Published on June 12, 2023

We need more queer public spaces in Canada

In a world that isn’t designed for our communities to thrive, Pride is about taking up space.

By Cheryl Gudz, Communications Specialist, Evergreen


June is Pride month in Canada and depending on how tuned in you are, you know this means more events and visibility for members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. I live in Toronto, one of the most queer-friendly cities in the world, but this city is large and there are areas where it does not feel safe to hold my partner close for fear of unwanted attention or worse. Living on edge is a difficult stressful way to live.


In a world that isn’t designed for our communities to thrive, for me, Pride is about taking up space. It means taking to the street to march in rallies, showing up to support community events, and meeting with friends at queer establishments. Having places to be yourself that feel welcoming and non-judgmental is fundamental to our health. And just more fun.


Year-round, queer-owned small businesses like bookstores and bars try to fill this void. But what happens when those businesses don’t make it? When an epidemic such as COVID-19 shutters our safe havens or if we don’t have the money to be a frequent customer?


The importance of the civic commons


Parks, beaches, public squares, and civic centres serve our whole communities. They are meant to be shared and serve as places to connect, play, learn, and celebrate. Another defining characteristic? They are free to access.


While these spaces are intended for all residents to enjoy, the bias and design have favoured white, heterosexual, able-bodied men who have typically dominated the professions of architecture, design and planning. “Public spaces are not neutral,” says Pippa Catterall, Professor of History and Policy at the University of Westminster. “Public spaces are dominated by certain dominant groups within society. They are shaped by the male gaze and they are designed for use by particular groups.”


Watch this video featuring Professor Catterall and others discussing queer public space.



The built environment has a gender bias. So how do we design more equitable and inclusive public space?


Increase visibility


One of my favourite things to discover is a new rainbow-painted crosswalk, street or mural in a new place. I love the vibrancy and the message that we are welcome here.


The rainbow flag has always signified diversity and community. As we increase our collective awareness, the flag has added new colours and lines to represent further marginalized groups within the queer community. The progress flag is the evolution, and even in this form, does not fully capture the spectrum of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.


The Forks in Winnipeg, outside the Canadian Human Rights Museum.

The Forks in Winnipeg, outside the Canadian Human Rights Museum.


Beyond showcasing rainbows and symbols, another way to increase visibility is by honouring important contributors to queer history. Distinguished writers such as Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein have contributed so much to the Arts and both have statues representing their likeness in Dublin and Manhattan.


In fact, NYC Parks has numerous public spaces named after noteworthy artists and activists such as Audre Lorde and James Baldwin. And in 2018, New York City unveiled its first LGBTQ+ public monument and memorial in the name of the victims of the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub in 2016.


Gay Liberation Monument at Christopher Park, New York City. White statues in public square.

Photo: Gay Liberation Monument at Christopher Park, New York City


The gaybourhood


No one can underestimate the importance of a queer neighbourhood to a city. Toronto’s gay neighbourhood revolves primarily around Church Street but also includes West Queen West and Hanlan’s Point. A gay village, a queer gallery district and a beach on the Toronto Islands — as far as public spaces go, this selection is hard to top in any city.


Montreal comes close with their colourful village gai and Parc de l’Espoir honouring the lost lives due to AIDS. This park was unveiled in 1994 and also acts as a gathering place for the community for political and cultural events including vigils.


While these neighbourhoods have served the community well for many years, they are not immune to hard times and closure. Church Street still caters mostly to a male clientele with its selection of bars and clubs. West Queen West recently lost The Beaver and The Henhouse. Women-serving bars have a hard time sustaining consistent business, and this is true across North America. Does anyone remember Slack Alice (1997-2013) or Ms. Purdy’s (1984-2002)? The latter in Winnipeg had the distinction of being the longest-running lesbian bar in Canada.


Out and about outdoors


Because we cannot rely on small businesses for fostering a sense of belonging in our cities, inclusive design must extend to city parks, beaches and green spaces. Better lighting for safety, combined with semi-private hangout areas that incorporate greenery are ideal. This increases safety without a “surveillance” feel to foster ease and belonging.


Existing public spaces for the queer community must be protected and stewarded. Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Islands has historical significance to the gay community going back to the 1950s. It is a quiet beach that is clothing optional.


People at the beach


Last year, the City of Toronto identified Hanlan’s Point as a target venue for large events in their Toronto Island Park Master Plan. Not surprisingly, beach regulars feared their safe haven was in jeopardy. Travis Myers, co-founder of Friends of Hanlan’s, says their group spent hundreds of hours conducting historic and tactical research and doing community outreach with the LGBTQ+ community, various island stakeholder groups, and waterfront institutions.


“We summarized our findings in a 72-page report presented to multiple city department heads,” says Myers. “The city has since reviewed their allowances of events at Hanlan’s Point and won’t be moving forward with any additional permits for large scale events in the space due to community concerns over safety and incompatible land use.”


Through the group’s work with the City there are now plans to have official city signs and historic plaques in the area describing it as a historically significant space for Canada’s 2SLGBTQ+ community and one of the oldest continuously queer spaces in the world. Canada’s first Pride took place at Hanlan’s in 1971.


Consulting with and listening to marginalized communities and incorporating their ideas into civic plans, is how city builders make public spaces more equitable and inclusive.


The reality is that the queer community today continues to face backlash and the threat of violence. The ignorance and hate spouted in the guise of “religious beliefs” or “concern for children” is showing up in many hate-fueled ways: parents organizing together to object rainbow flag raisings in schools, “protests” at libraries where drag queens read children’s books, and of course the people who harass Pride eventgoers. The federal government just announced that they are offering to pay up to 1.5 million for increased security at Pride events this month.


There is a long way to go before our cities can be equitable and inclusive, but it starts with you and I, queer or straight and our willingness to show up, organize and be respectful of our full rainbow of differences.


In Canada, we can do more to honour our own queer history. Who would you honour? Let us know on Twitter @FutureCitiesCA @Evergreen