Queer West Village and Lesbianville? How LGBTQ+ neighbourhoods are popping up all over the GTA—and for good reason
by Doug O’Neill
I recently polled a group of young, hip, queer-identified Torontonians about the “oh-my-gawd-best-Pride-outing-ever.” The answer, to my surprise, wasn’t the free concert off Church Street the year Cyndi Lauper came to town. They cited last year’s LGBTQ-country-and-western bash “Steers & Queers: Night of 1,000 Dollys” at the Gladstone Hotel, that bastion of hipster culture on Queen West. Gay events at The Gladstone aren’t confined to Pride week, of course. The hotel regularly hosts queer functions throughout the year, as does its neighbouring boutique hotel, The Drake, which regularly features artists who identify as LGBTQ+ in its Drake Underground event space.
The hotels are far from the only spots on Queen West where LGBTQ+ folks can count on a positive vibe—the kind that used to be found only at the longstanding gay village at Church and Wellesley. Spots like the Beaver, a café/nightclub founded by the late artist/activist Will Munroe are enticing folks to Uber westward to find welcoming community. In fact, Queen West, especially the stretch between Trinity Bellwoods Park and Roncesvalles Avenue, has been affectionately nicknamed “Queer West Village.” It’s just one example of a wider geographical shift that’s taking place within the GTA’s LGBTQ+ community, as folks find queer-positive spaces outside of the historical “gay village.”
Back in the 1960s – long before “Queer West” became part of our city vernacular – Toronto’s gay community convened in the few gay-friendly bars around Yonge and Gerrard. That changed in the 1970s, says longtime gay activist Dennis Findlay, when “gays and lesbians moved in droves to the affordable high-rise apartments on Church Street.” The opening of the 519 Church Street Community Centre (or the 519, as it’s called locally) in 1975 made the neighbourhood even more welcoming as it offered support programs and safe meeting spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. For years, Church-Wellesley was one of the most robust queer enclaves in North America, with rainbow flags hanging from storefronts and gay folks flocking to the bars, cafes and shops on Church Street.
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Recently, however, skyrocketing rents in the area prompted longstanding queer establishments to close their doors (RIP Slack Alice, The Barn, Byzantium). “But soaring rents aren’t the only reason for the migration of gaybourhoods in Toronto,” says Findlay, who is also president of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (soon to be rebranded The Arquives). “We’re queer and we’re everywhere. We’re no longer required to live in a gated, protected, accepting part of the city downtown. People now come out all over the city, wherever they happen to live.” And, Findlay says, entrepreneurs are opening queer-friendly businesses where their clients are. “It’s important for LGBTQ+ people to walk down the street from their homes to find queer-friendly spaces.”
Take the east-end Leslieville neighbourhood, which growing numbers of residents have rechristened “Lesbianville.” Sure, there’s a wildly popular gay club on Queen East called WAYLA (What Are You Looking At), but scores of same-sex couples originally moved to the area to purchase affordable starter homes.
The growing acceptance of LGBTQ+ culture in general has also meant that many people bypass the Church-Wellesley Village as part of their coming-out. “Unlike many of my older gay friends, I never had to seek out the safety of the gay hub down at Church and Wellesley,” says Sammi Dano, a staple on the Queer West scene. “[The village] has never been all that vital to me. I found coming-out support online, and my high school in Mississauga had a supportive GSA (gay-straight student alliance). Now, I find everything I need in my own ‘hood.”
This is increasingly true across the GTA, as pockets of queerdom are popping up almost everywhere. Just last year, Patrice Bromfield and her partner Teresa Morrison opened Stage 185 on Main Street in Newmarket, making it the first LGBTQ+ club in York Region. “We wanted to create something positive, safe and comfortable for people from all walks of life, but closer to home,” Bromfield says.
We’re no longer required to live in a gated, protected, accepting part of the city downtown. People now come out all over the city, wherever they happen to live.
Though spaces that are LGBTQ+ positive are increasing across the region, some folks very much rely on the services and cultural spaces that exist at Church and Wellesley. Christa, who identifies as a transgender female, says, “I live on Bloor West, play on Queen West, but get my trans support at Church and Wellesley.” She regularly attends support groups and transgender-specific events at the 519 and at the Glad Day Bookshop on Church Street, which is part bookstore, part-bar, part-café and part queer cultural centre. “Church Street still plays a vital role for the transgender community,” says Christa.
The Church-Wellesley Village is also crucial for new Canadians, especially those who face discrimination. The 519 has been supporting LGBTQ+ newcomers and refugees in Canada for more than a decade through its newcomer and refugee Programs. The LGBTQ+ newcomer team, for instance, sees more than 500 individuals each year and has played a vital role in settling LGBTQ+ refugees from Syria.
“Looking back over the last couple of decades, you’ll see that many of Toronto’s neighbourhoods have evolved over time,” says Finlay, citing Chinatown East (at Gerrard and Broadview) and Leslieville, as examples. “Just as society evolves, so too do our gay villages. It’s all part of living in a vibrant, dynamic city.”