My Gay Toronto - MGT Hot Topic


by Drew Rowsome

I was invited by the illustrious Brian Finch to participate in Tales of Pride, the latest edition of his Tales of . . . A Storytelling Show. The other storytellers included Shannon McDonough, Marcy Rogers and the brilliant Paul Bellini. No idea what I was doing in such talented company but this is what I came up with. And this is what I was forced to discard because it was a "Storytelling Show." I clutched my notes and bumbled through as best I could. It seemed to go ok . . .

Once upon a time long ago, or so I hear, Pride was a very different beast. I myself have been lucky enough to live through three of the evolutionary stages of Pride: the Paleozoic, the Mesozoic and, currently, the Jurassic.

Back in the dark ages of the Paleozoic era – that’s Greek or Latin or something for “ancient times” - very few of us were out, at least not completely, and the parade was actually a march, a protest. It may seem contradictory that while hiding in closets we were also busy demanding visibility, but then gay liberation has never been totally logical.

In those frightfully fearful, remembered as utterly carefree, days it was a big decision to join the march. If you stepped into the demonstration it was as good as a declaration that you were a “homosexual” which is another Greek or Latin or something word for “cocksucker” or “fudgepacker.” There was always the chance that your mug would show up – even quite small and distant but Aunt Agnes does has very sharp eyes – in the obligatory crowd photo on the cover of the next day’s newspapers. I remember clearly the trepidation and fear, the strength of will it took to make the decision to step off the curb and state that, “Yes, I am gay. These are my people, I am one of them.”

But the march was so important, so joyful and so angry, that it was irresistible. You just picked the float that had the best music – actually they all had the same music but your favourite disco anthem was on a loop on one of them – and dove in.

Not that it was all dancing and shouting and whistles – there were always serious moments. A die-in for those we lost to HIV/AIDS – and in the Dark Ages we lost a lot of them – where everything stopped for two minutes of silence and volunteers drew chalk outlines around our prone bodies as we lay on the pavement. Or a bashing following the revelry, we were all warned to leave in groups and to watch out for marauding homophobes, identifiable by their baseball bats, torches and pitchforks.

Then one year everything changed. As we marched towards Queen’s Park, the route had been changed for a symbolic re-decorating of the provincial legislature with giant pink ribbons, to protest the failure of a bill that would have offered us some very basic rights in terms of employment and housing, I noticed that the grassy banks along College St were covered with picnicking spectators. Not supporters or oglers or dirty old men hoping for lesbian breast action but families and children and curious straight couples. They munched their sandwiches, drank their beer out of brown paper bags, tapped their feet and watched the colourful display wend past. Did the message resonate? Possibly, at least there was visibility, but it was more a sideshow, entertainment that was cheaper and easier than taking the ferry to the Island for the CHIN picnic.

The next spring the Toronto Sun, never a fan of gays in general and frequently an antagonist, published a pull-out calendar of the most popular summer events and festivals. In the top left corner was a photo promoting the Beaches Jazz Festival; top right was a kindly souvlaki vendor at Taste of the Danforth; bottom left was a Caribana reveler with her large breasts almost falling out of her glittery outfit; and the bottom right was a drag queen dressed as Cher. We were entering the Mesozoic – Greek or Latin or something for the “middle life” - era: Pride was now so mainstream that it was going to be on suburban fridges across the city.

For the first part of the Mesozoic era I worked during Pride. The bar I worked in, like every other bar in the city, had realized that by hanging a rainbow flag or two there was money to be made off the gays. And as an out-ish gay bartender I was pushed front and centre, it was very lucrative. I still watched part of the parade – I couldn’t miss that moment that always chokes me up when PFLAG marches by – but I was more focused on the money to be made in the evenings. I went from marching to profiting or, as I preferred to think of it, helping to throw the party. Because it was now a party.

My band played at Pride during the Mesozoic era and it was one of the most exhilarating gigs ever. At that point there was only one stage, at the foot of Church St, and to step out on the raised platform and look up the fabled thoroughfare, thronged with revelers, was terrifying at first and then empowering and very gratifying. Dingy bar gigs could not compare with being out, out in the sun and out sexually, and very, very loud.

Our drummer at the time was a stocky sparkplug of a skinhead – during the Mesozoic era that was a subculture that now only exists for the most part in economically troubled European countries and gay porn – who was uneasy about the whole thing. While I never felt any personal homophobic animosity from him, he had been in jail for unspecified reasons related to violence and, with my being out-ish, we’d never really had a discussion.

There was no backline and there was no way to get drums through the throngs but the organizers had arranged for us to use the kit brought by the band before us. Or so we thought. The band before us had not been informed of this arrangement. While drummers are very protective of their personal gear, the drummer of the previous band, a lesbian power pop quartet, was very generous and she and my drummer worked it out quite amicably. And my skinhead drummer bonded with a tough little lesbian – they had more in common than they had imagined. The gig went beyond well and the energy and the response from the dancing crowd was intoxicating. My drummer gave me a big sweaty hug after and didn’t care who was watching or what anyone thought. In the next few weeks we went for tequila and tattoos together, helped our very closeted keyboard player come tentatively out, and the drummer exchanged his Aryan girlfriend for a petite spitfire woman who just happened to be black. A Pride miracle or just another step in evolution?

Now we’ve reached the Jurassic period, actually a subdivision of the Mesozoic era, there is no telling where this will all end up, and Pride has become a huge lumbering event that is unstoppable and is so successful that it is in danger of rendering itself extinct. And after nine years of slaving in the spotlight of gay media, I couldn’t be more out if I tried. Pride was now work, something to be covered, photographed, analyzed and criticized for losing its spirit of activism. Until I met Raul.

It was supposed to be spring fling, a frivolous hook-up of sexual gratification but somehow between April and Pride season it had become something more. He was out-ish but still testing the waters and had an ex-wife, two sons and an engineering job in a big factory that was not conducive to generating support for so-called alternative lifestyles. Add a heavy dose of Catholic guilt and a tight-knit Portuguese family background and a sea of rainbow flags and glitter was the perfect setting for a culture clash or at least a meltdown.

It is no longer a march, it is a parade, and the majority of participants are no longer out and proud gays, the majority are allies, the ‘A’ on the end of LGBTQXYZA. But it is still making a statement to participate, to be there. Our first Pride together, not quite a committed couple but definitely an item, I buzzed around and Raul, an accomplished photographer, was snapping everything in sight, totally absorbed in the glitter and energy. I watched as his face clouded with trepidation and fear, wrestling the strength of will it took to make the decision to step off the curb and state that, “Yes, I am gay. These are my people, I am one of them.” And he stepped. And it was exhilarating for both of us.

So the Jurassic period still has a purpose, a reason for being, and however much I miss the explicitly political Pride, it doesn’t hurt to celebrate how far we’ve come. Maybe the next era will be the Age of Enlightenment.

And the feisty lesbian drummer who tamed the skinhead? I have the great honour of working with her in my current band, Crackpuppy, who are playing this Pride at 5:30pm on Sun, June 30 (yes, right after the parade that I wish was a march) at the Alterna-stage in Alexander Parkette.