Black Lives Matter versus Pride Toronto

When I came out in 1974, one of the first pieces of lore I learned about Toronto was the “Cherry Beach express.” 

You needed to be careful leaving gay bars late at night or the cops might pick you up and take you down to Cherry Beach, which was mostly deserted back then. There they would beat you up and leave you to make your way back home on foot.

Cherry Beach was one end of a spectrum of police abuse against queers that included harassment, ID checks, entrapment and arrests on spurious charges.

Toronto was a pretty white place in the 1970s, almost 96 per cent Caucasian, according to the census. But the relaxation of Canada’s racist immigration policies at the end of the 60s was changing the complexion of the city.

By the 80s, “visible minorities” were approaching 15 per cent of the population. Black and Brown residents faced daily discrimination by society at large and racial profiling and violence from the police.

In 1979, Albert Johnson, a 35-year-old Black man, was shot by police in front of his family. The killing galvanized the growing Black community, but the officers were acquitted on all charges, despite protests.

In 1981 police raided all the city’s gay bathhouses, arresting nearly 300 gay men. The Right to Privacy Committee (RTPC), which led the fight against the raids, was well aware that gay men were not alone in experiencing abusive policing. Lemona Johnson, Albert Johnson’s widow, addressed the second large RTPC -protest that winter. 

Often forgotten is RTPC’s involvement, along with Black and South Asian groups and the Law Union of Ontario, in the establishment of CIRPA, the Citizens Independent Review of Police Actions, Toronto’s first citizen watchdog of police. 

CIRPA ran a hotline for people to report police abuse and get legal advice. The group kept statistics and led a vocal lobby demanding police reform.

But despite such political alliances, day-to-day discrimination against racial minorities within the gay community was not much different. 

Racialized people were regularly carded at gay bars. There was a common assumption that being gay meant being white, and if you were a person of colour, you must be in the wrong place. In the sexual marketplace, the choice was often between rejection on the one hand and exoticization on the other.

“Ethnoracial” gay groups emerged to carve out welcoming spaces, challenge racism and confront homophobia in their own communities. Gay Asians Toronto was the first in 1980. Zami, the first Black and Caribbean gay and lesbian group, formed in 1984, and Khush: South Asian Gay Association, in 1987. 

Still, the obliviousness of the gay political leadership to questions of race was highlighted in 1985 when the Body Politic, the leading gay liberation magazine at the time, published a classified ad from a white man seeking a “young well-built black houseboy.”

Some on the collective argued that not publishing such ads would be censorship. The ad was eventually dropped, but the discussions revealed deep rifts between old-guard white activists and emerging Black queer voices.

The 80s also saw the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Most early AIDS service organizations focused on white gay men and proved incapable of meeting the needs of the growing number of racialized HIV-positive people. 

In response, the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (BlackCAP) formed in 1989, soon followed by the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention and then the Gay Asian AIDS Project.

The 1991 election of Kyle Rae, Toronto’s first openly gay city councillor, prompted a process of change in gay-police relations. Prior to that, the Gay Community Council, representing most local LGBT organizations, had refused to work with police until they could demonstrate a real willingness to reform. 

Rae promoted anti-homophobia training and engagement with the force. But he represented the quickly gentrifying downtown gay village, and if police might be cajoled into treating more affluent white gay men with some respect, harassment, especially of Black youth, intensified in the ever poorer suburbs.

The 1992 Yonge Street riot – and Stephen Lewis’s subsequent report on anti-Black racism within the force – exposed the gulf. 

There had been eight recent police shootings of young Black men, and after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles, when police were acquitted of assaulting a Black man despite video evidence, a march up Yonge turned into a melee. 

Three days before the riot, 500 lesbians and gay men had blocked Yonge Street to protest the latest police raid on Glad Day Bookshop. Yet, unlike a decade earlier, there was no attempt by the gay and Black communities to build a common front against police brutality. 

In 1999, Black activists came together to assert a stronger Black presence at Pride. The result was Blockorama, a popular dance party at the centre of the festival. 

But in 2007, Pride began to move the event to ever smaller and more peripheral spaces. Finally, in 2010, Blocko organizers had had enough. They called a public meeting to discuss leaving the festival altogether. After much pressure, Blocko was returned to its prominent stage, but the impression was that as Pride became more concerned with marketing affluent gay bodies to corporate sponsors, Black queers were an afterthought who always had to fight to avoid exclusion.

So BLM’s intervention in this year’s parade can hardly be considered unexpected. 

Their demands, according to Pride executive director Mathieu Chantelois, even as he referred them to his board for a final determination, are “reasonable.” 

To be sure. They are the result of a well-founded conviction that Black queers continue to be marginalized.

Tim McCaskell taught anti-racism and anti-homophobia education in Toronto schools for almost 20 years. He is also founder of AIDS Action Now. | @nowtoronto

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