As the great John Waters once remarked, "Gay is not enough." With these words weighing heavily on my mind, I reluctantly agree to essay a Toronto gay scene report, neither wishing to give the impression that I'm any kind of authority on the subject, nor that I necessarily even endorse the oxymoronic notion of "gay culture." All I can do, I decide, is to venture forth into the ghetto and see what happens, enlisting several guides and interpreters to steer me in the right -- or, more hopefully, wrong -- direction.
Before I plunge in, a word about gay identity. In the beginning (the '60s), there was the old-school queen: a stylish, non-conformist renegade leading a mysterious double life -- and it was good. The '70s saw the advent of the gay rights movement, wherein a naïve idealism ushered in gay visibility and ideological conformity -- and it wasn't so good. All gays started to look exactly alike and gay politics became monolithic. In the '80s, AIDS activism gave rise to the new queer radical, a clone in punk clothing whose political agenda narrowed even further. And in the '90s -- with the struggle for constitutional rights and homosexual marriage -- the bland neo-conservative gay was born, almost indistinguishable from the straights he or she so desperately strives to become.
Lately, a new entity has emerged, one more stylish, more sexually fluid and dismissive of the tired extant gay agenda -- coming out, visibility, acceptance -- a creature, ironically, much more consistent with the great old school of the '60s, of which I count myself an honorary member. It is against this historical backdrop that all gay scene breakdowns must be considered.
It's a Tuesday night and, having just spent months on the road, I don't much feel like going out, but the Toilet Boys are in town, so quoi faire? The T-Boys -- fronted by Jayne County-influenced drag queen Miss Guy -- are based in New York, from which I have just escaped. The post-apocalyptic, pyrotechnic punk rockers incorporate much open flame in their act -- you may want to stand by a fire exit if you choose to watch them at the Bovine on New Year's Eve. They're with visiting gay dignitary Michael Schmidt -- former roommate of the likes of Cher and Debbie Harry, chainmail designer to the stars and current promoter of Squeezebox, Manhattan's infamous rock 'n' roll fag bar.
Schmidt is here to provide moral support for the Boys (who double as the Squeezebox house band), to visit various illustrious Toronto faggots (art director Kenny Baird and Lee's Palace honcho Lyn MacNeil) and to write his own gay Toronto report for Genre magazine. The T-Boys' show is at the decrepit El Mocambo, one of the last bastions of bad, old-fashioned, crusty punk rock and -- judging by the pan-sexual patrons parading around in their black spandex and lurid leather -- not quite dead yet. Paging Kevorkian.
On Friday night I arrange to meet the aforementioned celebrity sissies at Sneakers, Toronto's own hustler bar. I've also invited Todd Klink, award-winning writer of the novel Tacones, and John Palmer, director of Wolf Boy, the Toronto gay play which established the homoerotic credentials of Keanu Reeves. Todd and John have adapted some short stories I once wrote about a hustler and his boyfriend into a screenplay for a film called Sugar, which John will soon direct. Sneakers is the only remaining canteen that recalls the great era of Yonge Street gay bars of the '70s and '80s -- the St. Charles Tavern, the Paramount, the Quest, Cornelius, Stages, Show Biz -- combining as it does a relaxed atmosphere, a comprehensive jukebox, a pool table, hustlers, dealers and the occasional brawl.
We are joined by a couple of gay club promoters who I grill about the current state of the art in Toronto. According to them the scene is particularly dead at the moment -- even most of the infamous druggy, dodgy speakeasies that once existed in the downtown core seem to have been busted to oblivion. At least these guys are trying. They're opening new club nights at the former Empire at Yonge and Alexander and at Studio 619 at 22 Gloucester Lane. The latter takes place Friday nights, with DJ Sylvain Girard, formerly of the defunct Joy, where the muscleboys once cruised, spinning on crystal.
Next stop is Tallulah's, the Friday night dance party at Buddies in Bad Times. We're greeted by Mikey, the hot tattooed doorman who co-owns New Tribe, the body modification shoppe. Mikey is the ideal gay man -- he's straight. All the fun and frivolity of being queer, with none of the guilt and self-loathing. Plus he gets to fuck girls. Regardless, he once generously consented to have sex with me in one of my movies. I take some snapshots of his amazing tattoos, including the one on his dick with which he once so professionally penetrated me. It's all very full circle.
Somewhere along the way someone has acquired one of Toronto's most illustrious club kids. His name, justly, is Justus, one of a new school of homosexuals who defies strict categorization. Relaxed about their identity, stylish and polymorphously perverse, these kids represent the generation whose shoulders have been cleared of all chips, whose style allows them to weave in and out of various gay and straight scenes and whose sexuality isn't so strictly regimented as that of faggots of the old school.
Justus introduces me to a girl named Laura who works as a hairdresser. In her cowboy hat, western shirt knotted below her breasts and her phenomenally tight hip-huggers, Laura could be the it-girl of Toronto. When she pulls down her pants to let me snap a photo of the cherries tattooed on her angel ass, I can't help but think how far the new generation has come. As a responsible journalist, I consider asking if she's gay, straight or bi, but somehow it doesn't really matter. Ambiguity is so much more millennial.
The rest of the weekend includes a visit to an over-hyped, massive speakeasy which (in true Toronto style) has no character or edge, a pitstop at the Black Eagle for a soupçon of fisting (only on video) and a stroll through the Bijou, the city's premier sex club where they run surprisingly hip, '70s porno like Joe Gage's El Paso Wrecking Co.
The pièce de resistance, however, arrives on Tuesday night, when I am invited to attend the gala opening of a brand-new bathhouse. Did you know that Toronto is virtually the bathhouse capital of the world? Just as no other major city I've visited is as gay-ghettoized as Toronto, nowhere else have I encountered so many lavishly appointed, 24-hour establishments where men can rent small rooms and fuck their brains out. A well-publicized launch party for a gay bathhouse (locations which, traditionally, have been characterized by their discretion and anonymity) -- including cameras from CITY-TV ("Everywhere!") and a Molson Dry sponsorship -- could only happen here, just as Toronto is the only city where could it be accomplished without a trace of irony.
There seems to be no awareness, in fact, of a variety of ironies: that the event has fallen squarely on World AIDS Day; that the females at the party -- including a 17-year-old rave girl who obviously has no idea where she is -- will be the last ones ever to set foot in the joint; and that the unfinished rooms and stacks of mattresses give the whole affair a somewhat disturbing, post-modern fin-de-siecle tone.
An old-school queen gives us a poker-faced tour of the facilities, enumerating them in a monotone like a stewardess: "On your right will be the orgy pit and the glory hole wall. Coming up on your left is the St. Andrew's bondage cross and the double reinforced leather sling."
After the flogging demonstration, the reverently silent audience, seated on folding chairs, claps quietly as if at a golf tournament. I rush out and buy a disposable camera to document the event. Only in Toronto, kids, only in Toronto.