The ArQuives Digital Exhibitions

The ArQuives's Digital Exhibitions

Explore highlights from The ArQuives’s collections of personal and organizational papers, artifacts, ephemera and more!

Gay Spaces

 

 

Homosexual men have appropriated public spaces in Toronto since the early twentieth century. A number of parks, streets, bars, movie theatres, bath-houses, among other spaces, have provided men with venues for socializing, building networks, finding support and sexual encounters. The interviews that John Grube and Lionel Collier collected in the 1980s with older gay men for the Foolscap Oral History Project offer significant insights into the appropriation, transformation, and use of such spaces by homosexuals long before the North American gay liberation movements. Respondents described the gay bar culture in the city, discussed cruising practices in streets, parks, and locales catering to both a straight and queer clientele, and narrated anecdotes involving sexual encounters, police entrapment, and social interactions at these sites. From their recollections, one gathers how instrumental these venues were in these men’s personal lives. As Elgin Blair, one of Grube’s informants stated, “before there was any kind of organization, the counseling […] went on in pubs […] with everybody who was there, there was a lot of talking a lot of mutual support.”[1] Blair’s story resonates with the experiences of other homosexuals in major North American cities through the twentieth century. In pre-world war II New York City, for instance, George Chauncey notes that the gay subculture offered gay men practical support in negotiating the demands of urban life, it fostered their allegiance to one another, and provided them with emotional support “as they developed values and identities significantly different from those prescribed by the dominant culture.”[2]

 

Salmon, James Victor. High Park, pavilion. November, 1952. Baldwin Collection, Toronto Reference Library, Toronto.

 

Cruising in public spaces as well as going to bars and restaurants also provided homosexuals with an opportunity to access other realms of the gay world often restricted to upper-middle-class circles. As Chauncey observes, restaurants, cafeterias, parks, streets, bars, among other spaces often functioned as a crucial point of entry into the rest of the gay world for men just beginning to identify themselves as gay, and for newcomers to the cities. This gay world “was sometimes hidden from men looking for it by the same codes and subterfuges that protected it from hostile straight institutions.”[3] In his interview with Grube, Bob Grimson revealed that his passport to the “very private [gay] circle” of late-1930s Toronto was through cruising at Allan Gardens park. Once he realized that to gain access to the cultured, upper-class “gay community” he would need to be introduced by someone, he approached an attractive guy he had heard about, flattered him, and thus got an invitation to a party on Cumberland Avenue.[4] City parks, as Grube stated, “were not only a well-used place to connect with potential sex partners; they could lead to a sponsored entry into the gay social life of the time.”[5]

 

 

“Mapping Foolscap” locates what Canadian scholar David Churchill refers to as Toronto’s “imagined gay geography.” Venues of social interaction in mid-century Toronto, such as parks, washrooms, and cinemas, were places of shared activities. In creating gay sites, homosexuals colonized and subverted certain spaces and made them part of a same-sex topography.[6] In “Mapping Foolscap,” users are able to locate popular parks where gay men cruised and had sex. These encounters occurred not only among the parks’ bushes but also in the washrooms underneath constructions such as High Park’s pavilion and the Queen’s Park’s bandstand. The map situates popular movie theatres where men such as George Hislop remembered having sexual encounters. For instance, The Academy Theatre, The Bay, and The Rio. The map also shows the bars and beverage rooms with a significant gay clientele, such as the King Cole Room in the Park Plaza Hotel, the King’s Plate Room in the King Edward Hotel, the St. Charles Tavern, Letros, the Quest, and the Parkside. Aside from being more private and therefore secure, these institutions, as Churchill observes, were places where men could find an all-male environment due to the gendered regulation and segregation in licensed venues in mid-century Toronto.[7] Listening through the clips affiliated with each of these locations, one can find insight into the jovial, sexual and oftentimes dangerous nature of these encounters. The appropriation and democratization of public space was and continues to be a crucial component in the formation of a gay culture and identity. Echoing Grube’s own goals, “Mapping Foolscap” seeks to reflect on the transformation and significance of these spaces in the history Toronto’s gay communities.

Below, find a short podcast created by the historians and curators of Mapping Foolscap, expressing their contemporary perspectives on police entrapment in the Foolscap tapes.

 

 


[1] John Grube, “Interview with Elgin Blair,” Foolscap Oral History Project, Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, March 20, 1983.

[2] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994, 3.

[3] Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, 163-164; 167; 180.

[4] Grube, “Interview with Bob Grimson,” Foolscap Oral History Project, Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, March 18, 1983, 3.

[5] Grube, “‘No More Shit’: The Struggle for Democratic Gay Space in Toronto.” In Queers in Space: Communities/Public Places/Sites of Resistance, edited by Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter (San Francisco: Bay Press, 1997), 133.

[6] David Churchill, “Mother Goose’s Map.” Journal of Urban History, 30 (6), 2004: 830.

[7] Churchill, “Mother Goose’s Map,” 831.

Gay Spaces