On February 5, 1981, the Metropolitan Toronto Police raided four gay bathhouses in Toronto, arresting 306 people; 20 owners were charged for “keeping a common bawdyhouse,” and 286 men were charged as “found-ins.” While men were being verbally abused, beaten up and dragged out naked on the streets, this moment spurred what is now called the Canadian equivalent of New York City’s Stonewall Riots. Indeed, following Operation Soap (which was the name given to the raid and mass arrest), the LGBTQ communities in Canada rallied, got organized and steered mass protests. Thirty years on, this protest has now turned into what we know as Pride Toronto.
Thirty years is not so far back in time, and yet, in those 30 years, much has been accomplished, including, amongst others, recognizing the civil rights of LGBTQ and other minority communities, the passing of numerous anti-discrimination bills and the legalization of same-sex marriages. Three decades also propelled Pride Toronto into uncharted directions, altering the nature of the parade from a few thousand politically-conscious queers and allies descending into the streets to make themselves visible to what numerous activists now call “a big corporate party.”
While Pride Toronto “prides” itself on being one of the largest cultural festivals in North America, attracting up to one million people, the culture(s) being promoted by the 10-day event is still fraught with ambivalence: is Pride Toronto a political event, is it just a large profit-making corporate celebration, or, if it is a bit of both, how does Pride negotiate both these ends and incorporate them into those 10 days?
The crux of the question may be looked at in light of the debate about whether the activist group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) should, or not, be allowed to participate in Pride Toronto. The embers of this fiery dispute, ignited a few years ago, are presently being fanned again. QuAIA is an off-shoot of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, and is a Toronto-based LGBTQ group aimed at protesting the military occupation of Palestine by the Israeli authorities. While their aim, as a LGBTQ group, is to make themselves visible and vocal enough to state their discontent in the face of a particular kind of colonization and occupation, the queer communities, and the public as a whole, are divided over whether Pride Toronto is an adequate space for QuAIA to denounce the politics of the government of Israel (and other countries supporting Israel.)
Last year, the Toronto Pride Committee claimed that Pride did not have any affiliations to political entities or causes and that QuAIA would not be allowed to march in the Parade. Subsequently, the committee changed its decision at the last minute, and QuAIA was allowed to take part in the parade, but the words “Israeli Apartheid” were altogether banned from use.
Last week, Toronto mayor Rob Ford announced that the city would refuse to grant any funding to Pride Toronto should QuAIA be allowed to participate in the parade. Speaking to the Canadian Jewish News, Rob Ford stated that “taxpayer dollars should not go toward funding hate speech.” From Ford’s point of view, denouncing and expressing an oppressive political situation, in a public fashion, in a democratic society, is “hate speech.”
Rewind back to thirty years ago: had the protests of the LGBTQ communities in 1981 been silenced and shrugged off as “hate speech,” where would the queer communities presently stand in terms of civil rights and anti-discrimination?