Understanding the significance of Pride Week
A Q & A with Scott Rayter
Pride Week is one of the premier arts and cultural festivals in Canada and one of the largest Pride celebrations in the world.
The annual event celebrating the history and diversity of Toronto's communities known as LGBTTIQQ2SA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer/Questioning, 2 Spirited, Allies) draws tourists from around the world.
U of T News asked Scott Rayter, associate director of the Mark S Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Students and lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Toronto, about the significance of Pride Week.
How did Toronto Pride begin and what was U of T’s role in it?
Pride begins in the 70s. In 1971, there was a gay picnic that happened on Toronto’s Centre Island, at Hanlan’s Point beach, as an annual picnic for a few hundred people. That happened for a few years, on and off, not very regularly.
Later, in the 80s, people started meeting at Grange Park however the residents around there got upset. In 1983, the activists met here, at King’s College Circle, so it wasn’t a U of T event, but it did happen on campus, which I think is significant.
As far as the University goes, there are a few important events. We have a historic plaque now outside of University College to recognize the University of Toronto Homophile Association, which started in 1969 and was the first group of its kind on a Canadian university and, some people argue, one of the first activist groups in all of Canada. I don’t think that it’s a surprise that this happened at U of T. Of course, this doesn’t mean the administration was behind this then. Indeed, Jearld (pronounced “Jerald”) Moldenhauer, who was the staff person to start the U of T Homophile Association, was fired after he wrote a letter to the Globe and Mail defending the Association.
Michael Lynch was another really important historical figure, who taught at the English department at St. Michael’s College in 1974. He tried to teach the first gay study course, but the University asked him not to do it and transferred him to Erindale campus (now UTM). So, it was a pretty rocky start. However, U of T has always had a strong history of LGBTQ activism, regardless of whether it was sanctioned by the University.
I think things really changed in the 1990s. In 1999, the LGBTOUT group, which is the heir of the University of Toronto Homophile Association and an earlier group called Gays at U of T from 1978, was named the honorary group at Pride and that year U of T also became the Bronze sponsor of the Parade itself. So, that was the first time the University publicly recognized Pride and wanted to be involved in it. That was also the year that the Office of LGBTQ Resources and Programs was founded. This happened in response to LGBTOUT, which tried to get a levy going in 1999 to support the group. It was voted down and people were quite upset at the kind of campaign the ‘no side’ ran and at the homophobic comments that were made when the ‘no side’ won. I think that’s when the University decided that there’s a problem, so they created the Office of LGBTQ Resources and Programs, which is now the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office.
In sum, it’s because of the hostility and recognition that there is homophobia that activism develops and eventually makes the powers that be wake up, stand up and pay attention. The Positive Space campaign was launched by professors David Rayside and Rona Abramovitch in 1995, to make the University aware of its policies. David Rayside was a pioneer in ensuring the University was equitable in terms of same sex partner benefits, speaking out against homophobia, and getting staff, faculty and students involved in these kinds of groups. One of the groups he started was the ad hoc committee of U of T on homophobia in 1989, followed by the Positive Space campaign in 1995.
Canada legalized same sex marriages in 2005. How has the public perception of gay marriages changed since then in Canada?
It’s definitely made a difference. Those in the opposition may have thought the hell fires would rain down upon us, however that didn’t happen (laughs). Marriage isn’t over, nothing is threatened and nothing has changed. I mean, it’s purely about equality, right? So, I think it has changed things for a lot of people.
Having said that, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that legalizing same sex marriage somehow made homophobia go away or that things are easier for a lot of the LGBTQ youth. I don’t see that here. We started the Sexual Diversity Studies program in 1998 and I also run our awards committee. We have awards for academic excellence, as well as emergency bursaries and scholarships for students in need, in addition to awards to support leadership and community activism. It’s heart-breaking to read some of the applications for emergency bursaries. These kids are still being kicked out, getting absolutely no support from their parents when they find out they’re gay, or they make their kids’ lives such hell that they leave. So, some things have changed, but we know that suicide rates are still high amongst LGBTQ youth, as is bullying, even if schools have policies in place against it.
How would you describe the significance of Ontario’s openly gay premier, alumna Kathleen Wynne, marching in the upcoming Pride parade?
I think it’s wonderful. I met Premier Wynne many years ago when she was the Education Minister and she was at the Pride Gala fundraiser. Even then she was involved in Pride as an out, lesbian woman, so it’s no surprise for her to be there. In some ways, it would be different if it was a politician who nobody knew of who just suddenly came out; however, she’s always been open about her sexuality and started out as an activist in parent teacher groups.
In a recent interview, she said people made a little bit of an issue about her sexual orientation when she was running for the Liberal leadership, but since the day she won, she hasn’t had one negative comment - and she travels all over Ontario. It’s just not an issue. I think that’s pretty impressive and her popularity is really high. People like her and want to give her a chance to see how she would lead. I think that they see she has integrity. She is open and can be seen everywhere with her partner. So, I think it’s a good thing for people to see that.