“It was a very political event, and it was also an event that was about the community,” says LGBTQ2S+ bookseller, storyteller, spoken-word artist, writer, and lecturer Jeffrey Canton, about Toronto’s Pride in the 1980s.
Meeting us ahead of this year’s parade — now one of the world’s biggest — Canton explains how the LGBTQ2S+ community has evolved, how the community responded to the AIDS crisis of the 80s, and what needs to change about the city’s month-long Pride celebration.
How is today’s Pride different to that of the 1980s?
Pride has changed so much, because when it started, it was a very political event, and it was also an event that was about the community. It was a community that was really forming as an entity, and had a lot of different issues, because of all the folks that are represented in the queer community.
I think that one of the issues, was that Pride was an event that really was focused on the gay community in particular — because AIDS was such an enormous part of that historical moment — but also because there was a real separation between gay and lesbians. This hadn’t been true in the very beginning of the gay liberation movement, when gays and lesbians were much closer together, because the issues were so much stronger.
The other thing that’s really changed, is that Pride has gotten more and more corporate, and is no longer just for the gay community…which a lot of LGBTQ2S+ people have issues with, because it’s not the same. I mean, what do [corporations] really do for Pride?
So Pride is about recognizing the politics of the LGBTQ2+ community, and how important that political moment is. Yes, this is a wonderful celebration — it’s really exciting to be a part of it — but it’s also a movement and a community that needs to do a lot more work to become a cohesive whole. It’s really wonderful seeing rainbow flags and kids down here, and so many different types of people, but it is a first step, not the last.
Were you involved in the early political movement?
No, I wasn’t. You know, I was really in the closet when I first came out, so I didn’t really get involved until the middle of the AIDS crisis. And so that would have been toward the late-80s, early-90s, when I became much more involved. Partly because so many of my friends were dying.
Can you tell us about Toronto during the AIDS crisis?
The gay community was fighting for its life against a political situation where we had some allies but not, and lots of issues about drug trials [and] support. The Toronto gay community weathered the AIDS crisis, because the gay community did it on its own, with support from personal allies, not from political allies.
I think that we had a little more support here [compared to the US] because of OHIP and socialized medicine, but it was still really tough. The doctors were really cautious.
There was a moment in time where I went to so many funerals, I lost count. In those years, lots of people just disappeared. Some quietly, some not so quietly. There was lots of political activism during those years. The AIDS community of Toronto, AIDS Action Now — the community really rallied, and tried to show how important it was for us to be a community. And that’s really what Pride is about. It’s about the manifestation of that community action coming together in that single day, where people say, “We are queer, and We’re proud!”
I still find it amazing that I can be on the street in Toronto, and see [LGBTQ2S+ couples] holding hands or kissing. I never thought that would happen. I used to tell students when I was teaching up at York, I never imagined a day in my lifetime that LGBTQ2S+ people in this city could be so open and so free, and have such support from all kinds of cultural sectors. A lot of those changes are due to things like social media, and obviously social changes.
Do you think Pride should be more political?
I think Pride should be a lot more political. If it was up to me, I’d actually ban corporate sponsors entirely. It’s either in New York or San Francisco, but there is an alternative pride that allows no corporate sponsors. Pride isn’t about corporations. Pride is about people. Pride is about community. Pride is about the things that are important: Family. Relationships. Friendships. Recognizing our differences, because it’s our differences that make us, as a community, so wonderful.
Do you have any additional thoughts on Pride Toronto?
Toronto’s Pride is a really important event, because it represents something unique. As the biggest city in Canada, we bring people in a way that none of the other Prides do. And this is not to diss any of the other Prides: Montreal Pride, Vancouver Pride, Halifax Pride, and all the wonderful small Prides that take place, but people come here from all over the world now. We have to recognize that we can make Pride better, by being more aware of our role as Canadians and as Torontonians in this event.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.