Staging Queer Difference

Marketing Diversity in Toronto

July / August 2004 Issue

Queer Pride organizing in Toronto has undergone a radical transformation. According to Gary Kinsman, a former Pride organizer and a Professor of Sociology at Laurentian University, early Pride events mixed pleasure with politics: “Pride Day was consciously used as a day to build a movement, a day to build community organizations and to get people involved in political campaigns.” In more recent years, however, Pride organizing reflects a very different set of priorities. While a number of political groups are still involved in the weeklong festival, and while many people derive a sense of community from the parade, Pride events are no longer organized to advance queer social movement politics. Pride planners, along with local officials and business elites, seem much more concerned with reorganizing the event to bolster the local tourist industry.

Numerous studies have been conducted to assess the economic impact of the event (now estimated at $80 million including spin-offs) and to acquire detailed demographic information from spectators to assist corporations pursuing the heavily mythologized gay market. Pride organizers have stepped up marketing efforts this year by launching a cross-border advertising campaign to attract more American tourists to Toronto.

The evolution of Pride Toronto from a venue for lesbian and gay social movement politics to a marketing tool and tourist spectacle does not simply reflect the decisions made by organizers, but symbolizes much broader dynamics of the commodification of diversity in Toronto. Queerness, along with other forms of ethno-cultural diversity, has been conscripted into Toronto’s economic development strategies. Toronto’s gay district, much like Little Italy or Chinatown, now operates as a material and symbolic resource supporting Toronto’s cosmopolitan image as well as the emergence of a local tourism industry based on the commodification of cultural difference.

This newfound appreciation for diversity should be regarded with suspicion. Beneath the glossy veneer of Toronto’s official multicultural image lie persistent forms of marginalization.

Urban Entrepreneurialism and the Commodification of Difference

In the wake of globalization and the flight of manufacturing to cheaper regions, cities across North America have scrambled to devise new ways to attract and retain investment - and within these entrepreneurial schemes image is everything. Cities have sought to reinvent themselves through strategies of branding that sell the city like any other product. This involves the proliferation of spectacle in a variety of forms such as trophy architecture, revitalized waterfronts and historic districts, stadiums, and other forms of infrastructure development that channel money out of less-spectacular but much-needed services.

Urban branding also involves the marketing of diversity. Economic development policy star Richard Florida built a career by selling this strategy to cities. In 2001, Florida began travelling the lecture circuit with his idea of “the gay index,” a measurement of economic performance that links a thriving urban economy with a large gay (male) population. Florida (with associate Gary Gates) announced that, “gays can be thought of as canaries of the knowledge economy. They signal a diverse and progressive environment that fosters the creativity and innovation necessary for success.” In light of Florida’s revelation, urban developers in cities across North America have rushed to make their respective locales attractive by staging diversity in the most theatrical and spectacular manner possible. They are taking stock of whatever cultural resources and ethnic enclaves may enhance urban branding strategies and function as “authentic” exotica for tourists and middle-class urban dwellers.

Toronto is no exception. Local urban imagineers have em-barked on an urban branding campaign to repackage Toronto as a succession of tourist districts and ethnic enclaves. The Economic Development Strategy Report produced by the City in 2000 outlines the “branding of Toronto as the most ethnically, culturally, socially and economically diverse city in the world” as a strategic priority that will delineate Toronto’s “unique identity.” The report goes on to suggest that “Toronto will bolster its competitive position by finding new ways to creatively package previously overlooked aspects of the city … for tourists throughout the year.”

The commodification of diversity in Toronto is rife with contradictions. While certain forms of cultural difference are incorporated into urban branding strategies, other forms of difference, those that don’t help to consolidate Toronto’s “unique identity”, are subject to intensified surveillance and repression. New laws and policing practices, such as the Safe Streets Act, have served to further criminalize a broad section of Toronto’s population including low-income people, people of colour, Aboriginal peoples, the homeless, youth, and psychiatric survivors. Moreover, numerous reports produced by the United Way and other agencies have exposed the disturbing underside of Toronto’s multicultural image - the dramatic intensification of poverty among racialized communities in Toronto’s under resourced inner suburbs. Given these trends, Toronto’s brand of celebratory multiculturalism appears to be more about civic-boosterism than equality.

(Ab)using Queer Culture

Toronto’s queer culture is one of those “previously overlooked” resources to be packaged for tourists. Historically speaking, however, Toronto’s queer communities were hardly “overlooked.” For decades urban authorities viewed Toronto’s burgeoning gay and lesbian presence as a sign of the city’s moral decay. A number of viciously homophobic policing campaigns were mounted against gays and lesbians such as the “Clean Up Yonge Street” campaign in the late seventies and the infamous “Operation Soap” bathhouse raids of the early eighties that entailed the mass arrest of hundreds of gay men.

The same spaces once targeted by police are now targeted for commodification as part of an exotic identity-based entertainment district lending credence to the city’s desired image as tolerant, diverse and “cool”. Images of queer culture figure centrally in promotional literature to project, as one City of Toronto report puts it, “the sexiness of the city - new urban cool - young businessperson to young businessperson.” A glossy tourist guide produced by Tourism Toronto touts the city’s gay district as “a celebration of life, diversity and…shopping. Sip a non-fat-extra-foamy latte in a café, install yourself in a restaurant window, or quaff a cold one on an outdoor patio… the Gay Village is sophisticated, spirited, and…plays an essential role in making this a world class city. Be part of it!” Prospective gay male tourists are urged to “Grab a Speedo and water gun for outdoor water parties filled with hunky, mostly naked studs …and after the parties end, the fun doesn’t stop! Toronto’s seven centrally located bathhouses will be jam-packed featuring a smorgasbord of satisfaction.”

Such over-the-top representations of queer commercial spaces accentuate the edgy urbanism that place marketers seek to project. Yet, the increasing visibility of Toronto’s queer spaces and spectacles does nothing to challenge the persistent marginalization of queer people. While urban authorities began to exploit exotic images of queerness, agencies providing important services to queer people including the AIDS Committee of Toronto and the Toronto District School Board’s Triangle Program had their budgets slashed. The situation also worsened for many queer youth in Toronto during the late nineties. Cuts to social assistance coupled with the lack of affordable housing impoverished many queer youth who had moved from smaller towns to Toronto in search of community and who were relying on welfare to establish themselves. A disproportionate number of queer youth became caught in the homeless shelter system.

Moreover, the organization of Toronto’s queer district as an entertainment district further marginalizes those unable or unwelcome to consume in primarily white gay male commercial establishments including lesbians, transgender people, queers of colour, and queer youth. Clearly not all queers were empowered during the so-called gay nineties.

“We are Not For Sale!”

The establishment of the Advisory Committee on Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Issues in 1999 gave reason to hope things might change for vulnerable queers in Toronto. Mandated to advocate on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the advisory committee provided Toron-to’s queer constituencies with a rare voice in the newly restructured municipality. Yet the under-resourced committee proved to be quite powerless, and before shutting down, began collaborating with Tourism Toronto to market the city’s gay quarters as an identity-based entertainment district and tourist destination.

An entrepreneurial agenda now frames how queer issues are taken up within the local state. Within this agenda, Toronto’s queer communities are depoliticized and re-conceived as a tourist attraction. This is cause for concern as it exacerbates inequalities within queer communities. The gay business class is empowered vis-à-vis the local state while the political grievances of severely marginalized queers are put on the back burner. We would do well to draw inspiration from a group of queer activists in Spain who recently blocked Barcelona’s Pride Parade with shopping carts chanting, “We are not for sale!”

John Grundy is a PhD candidate in Political Science at York University.