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Toronto streets transition from protests to Pride

Corinna Gamache fires her water gun at Staff Sergeant Devin Kealey of the Toronto Police Service during the Pride Parade in 2007.

Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

For all the fury and fallout from the G20 protests, Toronto will see a far bigger demonstration on its downtown streets this weekend.

It's called the Pride Parade, and as usual, more than a million people of every orientation are expected to cram Yonge Street in a raucous show of support for the city and its sexual diversity. From tiara-toting drag queens and transit workers to politicians and police officers, all will march past under the rainbow flag, and with luck, lead Toronto out from under the dark and incongruous cloud of violence that blew in a week ago.

"I'm honestly looking forward to this weekend more than I've looked forward to Pride in many years, because I think it does have a healing purpose," Michael Bach, 39, said this week. "It's like a group hug for a million people."

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Of course, Pride hasn't always been such a gay old time. In the straight, sober Toronto of 30 years ago, the gathering attracted far more fear and loathing from the citizenry than any gathering of world leaders might have.

But as we've all seen, things can change quickly when force is applied.

The force exerted by the city's gay, lesbian and trans communities has persisted through four decades, but it's also been persistently peaceful and non-violent, which perhaps makes Pride the ideal balm to apply to sensibilities bruised in the last seven days.

Not that Mr. Bach - an openly gay executive with KPMG who promotes workplace diversity - expects everyone to unclench their teeth and embrace just yet.

Last weekend's mass arrests of peaceful G20 protesters drew fire from many, including some in the gay community who said police had singled them out for rough treatment and homophobic slurs. Concerns include allegations that gay prisoners were segregated at the Eastern Avenue detention centre.

On Tuesday, about 60 people jeered Chief Bill Blair outside a reception for police and Pride organizers, despite steadily warmer relations between the groups in recent years.

"I don't want to discount the passions of those people," Mr. Bach said at a Church Wellesley Village Starbucks, where no one saw a need to board up the windows against this weekend's massive crowds. "I think the chief probably got a bit of a wake-up call, and good for him; he needs to know who his constituents are."

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Still, the G20 violence was an anomaly and didn't accurately represent the city's culture of peaceful assembly, he said. "Even in our worst moments, we tend to be a rational, reasonable group."

It hasn't always been that way. The parade's breezy spirit of inclusiveness belies a stormy history. For Toronto's sexual minorities, the effort to pry open the closet and win acceptance has been arduous and continual. The movement's biggest steps came in 1969 when Canada decriminalized homosexual acts and in 2003 with the legalization of same-sex marriage, but it has also been marred by setbacks worse than any the G20 has produced.

Pride events started with a Gay Day picnic in 1970 but were not held for several years later that decade, and Toronto mayors repeatedly refused to officially proclaim them.

The nadir for relations between the gay community and police came on Feb. 5, 1981 - Mr. Bach's 10th birthday - when 160 officers raided and trashed four bathhouses, arresting 286 men. It was the largest mass arrest in Canada since the 1970 October Crisis, though bigger busts have happened since, including the record round-up of 900 during G20.

"Those were key moments that galvanized the community," Mr. Bach said. "We had no allies."

The '81 raids, repeated on a smaller scale in 2000 when a lesbian bathhouse was broken up, unleashed large protests in which a young Bill Blair helped man the police barricades. The lingering furor revived the dormant Pride Day that summer, as a more-political but still-festive event.

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It just grew from there, gaining corporate sponsors by the late 1980s and City Hall sanction in 1991. The Dyke March, added in 1997, took Pride beyond a gay men's event and cleared a path for other sexual minorities to join the party.

Mr. Bach, who came out as a teen in 1986, recalled an early Pride experience as AIDS was ravaging the gay community and funding to fight the disease was scarce.

"I remember doing a die-in, and at some point I found myself lying on Yonge Street and being outlined in chalk," he said. "The entire parade laid down, en masse."

Such a scene is hard to envision today, as tourists flock to Toronto and straight families line the parade route, corporate and government funds flow and politicos of all stripes make sure to show up smiling. Still, although in recent years the march has run to shiny displays of corporate sponsorship that seem as much about savvy marketing as sexual freedoms, last weekend's events may have reawakened dormant political passions in some.

Bill Blair became the first chief to march in the Pride Parade in 2005, and has stepped up recruitment of gay and lesbian officers during his tenure, but is not on the list of parade dignitaries this time around.

Chief Blair, who usually attends several Pride events, told the Globe and Mail's Christie Blatchford this week he will probably stay away because he doesn't want to "detract from their celebration."

In the meantime, Mr. Bach said, there's a party to throw, and healing to be done.

"We need to revel on the streets in a positive way; we need to feel that the streets are ours again, and that windows aren't going to be broken and cars lit on fire," he said.

"We're a strong people in this city. We will definitely come back from this and find our voice again."

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