson Airport, a short distance from the city center.
Despite all the rockiness and the growing pains these past years, Toronto remains one of the most exciting places to visit, it is constantly changing, and I always want to return.
And this year’s Pride promises to extraordinary.