Local hero: Mandy Goodhandy is more visible than ever

MANDY GOODHANDY SINGS, STEPS & SALUTES 65 at 120 Diner (120 Church) on November 28. 6-8 pm. Pwyc, suggested $10-$20. 120diner.com.

This might not be the first time you’ve seen Mandy Goodhandy in NOW Magazine. The transgender comedian, singer, nightclub owner and sex work activist was a regular presence in the paper’s back-pages adult classified ads in the 90s.

“I was a groundbreaking advertiser, I’ll have you know. I was the first one brave enough to put in a picture,” she says. “It was quite expensive, but business is business. We all ended up making money, especially back then when there were not that many transgender women advertising.”

Sex work is one of the many vocations chronicled in her recently self-published memoir, Just Call Me Lady. The book covers her childhood in Scotland to immigrating with her family to Streetsville in the 60s and joining the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets. She went from musical theatre to the gay bar scene and doing drag. She became a male stripper named Johnny Fantasy – at the height of the male stripping craze in the late 70s and early 80s – and then a stripper booking agent before landing in sex work and coming out as trans at 40. 

With the money she made in sex work, Goodhandy opened the club Goodhandy’s in 2006 at 120 Church with business partner Todd Klinck. Dubbed “Toronto’s pansexual playground,” the venue hosted sex parties and dedicated nights for trans women, but struggled to break even. 

In 2012, the pair rebranded it as Club 120 and opened up to outside promoters. It now has a rep as one of the city’s most inclusive clubs, though its fate is in limbo as the building’s owner prepares to turn it into a condo. To keep going, Goodhandy and Klinck struck a deal to take over the first-floor space and opened the restaurant 120 Diner. Hosting open-mic comedy and music nights in her new venue brought Goodhandy back to performing and earlier this year she released an album of cover songs (also called Just Call Me Lady).

No matter what she done, Goodhandy says she’s always felt like an outsider looking in – but she’s far from shy. She’s all about visibility. Including her photo in a back-page ad is just one example.

“Anything I could do, my darling!” she laughs. “I was standing on the street corner in a full-length fur coat – do you really think I cared if people saw me?”

That attitude landed her and Klinck in the middle of intense backlash when they accepted an invitation to be grand marshals of the 2010 Pride Parade. Toronto Pride was taking community heat for banning the activist group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. No one wanted the grand marshal gig but the pair saw a chance to put their sex-positive posse and “decriminalize sex work now!” message front and centre.

Ahead of Transgender Awareness Week (and her 65th birthday celebration), NOW caught up with the trailblazer to talk about inclusive music venues, Pride’s relevance and her latest reinvention as a singer.

Where did you get the attitude to not care what others think? 

It was a little bit of the Scottish in me. I also got to a point in my life where I’d had enough of living the way other people wanted me to live. A lot people [in the gay bar scene] were really brave and groundbreaking, but they were so busy judging each other. It was very vicious and not healthy. At that time, I wasn’t drinking for 10 years so I got to see it sober, which was worse. When I was able to break away and get into this freedom of being me and doing what I wanted to do – both with the stripping and then with sex work – it was invigorating. Why would I be ashamed of being an entrepreneur? 

In the book you write about transphobia and toxicity you experienced when you were part of the gay bar scene. Is it fair to say that’s still an issue that needs to be discussed?

With a community you don’t want to stir people up, so I make it clear in the book it’s a small percentage of people. But when something happens, it can feel like everybody. The last thing we need is people under our flag hating on each other and making them feel not accepted. I’m very protective when it comes to young trans people. [Young people] are the ones with the opportunity to go forward and make this community the way it should be, which is united. Even though I’m the owner of a bar, I still see it, I sense it and I get treated badly at times at gay parties in particular. That can be belittling for people who are not confident.

Now that you’re a venue owner, what’s your advice when it comes to setting a tone so that discrimination is not tolerated?

As business owners we don’t always have the opportunity to create it ourselves. The customers almost end up deciding. That is what happened when we first had Goodhandy’s. It was becoming well known because we had the sex club thing going and we were very open to every part of our community. We had different parties for different people and we were trying to operate as a venue for anyone to just walk in. And it wasn’t working for us. One was location. People aren’t walking up and down that part of Church Street, but also people didn’t want to mix. The lesbians didn’t want to mix with the gays and the gays didn’t want to mix with the trans people. So we changed the whole look and became a venue that books outside promoters. We don’t have our own parties except for the trans women parties that I’ve kept from the beginning. We were fortunate, but at one point we thought we were going to lose everything. All that money I made giving oral sex and I would’ve lost all of it! After all that struggling! [laughs]

The club still has a reputation for booking the parties no one else will book.

I feel incredible about the fact that we have so many different groups of people and different types of parties. Our venue coexists with heterosexuals, gay people, lesbians and trans people. A lot people still think it’s Goodhandy’s but even Goodhandy’s wasn’t all sex all the time. They go, “Oh you’re that sex club or that trans club.” We’re not any of those things and we never were. We’re open to everybody.

What’s the status of the club? Because the “condo coming soon” sign is up.

It’s interesting how they’ve got tenants who are still paying rent and they have big signs up saying this place is closing. Nothing ever works out for the tenants, does it? It’ll depend on the city [approving permits] and it depends on whether Madison Group, who owns the building, can get [neighbouring Irish pub] McVeigh’s or not. At this point, we have one year left on the lease then we go into negotiation to get a new lease or go month to month. We don’t know what’s going to happen but we’ll definitely go into discussions.

You were the first trans woman to perform at Toronto Jazz Festival in 2016. What did that mean to you?

It was an honour on many levels. I was able to be in a festival that wasn’t predominately queer. That gives us an in. There are a million lesbians and gays in the music industry but transgender people don’t pop up at these things very often. And when they do, it’s not as if they advertise who they are. You’re a musician and you’re trans, but that’s not what you’re all about. With me, I wanted to get a little media out of it because it’s all about educating people about transgender people and making people aware we exist. The second thing was being accepted as a singer in that industry.

You were the grand marshal for Pride in the middle of a controversy. Once again, Toronto Pride has upset people by deciding to allow uniformed police to march in the parade in 2019. What are your thoughts on Pride’s relevance today?

Pride is a very touchy subject for me. It’s one of the few situations where a group of people in our community managed to almost silence me – and that doesn’t happen very often. I don’t judge the people who run Pride. Everybody is doing the best they can. But from my point of view, it has become a group that is not welcoming. They’re making people alienated. They’re making people feel uncomfortable and, worst of all, they’re silencing people. When you come up with a message and not everybody agrees, you get trodden on. 

When Todd and I decided to take those [grand marshal] spots and the community disagreed, they attacked us viciously. I had never seen anything like that before and that included everything that had ever happened to me in high school or anything that had happened to me anywhere publicly where I felt like I was being assaulted and abused. It was really tough to take that from your own community. I didn’t feel like I belonged. It was horrible. All we wanted to do was take that spot because no one wanted it and put forward our message. They appreciated it after because they got what we were doing, but they didn’t trust us enough.

In the book you write that community organizations that become a mess should be challenged, questioned and even dismantled. How do you think Pride should evolve? 

This is my total opinion: it is time to move on. It is time to divide [the parade] into two sections. One should be a celebration and the other should be a demonstration. People hate each other and you see it on Facebook. It doesn’t matter what you end up saying, somebody attacks you back for it. Our community is divided so how do we bring them together? Let’s sit down and talk about how we can pull everyone together. I don’t know what the answer is. Pride has been given a fucking month. How is it they’re given a month and they can’t make this work?

On a lighter note, my favourite line in the book is when you describe how men go to a place “that has a population of one” when they’re done having sex. Is that a situation we can ever remedy?

That’s a lost cause. [laughs] That’s never going to happen. There’s a very small – and it’s so minute – collection of gentlemen who actually want to have a relationship with trans women. But maybe men in general – whether they’re with trans women or not – are uncomfortable or feel guilty having sex. When I was in the gay world, there were guys you had sex with and then you didn’t exist. I’m not saying you should go running through a meadow because you’ve just had sex but, like, don’t turn into somebody else. Who did I just have sex with? Because whoever you are now it wasn’t you. 

Do you think men who are attracted to trans women will ever have a letter in the LGBTQ alphabet?

Todd came up with that a long time ago. He said there’s no name for men who are attracted trans women or men who are attracted to that feminine side – in a dress or not in a dress. That’s why a lot of drag queens are getting luckier than they ever did because they got smart and realized that if they don’t change out of drag, they might meet a hot guy. There is a demographic but I don’t know what you would call it. 

You’re in comedy and music and a business owner. What brings you the most joy now?

I feel the happiest performing in front of an audience. When I’m doing a comedy routine in front of people laughing and enjoying themselves and learning from what I’m saying. When they see there’s a funny side to who I am and who trans people are – because they don’t get a lot of doors opening to be educated. When I sing, I’m not just singing a song. Someone else wrote it, but it’s my version of how I feel and how other trans or queer people might feel. Communicating and educating give me joy. 

What song from the album speaks to that joy the most?

The song that means the most is I Believe because of its roots being a British song. My father was always singing it and my father told me I should never sing that song – my voice wasn’t good enough. Musical theatre told me I didn’t have enough bass in my voice. When I found my voice through finally being myself, I really hit I Believe vocally. In terms of what it’s about, I really believe eventually people will be more open-minded and won’t kill people they don’t understand. Even if they’re not, know that you are loved no matter what. Someone out there understands everything that you’re going through. Stop being internal, stop thinking everybody hates you, stop thinking there’s something wrong with you. You’re doing it right and maybe people will get it. But if they don’t, the universe will.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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