Toronto’s Queer History Told With Video Vignettes That Unearth Past Milestones

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Members of Supporting Our Youth (SOY)

Due to so many decades of living in the margins, queer histories have often been lost, overlooked or forgotten. A Toronto collective has found a way to bring the city’s queer history to life through a series of online videos, telling stories through geographical locations that make up an online tour.

Queerstory, created by Year Zero One’s Michael Alstad and Janet Hethrington, features 47 snappy short videos that each tell a different true story. Some are about famous bars or clubs that have since been replaced by condos; one recounts the story of a series of bathhouse raids in 1981, which proved a turning point in the queer community’s relations with police; and footage of Toronto’s first pride picnic.

14390021006_0f62117d4e_hIn the spirit of full disclosure, I should state that I’m interviewed in one of the videos, in which I discuss the landmark gay-themed film Winter Kept Us Warm, which was filmed at the University of Toronto campus in 1965.

“I really liked the idea of repurposing the locative walking tour experience to map key sites connected to the city’s rich LGBTQ history,” says Alstad, who initiated the Queerstory project. “We approached the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives and they were really keen on our proposal to get the archives out of the closet and into the streets, so to speak.”

Alstad says “the goal was to choose a variety of topics that ranged from queer activism and social history to cultural contributions — film, theatre, visual art — from the queer community. We mapped fairly well-known historic events like the ’81 bathhouse raids, but also wanted to explore more hidden and untold stories. We also worked to span many decades. We have stories from the bar scene of the ’50s but also go way back to 1882 when Oscar Wilde gave a lecture on aesthetics at Allan Gardens.”

John Maxwell: Executive Director, AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT)

What’s striking about taking the Queerstory tour is learning so many new things about Toronto. I’ve spent a lot of time in Toronto, even having lived here for a time, but there were many revelations here, from where the cult movie Outrageous! was filmed to how Buddies in Bad Times, the world’s largest and oldest queer theatre space, was founded 35 years ago. I had no idea Wilde had lectured there either.

Not surprisingly Queerstory proved a hit when it launched during World Pride earlier this month. But it’s a great tour to take even if you’re not in Toronto. Taking the tour should inspire queer artists to create one for every city in the world.

Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based writer, author and university instructor. His book, The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (Arsenal Pulp Press), won a 2008 Lambda Literary Award. He teaches film studies at Concordia University, including a Queer Cinema class. 

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