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Jump ahead more than 20 years and Pride celebrations were a vastly different story — a front-page splash, in fact. The three-hour extravaganza that pranced and danced through downtown streets in 2005 drew a million witnesses to the exuberant participation of police, politicians and public figures of all stripes.
“We will not let fears get in the way of what we do,” executive director Mathieu Chantelois told reporters after the June 12 mass shooting in a gay nightclub. “We will dance in the streets and we will dance in the clubs.”
The July 3 parade will be dedicated to victims of the Florida attack in the climax to a full month of festivities — including trans and dyke marches — marking the 35th anniversary of Toronto Pride. And what a difference a few decades make.
On Feb. 5, 1981, already-strained relations with police took an abrupt downturn when more than 250 men were arrested by cops using hammers and crowbars to break into private cubicles of four bathhouses.
The raids in which men were rounded up draped only in towels triggered violent protests by thousands and comparisons to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.
Police chief Jack Ackroyd defended his force’s actions as “justified,” based on a six-month investigation into allegations of “prostitution and indecent acts.” But last month, current police chief Mark Saunders made a historic apology for the raids.
But even as annual Pride day grew in strength and popularity, city politicians balked at giving it their blessing. Mayor Art Eggleton repeatedly refused to proclaim Lesbian and Gay Pride Day in the 1980s, saying sexual preference was none of the government’s business.
Then in late 1990, city council minus a still stubborn Eggleton took aim against “gay bashing” in a multi-faceted campaign and finally gave official recognition to the day.
The Metro Toronto police services board later acknowledged the LGBT community was “legitimately” entitled to policing that was sensitive to their needs. Relationships today, however, continue to be “challenging” at times, Chantelois said recently.
July 1, 1991 saw tens of thousands celebrate the first Pride day to be proclaimed by the city. But official recognition wasn’t an automatic ticket into mainstream society. Same-sex parents — or at least those willing to talk openly — were still a novelty, according to a feature in the Star’s Life section.
“They are a family,” reporter Lindsay Scotton said of one lesbian couple with two kids. “It may not be the kind of family Beaver Cleaver came home to, but it’s theirs, it’s strong, and they’re proud of it.”
Nobody knew how many lesbian and gay parents were out there “quietly challenging traditional notions of what families are,” Scotton added.
As societal acceptance increased, however, so did the yearly show of gaiety.
In 1995, more than 500,000 spectators showed up for a three-hour spectacle that was called North America’s largest gay pride event ever. And Barbara Hall became the first Toronto mayor to join the parade.
“So non-controversial has the parade become that Toronto’s new police chief Bill Blair was at the very head of the marching affair, walking alongside Mayor David Miller and other municipal politicians, just behind scout cars draped with the rainbow flag.”
Blair made a simple but powerful statement: “I couldn’t be any prouder than to be here today.”
Weeks later, same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide. But several years later, the local LGBT community was publicly snubbed when the late Rob Ford turned his back on Pride celebrations to spend time at the family cottage.
Further proof the days of quiet little picnics are long gone.
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