In Toronto’s Pride Embrace
Toronto’s Pride Week kicks off on June 23 with a launch party at the Phoenix Concert Theatre. Promoters are promising appearances by "drag and tantalizing burlesque performers." Immediately following, there will be a street festival in the Church/Wellesley neighborhood -- home of Toronto’s gay village - with free musical performances, vendors hawking street food and gewgaws, and lots of eye candy courtesy of a colorful array of LBGT groups.
It all wraps up on Sunday, July 3 at 2 p.m. with a massive parade down Yonge Street, one of Toronto’s central arteries. Last year, an estimated 1.5 million people gathered along the parade route in the bright sunlight and sweltering heat to raise collective cheers skyward under rainbow flags, balloons and banners, making it an exceptionally vibrant and exhilarating event.
Controversy and discord
Yet while Pride Toronto will once again be sought after by the multitudes, planning for this year’s festivities has been more rocky than most.
"The City of Toronto is withholding funds until after the event," said Peter McHugh, interim communications director for Pride Toronto, in an interview at Pride’s offices last week. "The city managers are insisting that the parade exclude any group who seeks to use it for political purposes."
This edict is in reaction to last year’s inclusion of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA). They were banned from the parade but were later allowed to march. The flip-flop caused an uproar among pro-Israeli gay groups and Toronto’s Jewish community. And if that weren’t enough, in an unrelated incident, a decision was handed down by Canada’s conservative government in May last year to deny Pride Toronto funding to the tune of $350,000.
QAIA will not march
QAIA has agreed not to march in this year’s Pride Parade. But many are wondering whether this will satisfy Toronto’s city managers.
"The city is insisting that there be no visual display of political messaging," McHugh said, "on tee shirts and such during the parade. We are opposing this ruling. In an event as large as the Pride parade, there is no way we can guarantee what people wear or don’t wear."
Many attending the Pride parade come in all flavors of dress and undress. Nudity is common along the parade route and on Church Street during the street fair, especially at night. One of Pride’s corporate sponsors, Trojan condoms, hires scantily clad male models dressed as Roman gladiators who distribute free condoms to passersby. They are among the most photographed by residents and tourists alike. For city managers to object to potentially offensive messaging on tee shirts when many show up bare-assed to Pride events seems, to the organizers, absurd.
It is widely expected that the city will approve Toronto Pride’s funding, and write a check to the cash-strapped organization for $250,000. The Canadian federal government, however, will not be so generous.
The fallout from last year’s political grandstanding has left a bad taste in some mouths. Numerous observers I interviewed cited the lingering rancor as a key factor that brought about the resignation of Pride’s executive director, Tracie Sandilands, earlier this year.
Last June I interviewed Sandilands, a South African native who was hired in 2008, who told me she had been verbally maligned for opposing QAIA. When she followed the dictates of the Pride board and reversed the decision and allowed QAIA to march, she was further subjected to execration before finally handing in her notice. Pride Toronto is now headed by an interim director.
"Working with Pride is difficult," admitted Francisco Alvarez, a member of the Pride Toronto board who is actively planning Toronto’s World Pride for 2014. "You can’t please all the people all the time. Yet that is often what an executive director is asked to do," he added.
Pride Toronto is moving forward. McHugh and others on the Pride staff are finalizing the Pride Guide, to be published as a standalone by the Toronto Star newspaper for free distribution during Pride Week. All events will also be posted online http://www.pridetoronto.com/PrideEvents/, and on Facebook.
"The theme of this year’s Pride is Dream Big," McHugh said. "And that’s exactly what we are doing. We are focusing on the future, putting a lot of attention on youth (http://www.soytoronto.org) through our Fruit Loopz campaign, and communicating messages of unity through the gay/straight alliance, transsexual rights and bathhouse rights."
Alvarez adds that the Pride board is looking toward new fundraising models.
"It’s the way of the future," Alvarez said. "We’ve had to cut back on certain events simply because they were too costly. All groups, not just Pride Toronto, are facing similar fiscal scrutiny and stringencies. We are building new alliances for Pride next year and World Pride in 2014."
Reporting from Toronto over these past several years, I’ve witnessed an astonishing vital community consistently in the throes of reinventing itself. New gay-owned businesses are popping up everywhere. A recent commercial newcomer (it opened for business just three months ago) is the Flying Beaver Pubaret on Parliament Street, a short walk from Toronto’s gay village (http://www.pubaret.com/). Last week, Flying Beaver hosted lesbian comedienne Vicky Shaw to a sold out crowd.
The venerable Tourism Toronto group has again teamed up with Pride Toronto and has launched a website called Pride Pumped (http://www.seetorontonow.com/Visitor/GayCommunity/), which offers a scintillating online video on how to get "Pride Pumped 2000X" and in shape for Pride Week. The video celebrates the body electric. Another accent on living a healthy lifestyle is the Pride Run and Remembrance, a popular 5K run/walk through the city, set for July 2.
And Toronto remains a popular mecca for those seeking to tie the knot. According to Toronto magazine, more that 6,000 same-sex marriage licenses have been issued in the city since 2003. Last year, I witnessed a same-sex marriage ceremony aboard a float emblazoned with a banner, "Just Married," during Pride Parade.
Getting there and where to stay
While Pearson International Airport may be convenient for many, Toronto’s Billy Bishop City Airport brings you within minutes of the city via public transportation or taxi.
Porter Airlines (https://www.flyporter.com/Flight/Tickets?culture=en-CA) offers affordable fares to Toronto throughout the summer, and lives up to their motto, "flying refined." Airline travel can be a hassle these days, but not at Porter. It is one of the few airlines anywhere that offers lunch and beverages without extra charge and has a comfortable lounge in Toronto with free internet access, newspapers, snacks, and an espresso machine for your use. Porter has flights to Toronto from Chicago, Newark, Boston, New York and several Canadian cities.
The Sutton Place hotel in Toronto is in the heart of the city (http://www.toronto.suttonplace.com/default.htm). Its location cannot be beat. Situated on the corner of Bay and Wellesley, it is one block from the Pride parade route and two blocks from Church/Wellesley street fair. With the Sutton Place as your base, you can also enjoy access to several of Toronto’s city parks, a nearby subway station, or choose to walk to numerous downtown shopping centers. It is a bastion of civility and comfort. Last year, the Sutton Place hosted many Pride events and parties, including a group of visiting reporters who were covering Toronto Pride for their respective global publications.
Most importantly, Toronto is a friendly city. I return often for the refreshing and humanistic outlook of its residents, and their healthy embrace of diversity and multiculturalism.
While the gay community grapples with discord within its ranks, many I spoke to seemed determined to resolve differences. "We’ve won all our rights," a woman at Slacks, a gay bar on Church Street told me, "so those battles are over. We’re no longer an oppressed minority. Now we’ve got to learn how to get along with one another."
Meanwhile, consider yourself invited to a week long party, as Pride Toronto dusts off a welcome mat to all those who seek to access its multifarious pleasures.
Watch the Toronto Pride workout at www.PridePump.com and get prepped for Toronto Pride.
More teaser videos encouraging people to get into a Pride Pump state of mind and body can be seen at www.youtube.com/seetorontonow
This article is part of our "Summer 2011" series. Want to read more?
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