Church and Wellesley: The center of LGBT life in Toronto

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It’s LGBT Pride Month, and this week holds special significance to those in Toronto, because the city is currently hosting World Pride. Among the many “gayborhoods” in North American cities, Toronto’s Church-Wellesley Village stands out as one of the most fascinating, because it’s a vibrant, modern neighborhood that also reveals elements of its past.

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The Church-Wellesley neighborhood today

Church-Wellesley has most of what you’d expect from a gay-centric village in the year 2014. Lots of interesting storefronts, cute restaurants and coffee shops, nice houses and apartments.

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And plenty of bars with rainbow flags, of course. The most notable, at least to me as a tourist, is Woody’s, which is famous because of the groundbreaking early 2000s show Queer as Folk. That series was set in Pittsburgh but filmed in Toronto, and the Woody’s bar here was used for both indoor and outdoor scenes in the show.

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Woody’s is still going strong. You can step inside and have a drink in the very spot where the characters did. Relive the show and pretend you’re sitting there with Michael, Brian, Justin, Ted and Emmett talking about which weekend event at Babylon you’ll be attending.

The AIDS Wall

One of the unique things about Toronto’s gay village is its AIDS Memorial in remembrance of those who died from the epidemic. This is not just a pretty park with nice flowers; it contains plaques with the full names of victims of the disease. Seeing the actual list of people who perished personalizes the tribute and makes it much more powerful.

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If you’ve read the famous Randy Shilts book ‘And the Band Played On,’ which details the spread of AIDS in the ’80s and the U.S. government’s lack of timely response to the crisis, you’re familiar with the name Gaetan Dugas. In the book, he was painted as a villain – an HIV-positive flight attendant who traveled all over North America, had sexual partners in many cities, and therefore played a direct role in helping the disease spread so quickly.

Later research absolved Dugas of much of the blame that had been assigned to his role in the crisis. Still, it was chilling to see his name, as well as those of others mentioned in the book. The familiar names on the AIDS Wall add a more human element to the display and mentally transport the viewer back to those terrible early days of the epidemic.

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The Alexander Wood statue

Here’s one of the quirkiest things about the neighborhood. Alexander Wood was a city magistrate in what is now Toronto. In 1810, he reported that a woman came to him claiming she had been raped and that she had scratched the genitals of her attacker. Wood proceeded to open an unusual investigation, which consisted of bringing in numerous men and personally inspecting their male parts.

No one really knows whether this was a legitimate investigation, or if Wood made the whole thing up to get his rocks off. It turned into a sex scandal, with Wood being shamed and ridiculed for his apparent interest in other men. He continued in respected public service roles but could never shake the scandal. He finally left Canada in 1842.

It’s unclear whether Wood was actually gay, but he never married, and he’s now referred as a “gay pioneer.” Perhaps feeling a kinship with the magistrate for the way he was targeted and mocked, the gay community in 2005 honored Wood with a statue in Church-Wellesley.

Showing that he had a sense of humor about Wood’s story, statue creator Del Newbigging included a plaque describing the scandal that features an image of Wood performing his examination on a pants-less young man. Needless to say, this is a major conversation piece in the neighborhood.

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World Pride 2014

As for World Pride, I can’t think of a better host than Toronto. The festivities began on June 20 and continue through Sunday, June 29, featuring parades, parties, and performances from acts like Tegan & Sara, Melissa Etheridge and Carly Rae Jepsen. That sounds like a good time, regardless of which gender you’re into.

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

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