Wednesday, April 11, 2012

St. Charles Tavern

The St Charles Tavern was the gay hotspot during the 1970s in Toronto. It was also the focus of innumerable homophobic attacks, especially during Halloween, when the tavern held an annual drag contest. These events usually began with an outdoor promenade until attacks by homophobes hurling eggs and rotten fruit made that impossible. Canada's 'Stonewall'? Perhaps.... Do you have a story to tell about the St. Charles? If so, let us know!

Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of information about when these two photos were taken or by whom. Can you help us figure out the details? Drop us a line. Send us a note. We would love to hear from you.


  1. There was a period in the mid-90s when this space was a dance club called Club Time. They had a queer night I used to go to. It was great to hang out and imagine the ol' days and feel a solidarity to that time. So many queer spaces are reused, sold, repackaged, re-imagined, but the structure is still there - kind of a palimpsest vibe. It's cool - enriching - to know the queer history of the city and feel a nostalgia for a time you've only heard about second-hand and to appreciate the defiance, the struggles, that go into opening up queer spaces.

  2. Amazing how simple it can be to communicate with people and have them understand a certain topic, you made my day.

    st charles dance

  3. Part 1/2

    The lower picture was taken looking north along Yonge
    from the east side just above Carlton from about 1945 to 1949.

    The style of the cars in the lot correspond to that period
    and there would have been no new cars prior to 1945 due to wartime rationing
    while construction of the subway would have torn up the street after 1949.

    It was definitely Sunday in Toronto,
    a city where police still ticketed children for playing in the street on Sundays.

    You could actually get a criminal record at the tender age of 8
    for skipping rope on the sidewalk on Sunday if you were a girl
    and if you were a boy skipping rope in public
    they would probably lock you up in “999” and throw the key away
    although following a Salvation Army band was permitted!

    The upper picture looks southwest
    from the northeast corner of Alexander and Yonge
    and was taken from about 1970 to 1980 judging by the style of the car
    turning southbound left from Yonge onto Alexander.

    The building marked “Radio Trade Supply” certainly brings back memories.

    Today the ground floor of 490 Yonge St is Curry’s Art Store
    and the upper floor is a hairstyling salon staffed by pretty gay guys
    but back then things were very different.

    In those days televisions and radios used “thermionic emission devices”,
    aka “tubes”, which burned out after a few thousand hours
    so distributors like RTS would distribute
    the thousands of different kinds of electronic tubes
    needed to keep electronic equipment working.

    When I was 19 I applied for a job there one Monday morning in January
    responding to an ad for a counter clerk in the Star.

    I was a very soft-spoken and femme and pretty slinky twinky
    who often got pegged as being a girl in boy’s clothing
    and the word “ultra-gay” was barely enough to describe me.

    The owner was a big beefy guy with a big barrel chest and big huge hairy arms
    and a deep gravelly voice and a handlebar moustache.

    He apparently also apparently intensely disliked pretty gay boys
    and persistently refused to acknowledge my repeated requests
    for an employment application form
    and kept marching up and down behind the long counter
    on the north side of the building to evade me
    but I kept following him and politely persisted
    until he finally reached under the counter for a form
    and slammed it down on the counter in front of me with a great deal of disgust and marched off in a huff to sulk in a corner.

    In a strange way I was not really afraid of him and I felt quite at home there
    because he reminded me of my father
    who tended to respond to me in much the same way.

    I filled it in and then tried to give it to him but again he kept trying to evade me
    until finally he snatched it out of my hand with a lot of hostility
    and repressed anger and I said “Thank you” and quietly left the store.

    On my way out I looked back
    and saw him crumple it into a little ball with a lot of aggression
    and then drop it into the “round file” (ie the waste basket)
    so I gathered that I was no longer being seriously considered for the position!

    He never spoke a word to me in the several minutes when I was in the store
    (although he did answer the phone briefly while I was filling in the form)
    but I was very relieved that at least he did not try to pick me up
    and throw me back out through the window or the door.

    In those days if you were visibly “gay” Toronto was not very kind to you
    with even passing streetcar drivers making faces at you and giving you the finger
    and you needed to be quite brave just to walk on the street in broad daylight
    and always on the watch for thugs who wanted to beat you
    and you certainly needed to be able to sprint and run very fast when necessary
    and I was a real gazelle and very fleet of foot for this reason.

    The good old days were not so good at all
    and I definitely do not miss them my darlings!

  4. Part 2/3

    I can also very vividly remember Halloween night in October of 1978
    in front of the St Charles Tavern
    just a few months after the Emanuel Jacques murder.

    Every year the local gay folks would promenade in all their finery
    to the big Halloween ball at the St Charles on Halloween night
    and the next day the Sun
    (always such a good and kind friend of Toronto’s gay community!)
    would show a picture of the “PERVS!” promenading on Yonge St
    the night before.

    I was still young and finally old enough to go into a bar
    so that year I thought that I would go and check it out and then go into the bar
    and perhaps engage with all the colorful gay folks therein
    in what seemed to be a safe space.

    When I got out of the College subway station
    I walked north along the east side of Yonge
    and I noticed a large crowd ahead of me between Alexander and Wood
    opposite the St Charles Tavern.

    I thought that they also had come to see the show
    but when I got into the crowd opposite the tavern
    I suddenly realized that this was actually a lynch mob
    which badly wanted to grab somebody gay
    and string them up from a lamppost
    and they were definitely beyond simply throwing eggs and rotten fruit.

    There were several big police horses marching up and down at curbside
    in front of the mob to keep people from trying to run across the street
    and cops were constantly walking through the crowd
    encouraging people to move on.

    The west side of Yonge was completely empty
    but two very non-gay-looking “hosers”
    (not-very-bright sightseers dressed like the McKenzie Brothers)
    tried to venture north in front of the St Charles
    and this provoked the mob into a frenzy of rage
    and got the police very worried.

    The cops quickly hustled them away and tried to pacify the crowd.

    I still remember a Jamaican woman on my right about 30 years old
    who suddenly boiled over and went into a real hate frenzy and rant
    and the cops picked her up under her arms and hustled her away
    before she triggered the mob into a full-scale riot.

    I cannot overstate how intense the hate and anger was on that street that night.

    I was someone who was very visibly gay-looking
    and I quickly realized that it was not safe for me to be there
    so I flipped the hood of my parka jacket over my head
    and moved to the back of the sidewalk and very quickly walked north
    and then west on Grosvenor to Bay St.

    I really wanted to get away from there fast and I finally relaxed a bit at Bay.

    I realized that there were no safe spaces for gay folks anywhere
    and just went back home into my little closet.

    Today you can cross Yonge St in a few seconds at Alexander
    and you can visit drag shows on Church St with no fear
    but on that night
    the west side of Yonge seemed to be very, very far away
    and there was no way to cross that narrow little street
    to enter the St Charles Tavern
    and engage with all the colorful gay folks within.

    Grosvenor was full of paddy wagons, police motorcycles, horse trailers
    and police cruisers
    and there must have been about 100+ cops all around the St Charles Tavern
    and they were all very nervous.

    I still remember the motorcycle cops forming ranks with their clubs on Grosvenor
    and I thought they were getting ready to read the Riot Act
    and forcibly disperse the mob on Yonge St
    so I was very glad to get out of there quickly.

    (In those days there were no riot police
    and motorcycle cops would double as riot police.)

    Apparently the police were actually protecting the gay folks in the tavern
    which I found surreal
    because Toronto police did plenty of gay-bashing of their own
    and even drag-queens would be regularly hauled off stage to Cherry Beach
    to be worked over
    although ordinary visibly gay people usually just got beat up in a back alley.

  5. Part 3/3

    In those days there was a common popular belief
    that all gay guys were also always pedophiles
    and were also deranged perverts in general
    and the fact that Saul Betesh, who murdered Emanuel Jacques,
    was both gay, and pedophilic,
    and mentally very disordered and psychopathic from infancy
    very strongly reinforced these public attitudes in Toronto.

    These attitudes were so deeply entrenched
    that many people also believed
    that even lesbian women were insane out-of-control pedophiles
    and the CBC actually showed a drama special on television back in about 1990
    about a lesbian teacher
    who sexually abused little aboriginal girls in a residential school in Saskatchewan
    in the early 20th century
    even though lesbian pedophilia is exceedingly rare.

    It took many, many years with considerable research to finally prove
    that there was no causal link between gayness and pedophilia and insanity.

    I cannot stress how impossibly ugly and unpleasant life for GLB people
    could be in those days
    and how many GLB people committed suicide when they were outed
    or just because they simply could not deal with the chronic depression
    of being intensely closeted to shield themselves
    from very intensive public prejudice against homosexuality and bisexuality
    and transsexuality.

    Toronto’s gay community is still very wary about revisiting these events
    but it is time to go back there and remember that innocent little child
    and also how we were all caught in a vortex of ugliness
    and institutionalized homophobic violence.

  6. Thanks everyone for your comments and contribution to the CGLA blog! We really appreciate the participation of our community members to help us keep these memories alive, even if the memories are not always rosie. I will be posting more photos from the CLGA's collection as time goes by. Thanks again!

    on behalf of the
    Community Engagement Committee