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An establishment soirée

By Barton Wong
web posted July 16, 2001

Well, the dirty deed's been done. I've attended my first gay and lesbian pride parade, and now that I've survived, I'm here to tell you the "facts", such as they are. Most of the parade travels along what is affectionately known as "The Strip" on Toronto's main thoroughfare, Yonge St., the longest street in the world according to Guinness. Think of Times Square before it got Disneyfied stretched out for over two and half kilometers and you'll get the picture. I had originally thought that approximately half a million people would attend the parade. Well, I was wrong. It was actually between 800,000 to one million people. So who says Gay Pride doesn't have mass popular appeal?

If you are a conservative, especially a social conservative (and I'm thinking of John Derbyshire and Joseph Sobran here), you should attend at least one gay and lesbian pride parade. Not only for your education, but also for polemical advantage. Just imagine the shock value of opening one an argument against a liberal opponent with, "Well, I remember when I was at the [Fill in city] Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade back in [Fill in year] and I think..."

Your opponent will never expect to see that coming.

I've actually been in "Boystown", a notoriously gay section of Toronto, only once before, about two years ago. Our championship (best in the city for two years!) high school Reach For The Top (think blitz Jeopardy) team was staying in dorms at the University of Toronto for a weekend to attend the Ontario championships. We had to stay there because of a stupid rule that required every team (even if you lived in the exact same city) to stay in dorms during the provincial championships. Well, after a fine day's work, our team was looking for something to do and our team captain, Jason (who if he wasn't gay, certainly put in a fine imitation it) suggested that we go to an, ahem, lesbian bar, because lesbian bars didn't ask for identification. How he came by this knowledge he never explained. Which is how I ended up drinking an iced cappuccino at the local Second Cup in the heart of Toronto's gay and lesbian neighbourhood at midnight, while we all tried not to stare at some Oriental guy wearing grotesquely tiny shorts. Jasan never found his mythical lesbian bar.

My "Pride Weekend" actually began the day before the parade. I was downtown when I saw a small group of men who looked like a lost group of Jerry Garcia Impersonators. Listening to the conversation of two women beside me, I learned these were actually a group of gay men who were here for the parade. Later, looking at the cover of our city's liberal newspaper, The Toronto Star, there was a photo of two women joyously embracing each other as if they had just escaped from some sort of concentration camp. The story accompanying the photo described the "Dykes Parade", which being held that same day. About 20,000 people showed up for it.

Now when attending a Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade, one of the key things that you must take care of before leaving is attire. Now, if I had wanted to look flamboyant and perhaps blend in with revellers a bit more, I would have worn what I call my "clown shirt." Given me by my uncle when he learned the 80s and its fashions were gone for good, this piece of clothing is an unbelievable eyesore. I call it the clown shirt because I really have no choice. What else am I going to call a shirt that consists of garishly large stripes of red, green, and yellow the colour of bright poster paint? I once had a bet with someone at my old high school where the penalty for losing was wearing the clown shirt all day. It looks that bad. Being a shrewd fellow, he didn't take me up on the bet. As it was, I was lazy and ended up wearing what was convenient and close at hand. The result was unappealing to say the least. Black sweatshirt with a navy blue polo shirt underneath, black pants with a black belt, and navy blue socks with black shoes. I ended up looking like a designer-label Goth. All I needed was some black lipstick and eyeliner, which would have worked out well considering where I was going.

I did wonder what would happen should I meet someone I knew while observing the parade. Were this to happen, there would be, no doubt, many unwanted questions separated only by plenty of disconcerting pauses. But before I could be embarrassed, I had to get there in the first place. I needed to leave the house in as discreet a manner as possible. I couldn't very well tell my father I was leaving the house to attend a gay and lesbian pride parade, even if it was to cover it for a webzine. He would have thought that overly -well- peculiar. Luckily, my wallet, which my mother bought me at an one-dollar store, was falling apart surprisingly quickly. So, I told my parents that I was going downtown to buy a new one, but since I wasn't really, and my mother was going out to the one-dollar store anyway, I changed my mind and asked her to buy me the wallet instead while she was shopping. Then I left the house and no one bothered asking why I was leaving for no reason at all. Mission accomplished, I headed for the nearest subway station.

The subway train was noticeably more crowded than was usual for a Sunday, though there wasn't any obviously "gay-looking" people aboard. Although there was one teen wearing a sparkling necklace with the Gay Pride colours, and later at Broadview Station, two men wearing hot-pink "short shorts" got on. I found myself sitting beside a young black woman about my age. She pulled out a book called "Who Is Black? One Nation's Rules" with a map of the United States on the cover. Great, I groaned inwardly, a black studies major, though I was rather pleasantly surprised to read this sentence in the book, "In the early 1940s, the NAACP and the 1940 Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie pleaded with Hollywood producers to portray blacks as ordinary human beings on screen." Now if only the NAACP would learn to portray Republican presidential candidates as ordinary human beings.

Practically everyone on board the train got off at Yonge St. Station. There I saw three ads which featured couples riding on horses across some spectacular mountain landscape. One couple was gay, another lesbian, and the last one was straight. In keeping with the times, the straight couple was appropriately PC, the woman was young and white, the man had dreadlocks and was distinctly Jamaican looking. The ads all proclaimed, "Welcome To Condom Country," and underneath the caption read, "HIV is rising in Toronto. Ride safely."

I then saw three young women carrying a banner on the platform across from me. They were on their way to the parade. Their banner read "United Church." Later, as I was leaving the station, I saw someone who was almost certainly Bruce Cockburn, writer and singer of such famous rock anthems as "If I Had A Rocket Launcher." Cockburn, if it was him, stared straight back at me as if he was expecting me to ask him for an autograph, but since I wasn't sure if it was him, I didn't bother.
The moment I left the station, I knew I was overdressed and would need a drink pretty soon. An overwhelming stench also hit me. At first, I assumed it was marijuana smoke, but as it turns out, just about everyone had taken the opportunity to light up a cigarette. There was a news helicopter overhead. As I passed the site of Toronto's very first "FCUK" store, I noticed that nearly everyone I saw was holding up little placards that read "I am/Je suis Queer As Folk," which served the useful double purpose of both proclaiming your solidarity with "Gay Pride" and advertising for the television show.

The famous (or infamous if you prefer) gay soap opera is filmed here in Toronto, and while we appreciate the extra money it brings in, many of us are puzzled as to why the producers, in all their wisdom, decided to disguise our city as Pittsburgh. Later I saw a stand and sign that was selling the "Queer As Folk" soundtrack. Some marketing genius had decided that a close-up of a man's hairy knee would make for an attractive CD cover, but unless you have a really huge men's leg fetish, I would think most people would find the cover rather ugly.

Walking down the Yonge St. Strip, I noticed that about three-quarters of the crowd lining the parade route didn't seem to be gay. Those that were dressed in leather or almost nude or in some other way flamboyantly costumed were either standing by themselves, looking rather awkward, or else, they were calmly chatting away in small groups, looking for all the world as if they were discussing the latest hit movie at the local coffee bar. Everyone else looked as if they were preparing for a suburban backyard barbecue or a meeting of their neighbourhood's Rotary Club. Interestingly, a lot of guys had taken their girlfriends out to see the parade. I guess it's an easy way to demonstrate to your beloved that you have a tolerant mind and an open heart, without having to shell out any money for it.

I also noticed that all of the merchants from the strip, ranging the perfectly legitimate to the real sleaze bags had taken advantage of the large crowds and had increased their advertising signage for the day. Every storefront seemed to be selling Evian water. The Uptown Cinema, for some yet unknown reason, thought "Tomb Raider" should be front and center on the marquis, and this would somehow have a special appeal to Gay Pride attendees. The New Yorker Theatre had put up a big new, black and white sign which advertised for "The Vagina Monologues," a recent must-see theatrical hit here in Toronto. I passed a booth in front of a Shopper's Drug Mart where a group of women in their fifties and sixties were selling yet more bottled water, but who were wearing tight T-shirts that advertised for "Trojan Condoms."

There were posters displayed asking you if you had an army uniform fetish and where to fulfill these desires if you did. I also passed a building whose upper-story windows were almost entirely taken up with very young men (and exactly one women) dancing suggestively in their underwear, while besides them large signs advertised for web sites where you could meet gay men. It reminded me of the windows in Amsterdam's famous red-light district where you could see the "goods" (women) dancing and frolicking about before "purchasing." They looked rather embarrassed and/or amused at all the people staring at them.

Entering the Barioli Coffee Bar at the corner of Yonge and Carlton, just to be contrary to everyone else, who all seemed to be drinking Evian, I bought a San Pelligrino Limonata. Sometimes, you just gotta take a stand. Paying for my bravery at the cash register, I couldn't help but notice that the clerk had opened her blouse an unbelievable three buttons down, her bra proudly on display. The can of San Pelligrino Limonata came out to $2.95. The price of courage.

Leaving the coffee bar and sipping my San Pelligrino, I took a closer look at the crowd. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was eager to get a good look at the parade. They were sitting on special platforms, perched on fences, standing on newspaper boxes, on windowsills, and on garbage cans, on the roof of a McDonald's; they even used the shoulders of other people. They had camcorders all set to record every second of the parade. The idiots at the Toronto Transit Commission had decided to keep the streetcars running, even though they crossed the parade route, which meant someone was almost always hysterically screaming, "Get off the tracks!"

Observing more closely the composition of the crowd, I was surprised and pleased to see how few children there were. Despite the advertising by both the city and media that this was a "family occasion" (which it certainly was not), very few people had taken them at their word. There was however a large group of Oriental tourists, complete with lots and lots of cameras, eagerly awaiting the beginning of the parade. Even more amusing, they were all waving around the "I am/Je suis Queer As Folk" signs, which most of them clearly had no right to. There was a big, fat, hairy sex shop owner, who looked like a -a sex shop owner. He stood in the doorway, looking out at all the potential customers. There were, thank God, no protestors about, as in previous years, waving placards which usually read something like "God Hates Fags" or "Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve," a witty attempt at wordplay at first, but like the ubiquitous "All Your Base Are Belong To Us," it has now grown so very tired and stale from overuse.

It occurred to me that, despite the impression of solidarity and support in Gay Pride, in many ways, the parade resembled a freak show. The vast majority of crowd was clearly heterosexuals waiting to see the show. Despite its intentions, the gay pride parade perpetuates an "Us vs. Them" sort of attitude by putting gay people up on a platform, on display as it were. Attending the parade, was our solitary once-a-year gesture towards gay rights and that even then, it was just to see what "those gay people" were up to. We demand gay people be flamboyant, "colourful" and above all, entertaining. The parade did not disappoint; it supplied just those stereotypes which we dearly need.

The procession was supposed to begin at 2:00 p.m., but it started about an hour late. Motorcyclists roared down Yonge St., and the crowd cheered because this meant the parade had started. But then they roared past again, and so the crowd cheered again. Then they roared past a third time and the crowd cheered once more. Finally, the parade did begin in earnest. With the honking of horns from the escorting police cars, the parade started. I was astonished to hear the police receive such loud applause because in this city, the police, especially the police chief, are thought to be anti-gay because, it is alleged, they raid places like gay bath houses on a too frequent basis. This loud cheering was repeated even louder than before when openly gay members of the police force came walking and cycling past. In many ways, however, the parade was an anticlimax. This year they scaled it down from the spectacular floats of previous years to emphasize the "human aspect" of the parade. The result was a disappointingly small-scale parade.

The two main politicians invited to march in the parade this year were our federal Minister of Health, the Liberal Allan Rock, who is clearly setting himself up to succeed our third-term Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and our city mayor, Mel Lastman. Lastman is an old-fashioned populist and a colorful character, to say the least. He used to be a furniture salesman, and it's said he was so smooth that he once sold a refrigerator to an Inuit living in an igloo. For most of his political career he was mayor of one of Toronto's suburbs, North York, where he made a name for himself saying outrageous things like, "North York isn't a suburb of Toronto, Toronto is a suburb of North York," or "North York is the greatest city in the world."

Lastman has been involved in a few scandals lately involving an affair he had with a woman in the 1970s and comments he made ahead of an African trip that may have derailed Toronto's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games. Apparently unaffected by these problems, the mayor had his fun in the exact same way he usually does at the Toronto Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade, by having a water fight with the other participants.

The parade itself, as I said before, was anticlimactic. There were some nice costumes (I especially liked the people dressed as flaming red peacocks with the Canadian maple leaf on the tail), but nothing that even met the great standards set by Caribana. They had obviously worked on the few floats that were there, but they couldn't conceal that they were really inexpensive-looking. There were water guns fired at the crowd, bubbles blown everywhere, and licorice handed out to eager hands. Everything appeared to be corporately-sponsored. There were the Toronto Transit Company's gay employees' bus, the gay truckers, the Rogers Cable float (from which the Rogers news correspondent reported live), the Body Shop float (which seemed have a naked Adam and Eve theme), the gay employees of Royal Ontario Museum all dressed up in togas, which reminded me absurdly of the toga parade held the annual Ontario Classics Conference, only our togas were more elaborate, and of course, the ever present, "Queer As Folk" float, where the stars of the show writhed their pale, young bodies as nakedly and suggestively as they could.

Labatt's Brewery, for some reason, decided to sponsor the Leathermen, who got virtually no applause, and who with one or two exceptions, all looked middle-aged, balding, fat, and tired. Also getting practically no applause, I am pleased and surprised to report, were the Lesbian Socialists who were wearing black business suits and had their mouths covered with dollar bills in an obvious kind of allegory. They carried black signs which ordered the audience to "Smash Capitalism!" What, and give up our QAF T-shirts?

Then came something called the Raelian Society. I quickly found out who they were when I saw someone holding up a sign reading, "Human Cloning = Babies For Gays and Lesbians." They also got light applause. The biggest cheers came, as I said before, for the police, the drag queen Ms. Africa (for the upbeat music), the Hispanic Gays (for the great music again), the Gay Dads, and when a group of bagpipers started up with that hoary, old tune, "Scotland The Brave."

The group I was in was rather more enthusiastic than most of crowd, even though I did have the embarrassment of getting my belt caught on the backpack of one of my fellow participants. Whenever the music struck up, a young man behind me would waltz with his Hispanic-looking girlfriend. There were two or three clappers in the crowd who cheered at practically everything and I joined in, though a few times, I was embarrassed to find out that I was the only one bothering to clap. But the rest of crowd remained unsmiling and seemed to be only to be there out of a sort of grim sense of duty. I've seen more enthusiastic crowds at the Santa Claus Parade.

The parade ended as quickly as it began, one and half-hours later. I reflected that the possibility of ever meeting anyone I knew in this crowd was remote at best. As I left, I noticed that someone had left a small card advertising for something called "Manline" on the floor of the street. Needless to say, there was half-photo of toned, muscular white man with come-hither eyes on prominent display. Yonge St. became a pedestrian mall and the crowd dispersed with surprising speed. Most headed south to shop at the Eaton Centre. Some headed east back to "Boystown" for some after-parade parties. The merchants packed up their Evian tables and went back inside. Pretty soon, Yonge St. looked as much as it would on any other late Sunday afternoon, only rather more crowded, a lot more littered, and with barricades, but the barricades were removed, and the street cleaners quickly went to work. I saw another Oriental tourist talking desultory with what looked like his wife. He was waving yet another "I am/Je suis Queer As Folk." I considered taking one for myself and affixing it to the back of my sister's backpack as a practical joke before she went to school on Monday morning, but I decided that would be a touch too cruel. High schoolers are a very homophobic lot.

I wanted to have a look at some renovated Victorian houses, so I took the scenic route home. As I walked, I overheard a conversation between a mother and her young boy. She was explaining to him the effects that the AIDS virus had on one's health. At least, someone learned something from the parade. I passed a downtrodden prostitute and someone who looked like the downscale version of a pimp. He looked like a native. At the bus stop, a shabbily-dressed man came up to me and began talking at an unbelievably fast rate about how he'd just gotten out of the hospital and needed some money, etc. I gave him two dollars, less out of pity, than to get him to shut up. He asked for another dollar.

On board the bus, a woman who had been at the bus stop with me said, "You shouldn't have given him any money." She had yellow teeth.

"The milk of human kindness," I shrugged.

"Well, in this neighborhood everyone gets milked," she replied.

On the subway, I sat beside a group of giggling high school girls. One girl asked the girl sitting beside me if her running shoes were tied in a double knot. "Yes, they're tied in a double knot -you faggot!" and then everyone burst out cackling at the girl's wit. They all were all carrying the ubiquitous "I am/Je suis Queer As Folk" signs on them.

When I got home I found my dad lying sprawled on the couch watching horse-racing on television. He looked up and asked me in a friendly and jovial sort of way, as if he really didn't mind in the end, "Where were you? Were you at the Pride Parade?"

"No," I replied. "I was out buying San Pellegrino water." I threw out the can of San Pellegrino Limonata. For some reason I still had it in my hand.

The next day the headline on The Toronto Star read "It goes to show how far we've come as a society." Yes, it certainly does, doesn't it.

Are gay pride parades dangerous to physical or moral health? After my experience, I would have to conclude that I've seen suburban high school band jamborees that were more threatening and exciting than Toronto's Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade. Danger to your health? Not if you wear light clothing to keep out the heat and bring a hat to keep out the sun. Threat to your morality? You've got to be kidding me.

Barton Wong is a regular commentator at the Houston Review and studies Literary Studies and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.




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