Monday, October 29, 2012

Halloween is SO GAY! Happy Halloween from the CLGA!

Every October 31st, costumed revelers descend on Church Street for an annual Halloween block party that can last well into the next morning. Music fills the air as Toronto’s gay village explodes with excitement. In recent years, even the wee ones have come out to play as queer families mingle with decadently frocked drag queens and show their Halloween spirit. The glamorous and gory festivities are one of city’s most popular events and attract thousands of visitors from all over the world. My, how times have changed!
From the late 1950s into the 1980s, Toronto’s gay community gathered at the St. Charles Tavern, a gay bar located under the beacon of the clock tower still standing at 488 Yonge Street. Beginning in the 1960s, the bar began hosting an annual Halloween drag show that drew increasingly larger crowds. Despite amendments to the Criminal Code that effectively decriminalized homosexuality in 1969, queer people nevertheless remained targets for homophobic violence. As the drag shows became more public, they also attracted vicious assailants who would attack any drag queen or patron spotted coming into or leaving the bar. Some threw eggs or rotten tomatoes; others offered up taunts or jeers filled with vitriolic language. There were also reports of gay-bashing. Although organizers and activists repeatedly called police to come disperse the angry mobs that formed outside of the bar, officers rarely intervened, claiming that they had no power to stop people from using public streets. The media also downplayed the violence, often referring to the annual event as a “good-natured carnival.”
By 1979, however, activists with Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE) and the Metropolitan Community Church, together with the support of progressive politicians and gay business owners, succeeded in pressuring the police to increase their presence at the event. Community members also developed their own strategies to ensure the safety of the drag queens and patrons. Performers were escorted to and from the bar, and any and all incidents of violence and harassment were immediately reported to the police. In 1981, Mayor John Sewell finally conceded to erect barricades to prevent crowds from forming outside of the bar. The tradition of the Halloween ‘freak show’ soon faded and has now been reborn as a celebration of difference.
So, this year, when you put on your best costume and head down to Church Street, don’t forget to take a few minutes to acknowledge the courage of those who fought so that you could have the freedom to party!

The CBC Digital Archives have posted a video about the Halloween drag shows and angry mobs. Check it out here.
 The photographs below are part of the CLGA's photograph collection. They were originally published in the December 1978 issue of The Body Politic. Photographs by Gerald Hannon.

Accession #1986-032-187. They form part of the Pink Triangle Press / Body Politic fonds.

Crowds gather along Yonge Street on Halloween night, 1978, hoping to catch a drag queen entering the St. Charles Tavern

A drag queen and friend use the back alley entrance to avoid Halloween bats

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Masked assailants driving up Yonge Street to hurl eggs and obscenities at St. Charles Tavern patrons

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"Straights" gather along Yonge Street

Crowds gather to catch a glimpse of a drag queen entering the St. Charles Tavern
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