Waving a rainbow flag over poor communities

LGBTQ-focused sport facility proposed for Moss Park and John Innes Community Centre site for possible future Olympics bid, has anti-poverty activists worried about a broader city agenda to shut down shelter beds in quickly gentrifying Downtown East


After the recent near-miss Olympic bid, housing and anti-poverty activists are monitoring a new $100 million LGBTQ-focused sport and recreation centre proposed for Moss Park and the current site of the John Innes Community Centre, which could be part of a plan to boost the chances of a future bid.

The city and the 519 Church Street Community Centre began working on the project described in a staff report as “a new recreation facility… focused on inclusion in sport that would become home to Toronto’s LGBT sport community,” in 2012. A private donor has committed up to one-third of the capital costs.

The initial vote at city council in 2013 saw only two dissenting voices, although a few councillors raised concerns about financing, queue-jumping other projects and a possible precedent for minority groups who might want their own facilities. A councillor who asked if people had reported being turned away from city community centres because of sexual orientation was told this had not happened. 

Councillors were assured that private donations, foundations and corporate contributions would cover most of the costs, some 66 per cent. The remainder would be covered by municipal, provincial and federal governments.

Several councillors supported the project on the basis it was a positive step toward inclusiveness in sport and recreation, not to mention a generous donation that should not be turned away. On the issue of whether its LGBTQ-focus amounted to “special treatment,” it was noted that some community centres already serve specific cultural and linguistic groups – although most of these are located in neighbourhoods with a concentration of a particular ethnic group, unlike the sites suggested for the LGBTQ sport centre.

Originally, a location at St. Lawrence and Eastern was proposed for the project, but that was rejected over environmental concerns and, more importantly, because it would not accommodate an ice surface, pool or outdoor field. These were features that the 519 was seeking, since one of the goals was to address the growing needs of more than 40 LGBTQ sport leagues. 

It was acknowledged that these leagues are now “dominated by gay men in their 20s and 30s,” but supporters claimed that a designated LGBTQ facility would allow more flexible programming and opportunities for women, youth and older participants, as well as for straight people. 

Terminology has become significant: now the centre is often described as LGBTQ-focused to correct inaccurate assumptions that non-gays would be excluded.

Expanding on these themes, backers identified a long list of benefits and opportunities, including local economic development, student placements, training and employment, social enterprise businesses, sport literacy programs, tourism, sport hosting opportunities and even programs for those “traumatized by sport.” Overall, the centre would serve as a research laboratory for designing best practices for inclusive sport. 

But the proposal is raising important questions about the links between sport mega-events and downtown gentrification in the Downtown East area – specifically the George Street Revitalization project. 

To the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), Queer Ontario and Queer Trans Community Defence, the project is being viewed as part of a broader agenda to reduce shelter beds in prime-real-estate neighbourhoods. 

The George Street plan proposes to turn Seaton House, a 540-bed men’s shelter, into a long-term care home, leaving only 100 emergency shelter beds. Many LGBT seniors have expressed concerns that new staff at the repurposed Seaton House, unlike those at Fudger House, will have limited skills or experience working with LGBT residents. 

All these changes would be implemented at a time when Toronto has failed to meet council’s 2013 target of a maximum 90 per cent occupancy rate of shelter beds, that has hovered around 95 per cent, in large part as a result of a loss of about 200 beds in the previous eight months.

Sport organized by and for Toronto’s LGBT community has a long history, and with a few exceptions, most groups welcome all gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and “gay-friendly” participants. The movement started in 1972 with the Judy Garland Memorial Bowling League, one of the oldest LGBT sports clubs in North America, followed in 1975 by the Cabbagetown Group Softball League for gay, lesbian and straight players. The Out and Out Social Club, organized in 1980, offers cycling, skiing, hiking, camping, yoga, baseball and other social activities to more than 700 members. 

The 1980s and 90s saw the birth of dozens of new LGBT sports organizations in Toronto, including Frontrunners, a club for competitive and recreational runners, and, in 1984, the Notso Amazon Softball League, offering recreational softball for lesbians, queer-positive women and trans people. With more than 500 members, the Toronto Spartans Volleyball League, also started in 1984, has a program of recreational and competitive volleyball open to all. The Pink Turf Soccer League, operating since 1987, offers recreational soccer for lesbians and lesbian-positive women, and the Downtown Swim Club (masters age group) is open to lesbians, gay men and gay-positive people at all levels.

In short, Toronto has pioneered an extensive network of recreational sports organizations that provide relatively safe venues for LGBTQ and gay-friendly participants. None of these operates in a designated LGBT facility, and many use Parks and Recreation’s public parks, arenas, pools and community centres. 

It’s also important to recognize the many positive changes in policies, programs and societal attitudes since the 1980s. In view of the last three decades of social change, it’s been suggested that events like the Gay Games are no longer as vital to LGBTQ sports as they were when first organized in 1982. 

In the discourse surrounding the proposed LGBT sport centre, it’s also vital to acknowledge that Parks and Recreation, the Toronto District School Board, the University of Toronto and other institutions have long been addressing the sport and recreational preferences and needs of women and ethnic and sexual minorities, ranging from all-gender washrooms and change rooms to activities geared to specific groups under-represented in existing programs.

As early as 1985, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport tackled the problem of homophobia in women’s sport and recreation, and it has continued to work on this issue. And on the question of promoting acceptance of trans and other LGBT participants through public education campaigns, U of T’s Change Room Project sets a good example for others to follow.

Supporters of the LGBTQ-focused sport centre claim it would be the first of its kind, a “groundbreaking” project, “a beacon to the rest of the country and the world,” a model of “international best practice for LGBT engagement in recreation” and “a transformational facility.”

Certainly, sport can have a transformational effect on an individual, but reliance on “sport as transformation” rhetoric ignores the reality of the Downtown East residents’ lives.

To suggest that all the current users of Moss Park would feel welcomed in this proposed centre is unrealistic at best. As Queer Trans Community Defence states, “We do not need a separate -LGBTQ sport and recreation centre… waving a rainbow flag over the destruction of poor communities that include many queer and trans people.” There’s no pride in gentrification.   

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, professor emerita, University of Toronto, has published extensively on women, sport, sexuality and the Olympic industry.

news@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

Updated January 4, 2016, 4:24 pm: An earlier version of this story stated Fudger House will be closed. There are no definite plans to close the facility at this time.

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