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history the Toronto dyke scene

by Heather Ann Brown | June 15, 2004

Walk down memory lane with us.

our haunts

Clubs and bars were critical to our lives in the early years. In the beginning, we didn’t have places like Church Street and an increasingly accepting world like nowadays, of course. Our dives were the only place where we could be with other lesbians – the closest thing most of us had to a “home” and family. But most of these places were noisy, extremely crowded, smoky holes in the wall – and, more then likely, they were hidden in a basement somewhere in a dingy part of town. Ah, home sweet home!

In the 1940s and 1950s, we had the Rideau Club on Gerrard, as well as the Melody Room and The Music Box on Yonge Street – and the infamous Continental (at Bay and Dundas, where women went after-hours to get sober) – or mixed bars such as the St. Charles and the Parkside.

During the 1960s and 1970s – some lasted into the 1980s and beyond – we had clubs like the ever lovin’ Cameo, The Blue Jay, Tango, Kit Kat Club, Crispin’s, the Warehouse and mixed bars such as Quest and the Grads. Deco’s lasted into the 1980s and had a female stripper “working the pole” for the dykes. The Penthouse had drag shows. The two original Drag Kings were local dykes who got up with the Queens and put on a show. “Only we really sang,” claims one of the Drag Kings (Tin Lowes).

CHAT (Community Homophile Association of Toronto) started and flourished during the 1960s and 1970s and was one of the first groups to be situated in the Church Street area. Thursday night women-only dances (again with DJ Tin Lowes) became so popular that they even held them on some Saturday nights as well. A number of groups sprang from the CHAT experience (see Fly By Night and LOOT below).

In the late 1970s and 1980s – along with feminism – came places that were quite different from the usual bars and clubs:

The Fly By Night bar, for example – under the able leadership of activist Pat Murphy and in answer to the growing awareness of alcoholism in the dyke community – sold a wide variety of juices, herbal teas and other non-alcoholic drinks, as well as reasonably priced food. Servers were forbidden to push alcoholic beverages in any way.

The very popular Charles Street potlucks and dances were a wonderfully non-threatening way for more mature women to ease themselves into the community without having to resort to the bars. The potlucks were held in the spacious and rather luxurious lounge at the Centre for Christian Studies on Charles Street. They were in existence for about ten years and began our road to “respectability”!

But, for those who wanted more down ’n’ dirty excitement, the bars and clubs were still there, some with a little more class, some not – such as The Rose, Together’s, “The Chez” (Chez Moi) and Felines.

our roles and how we dressed

Although roles were changing somewhat during the 1960s, we tended to live set roles until the 1970s: women were women (total “femmes”), and women were “men” (complete with tuxedos) not only in dress, but in manner. As a result, many of these women did not take too kindly to the androgynously dressed feminist dykes of the 1970s and 1980s, because they could no longer figure out who or what these new women were. It was a huge shock when a former “femme” turned up at a bar or event in plaid shirt, jeans and army boots ... but some still sported heavy makeup and “femme” jewellery, and could very well have still been wearing sexy, frilly undies!

community activism in the 1970s and early 1980s

LOOT (Lesbian Organization of Toronto), which was active from late 1976 to the spring of 1980, thrived during a distinct historical moment in relations between gay men and lesbians. Lesbians, too often outnumbered and ignored in mixed gay and socialist organizations, formed groups of their own, separate – and often separatist. Inspired in part by Jill Johnston’s 1973 book, Lesbian Nation, we created not just organizations but spaces (LOOT’s space was a rented house at 342 Jarvis Street near Carlton) where we could explore, nurture and sometimes enforce a distinct lesbian identity. Separatism was a thorn in the side of those seeking solidarity with (or assimilation of) lesbians in wider gay, socialist or feminist causes. But it was also a bulwark behind which lesbians could find not only identity but power: independent strength, both personal and political. Lesbian separatism faded as an ideological force in the 1980s, but many of the women strengthened by it went on to play influential roles in lesbian and gay community groups, in broader social movements, and in academic work.

LOOT was our home, so women simply hung out there – mostly at LOOT’s Three of Cups teahouse. Organized activities included Sunday brunches, entertainment (Rita MacNeil played at the Three of Cups and an unpolished but very loud and enthusiastic Lorraine Segato made one of her first public appearances at a LOOT brunch, also Kye Marshall and Carol (CT) Rowe played for us. Susan G. Cole sang some great blues while “tickling the ivories” for everyone). There were poetry/book readings, dances, and LOOT open houses – where women “coming out” could mingle without having to go to the bars.

The women who went to LOOT also led or took an active role in all types of political activities, such as:

  • WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women) – known for its creative, raucous street demonstrations against numerous injustices, the women of WAVAW played a major role in organizing the first “Take Back The Night” march in Toronto.
  • BROADSIDE (radical feminist/all dyke-produced newspaper collective) – this newspaper covered all the mainstream and women’s community news, primarily from a radical feminist perspective. It existed for over ten years.
  • IWD (International Women’s Day) – large March 8 festivities and marches began during this time and some of the women from LOOT were on the organizing committee. While the main IWD march was based on socialist-feminist principles, there was a popular wild and fun lesbian-feminist-separatist parade celebration of IWD each year as well, organized by dykes.
  • FEMINIST PARTY OF CANADA – this was an aborted attempt by Canadian feminists to establish a Federal party – the mainstream media and others failed to recognize the relevance of the party (are we surprised?) and it died within about two years pivotal roles in establishing both the Women’s Bookstore in Toronto (a unique concept at the time) and Women’s Press.
  • LESBIAN MOTHERS’ DEFENCE FUND / WAGES FOR HOUSEWORK (launched by Wages Due Lesbians).
  • COMMITTEE AGAINST THE DEPORTATION OF IMMIGRANT WOMEN (CADIW) – started primarily to stop the deportation of Jamaican mothers who had been brought to Canada as domestics – but then the federal government wanted to kick them out Canada in order to open up jobs for others.
  • TORONTO COMMITTEE FOR THE LIBERATION OF SOUTHERN AFRICA (TCLSAC) – this group mainly researched banks and corporations that were investing in South Africa, then demonstrated outside their branches, as well as exposing the activities of these banks to the media – but, for all their fervour, certainly no one in TCLSAC ever really imagined seeing a free South Africa in our lifetime!
our fun times

Large lesbian dances were held irregularly in the later 1970s and 1980s at The Masonic Temple (north-west corner of Yonge and Davenport, which is now owned by CTV), The 519 Community Centre, and The Party Centre (near Church and Dundas) – many with our very own DJ, activist Deb Parent, some with Mama Quilla II. Church basements were also popular venues for smaller dances.

There were many dykes playing in cover bands along the Danforth well before the dyke bands Mama Quilla, Mama Quilla II or No Frills started in the 1970s and early 1980s. A few women from LOOT started playing together at LOOT house parties and were simply known as The Band before collectively forming Mama Quilla II. All these bands had some fantastic musicians, who many older lesbians remember fondly (listed alphabetically):

  • Susan G. Cole (vocals/pianist)
  • Lauri Conger (keyboard)
  • B.J. Danyichuk (keyboard)
  • Evelyn Dati
  • Linda Jain (drums)
  • Cathy MacKay (vocals)
  • Arlene (Sage) Mantel (vocals/guitar)
  • Donna Marchand (vocals/guitar)
  • Joan McKell
  • Faith Nolan (vocals)
  • Linda Robitaille (sax)
  • Lorraine Segato (vocals)
  • Sherry Shute (guitar)
  • Jacqui Snedker (bass)
  • Susan Sturman (guitar)
  • Maxine Walsh (congas/percussion)
  • Boo Watson (singer/songwrier)

Nancy Poole was Mama Quilla II’s manager, sound person and unofficial therapist until they broke up in 1982. Subsequently, Lorraine Segato put together the Parachute Club with a couple of musicians from Mama Quilla II and hired a few others.

And there were many fabulous and extremely popular large concerts with lesbian musicians such as Holly Near, Heather Bishop, Alix Dobkin, Chris Williams, Meg Christian, Kay Gardner, Carol Pope, lesbian comedians such as Kate Clinton, iconoclastic lesbian feminist activists such as JoAnne Loulan (a fabulously funny psychotherapist and author of many books on lesbian sex/relationships) and Ladies Against Women (a U.S. street theatre group rather like The Raging Grannies that poked fun at right-wing male and female groups and individuals), and many, many more great women. Most were brought to Toronto by Womynly Way Productions, which was run by Ruth Dworin and her army of dyke volunteers.

Nightwood Theatre – formed in 1979 and still going strong – was basically a women’s theatre company (with a goodly number of lesbians) that put on many exciting productions. Many of their award-winning plays were written individually or cooperatively by its members. Ann-Marie MacDonald must have been a mere teenager when she acted in Burning Times. Nightwood then went on to produce one of her own award-winning plays, Good Night Desdemona, (Good Morning Juliet).

WOODS (Women Out Of Doors) was started in the early 1980s – the first strictly enforced non-smoking activity for dykes! Even alcohol was only accepted in moderation. There were all types of activities, from one-day biking jaunts to longer canoe/hiking/camping trips in Algonquin Park.

Let’s not forget the mighty Not So Amazon Softball League (the “Notso’s”). Started in 1984, there was a strong sense of competitiveness, ribald humour and community among the various teams. Incidentally, this league was preceded by a dyke baseball team, named the Saulkies, which played in the regular women’s league. When they danced with each other at the league's social activities, the straight league members were apparently quite embarrassed, but they seem to have been accepted otherwise.

Finally, in the late 1970s, a group of lesbians and gay men hosted and produced Toronto’s first two lesbian/gay community Cable TV Shows (Gay News and Views, and This Show May Be Offensive To Heterosexuals). A former member of this group, Heather Ramsey, remembers a couple speaking to her almost ten years later, telling her that they had been too afraid to watch the shows in case someone might know from their cable outlet what they were watching. “How times have changed from that kind of fear,” says Ramsey

Our groups and organizations
  • OWLs - Older Wiser Lesbians
    (the FIRST group specifically for older lesbians!)
    • Lyn Belrose gives us an idea what this 1980s–1990s group and its founders were like:

      I can’t remember any exact dates. I was on the “young” side of the group – maybe the youngest – but they welcomed me. They met once a month for brunch. Can’t remember the name of the restaurant but it was kind of a country-style place in the village. There was a fairly large dance floor on the second floor and the restaurant's clientele seemed big on square dancing.

      The founders of OWLs were Carole (or Carol) MacIntosh-Ritchie and her partner Betty MacDonald. What I remember most was MacIntosh-Ritchie. She was a character and I really admired her for it. She wore a suit (sort of) – it was pants and a sports jacket – and a fedora, and always carried a cane with a fancy gold head. The cane was part of her persona. Betty was just plain butch-dressing. So it was interesting at the time that they were an out butch couple and had been together for many years – like 30-plus or something.

      MacIntosh-Ritchie was very much into the drag queen scene. She befriended the boys, took one into her house when he was dying of AIDS, and took part in the ceremony when they name the Empress and Emperor. She was the “male” escort for the queens as they did their turn on the runway in the competition. And I’m quite sure she was named Emperor at least one year. Last time I saw her she was quite aged and sitting on the drag queen association float in the Pride Parade.

      • Gay and Lesbians Aging (GALA)

      GALA was also active in the mid-1980s. Founded by Jean Duncan-Day, the group was for older gays and lesbians, with social activities as well as committees looking into health and housing issues.

      • The Woman’s Common (1988-1994)
        the great and unique experiment

      A club, a restaurant and a place to hold cultural events, The Common is thought to have been the only fully women-owned and operated cooperative of its type in the world. (Certainly women from all over the world wanted information about it, hoping to replicate it in other countries.) An amazing 200 women invested $1,000 each, knowing very well that they could lose all their money, and another 250 women bought $100 memberships – all this just to get the idea off the ground! Established with the dream of “a home of our own” and the hope of providing a calmer alternative to the existing bar scene, The Common opened at 580 Parliament Street. At its height it had 1,600 paid members, but after years of tumult – and burnout – it closed its doors. The closing seemed to drain the energy from Toronto’s older lesbian community; it wasn’t until 1999 that we began to regain our community spirit once again.

      • WRIB (Women for Recreation, Information and Business)

      WRIB was established in 1991 as a non-profit networking organization for lesbians and bisexual women in the Greater Toronto Area. They currently have 300 members, with many older lesbians taking part in their activities. Their events include dinners, dances, brunches, special events for singles, hiking, picnics, baseball, curling, hockey, pool, bowling and informative guest speakers.

      • Dyke March

      The Dyke March was started in 1996 to give all lesbians and lesbian issues visibility during Gay Pride Week and to give us a time and place of our own to CELEBRATE together. What a wonderful idea! Bravo to the women who got this off the ground!

      • Mad for Dancing

      Started in 1996 – “for women who love to dance, but never do because it’s too loud and it starts too late” – these dances for middle aged dykes (M.A.D.) were held three or four times a year. Although quite a number of younger dykes attended these dances, as they were not exclusively for older lesbians, 200 to 400 lesbians attended each event and they were our “life line” to each other. (The MAD dances are still going strong, incidentally – that’s eight year now! Jane Rounthwaite deserves a medal for keeping these dances going and for the thousands of dollars the MAD organizing committee has been able to donate to the LGB Youth Hotline, as well as the Triangle Program at MCCT [under the jurisdiction of the Toronto District School Board], and our community generally.)

      • FiftyPlus

      When FiftyPlus dinners started in February 1999, there were no regular social events or special places for aging lesbians, bisexual and trans women in Toronto. From only a dozen members in the beginning, it has grown to over 100! FiftyPlus holds monthly dinners at a trendy East End restaurant, with attendance fluctuating between 45 and 65 women. And there’s a monthly 50/50 draw to finance a sliding scale for women who might be short of cash. One of the members publishes a monthly newsletter, Fer da Girlz – featuring notices of community events and informal gatherings, news, health alerts, humour and lots more.

      • OLIVE (Older Lesbians In Valued Environments)

      OLIVE was a grassroots advocacy group on issues affecting the lives of older lesbians. Active in 2001–2003, OLIVE partnered with the Sherbourne Health Centre on the first research ever into the housing and health care needs of older lesbians in the GTA. In fact, it was one of only two such studies in all of Canada, with over 200 mature lesbians participating. Previously, lesbians needs had simply been included in LGBT research and while these needs do coincide, of course – mostly in the areas of discriminatory attitudes, actions, policies and procedures in both housing and health care - they do differ. For example, not much research has been done into our health issues, nor concepts of lesbian-positive health care, nor our emotional and mental health – and even the needs that have been identified are unknown to health care providers, governments and government agencies ... or in the older lesbian community itself! That awareness has begun with the dissemination of the OLIVE report to these agencies and departments, and to the older lesbian community through the research process and the discussions that took place.

      • Gushing Grannies

      The Gushing Grannies have been coming together for over a year to talk, laugh and share stories and pictures of their grandchildren. Who else but another grandmother could deal with all that gushing? They meet every other month at a local restaurant for dinner, and they plan periodic weekends away to which partners, friends-of-grannies and grannie-wannabes are welcomed. Their group is open to any lesbian, bi or trans woman who wants to celebrate and honour her grandchildren and her own journey.

      • The 519 Older GLBT Resource Centre

      Organized discussion and recreational activities for older lesbian, bi and trans women are part of the 519’s Older GLBT Resource Centre activities. The centre is open every Monday afternoon from 1–6 pm. Women's gatherings are scheduled on the second and last Monday of the month, with a discussion group from 5–6 pm.

      Other smaller, less formal groups are active, of course, such as a group for lesbians over 60 years of age, and a book club. As well, another group became a welcome, young addition to a dwindling (and increasingly aging) membership of a lawn bowling club! And, of course, there is the growing number of fun lovin’ older lesbians who now participate in the Dyke March each year.

      more to consider

      Dykes in Toronto have moved from creating their own space, to seeking recognition for their needs in the broader community. For many of them, there will never be a distinction between the personal and the political, because everything they do as a community is political – they make it so, or the mainstream makes it so. That makes real demands on the people seeking the changes. It puts pressure on the community that is doing the pushing, on the choices made by that community. Great creativity, and sometimes, great controversy, is fostered in that dynamic. It is at once at brilliant and exhausting process. Our mainstream institutions could move a lot faster on a whole range of things if they chose to – it is will, not capacity, that is lacking.

      This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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