Harmonopoly 23: On Toronto and Queer Neighborhoods

written on 08/11 with a few days to polish

As I write this I’m sitting at a coffee shop in The Village, Toronto’s famous LGBTQ neighborhood. I traveled to Toronto this weekend for two reasons: to watch some wrestling, and because I am periodically stricken with a need to be Somewhere Else. Traveling is the one great indulgence of my life, and going to big cities makes me happy, so I do it a lot. I haven’t gotten to travel all summer because of moving woes and other more general woes, so this trip was long-overdue. There are many things I really love about Toronto: the people are friendly, there’s a ton of great food, the public transportation is easy to use, and the downtown is green and walkable. Yesterday I got to eat a ton of Coffee Crisps, drink a lot of good espresso and see Bull Nakano with my own two crying eyeballs. Hell yes.

I’m having a marvelous time, as I often do on my big city trips. And on all of these trips, I inevitably find myself scheduling an extra day to play tourist in the gay part of town. I walk around and take pictures and spend too much money at bookstores and generally soak up queer culture in a way I simply cannot in Columbus. It’s like the way I get giddy about riding the L to a good udon place in Chicago; it’s not special if you live there, but it’s worth travelling for.

For example: as soon as I jumped off the Toronto subway, I got to follow a walking tour of the Church St. Mural Project (photo above) that led me to Glad Day, the oldest LGBTQ bookshop in the world. Glad Day has an entire display of queer-themed zines created by queer Canadian writers and artists, which I happily raided for souvenirs. As I shopped, I listened to the Bilingual Queer Social Club have their Sunday brunch meeting behind me, the patter a mix of American brand names and French epithets. I carried an armful of zines to the register and chatted with the cashier about how cool their selection was, and they gave me a heads up about an awesome zine their friend made (necessitating a trip back to the rack). Now I am sitting underneath one of those historic murals I saw on the way in, drinking a good latte and getting ready to dig into some of my favorite kind of literature on the planet.

Aside from traveling to another country, it was remarkably easy to do all of this, and now I am both happy and sad. It’s a tangled feeling, so let’s sort it out:

I think at least a part of the draw of these neighborhoods is that for me, there’s still freshness to being out, and being able to fearlessly walk into queer places is like breathing fresh air. I know eventually my queerness will be one of the most boring things about me, but right now, it’s something I’m still learning to experience. There are a lot of firsts for me right now, and it all feels new and joyous. I am about ten years behind most of my peers, which creates a sometimes painful enthusiasm gap. I don’t blame queer folks my own age for not being as excited about rainbows as I am: ten years of bad-faith corporate pride bullshit would wear anybody down. (Even I don’t go to Columbus’s city-sponsored pride events after what happened to the Black Pride Four.) 

But I still can’t help but feel like I missed out on something fun. Coming out in your thirties after years of quiet, confused yearning is like finally getting an invite to an exclusive party, and then getting a bunch of texts from your friends about how much the party actually sucks. I know it sucks, but I still want to go! Going to queer neighborhoods lets me feel like I am making up for lost time. Look at me, swaggering into the queer bookstore like I own the place. I just bought a lesbian sex zine, and I’m gonna sit here and read it in broad daylight while I drink a plant-based latte. What a fuckin’ queer badass! Out and proud! Good for me!

The sadness is more complicated, and it’s related to me trying to figure out if Columbus is going to be my permanent home or not. I am sorry to say that I am still trying to decide, and it is not a decision I am going to make via entropy. But there is so much I love about my home town. My family is here. My friends are (mostly) here. It’s given me jobs, helped me get back on my feet a thousand times, and has slowly evolved into a place even the biggest Midwest haters will quietly admit is kinda cool. I am even building a reputation here as a writer and creator, to the extent that I’ve gotten at least one Bumble match solely because someone recognized my name from McSweeneys. (She eventually ghosted me. Maybe she didn’t like the Catapult essay?)

There’s also a frustrating air of moral responsibility around deciding where you’re going to live when you’re an LGBTQ person in the Midwest, because a lot of people don’t think you exist. For example: I was baffled and infuriated by Leana Wen’s aversion to using trans-inclusive language in Planned Parenthood fundraising materials, and her willingness to scapegoat my region of the country for her fear and discomfort. I personally know transgender folks who do work for Planned Parenthood right here in the Midwest. So, what the fuck?

Queer folks are the biggest cryptids to hit Ohio since the Mothman. So, I feel a lot of pressure to stay here so I can be loud and visible and push back on these dumb narratives. Ohioans are here, we’re queer, and we have strong opinions about being used as rhetorical footballs for bigots. 

On the other hand, every time I come back to Ohio from one of my big city trips, I feel this gentle ache in my chest for the thing I have left. Queer neighborhoods do not exist in Columbus, at least not in they way they do in bigger cities. Columbus had queer bookstores and coffeeshops back in the 80s and 90s, but all of the old gems have been lost to gentrification, and nothing has popped up to replace them. I mean, we have queer-friendly places, sure. Overpriced bars that cater to fit young white dudes and bachelorette parties, also a big yes. But no space with a real history like what I found in Toronto, and that is a damn shame.

There’s value in partying and celebrating and being visible, don’t get me wrong, but we also need comfortable places to chill out and read books and relax together. And I don’t want to put down the awesome efforts that queer folks in Columbus make to create spaces for themselves; we have queer yoga, queer bookclubs, queer crafting nights, and a banger of a queer open mic. We also have an amazing grassroots pride fest for folks who don’t want to go to the city-sponsored police-heavy events, thanks to the efforts of groups like BQIC. But these are events on the calendar, and they don’t replace the physical places the community has lost to time and greed.

We have queer spaces in Columbus, but we don’t have queer places. There is nowhere in this city where I could just walk in, sit down, and feel like I’m in my community without doing a ton of planning beforehand. That sucks.

(And yes I know no neighborhood is perfect, and I am idealizing neighborhoods in other cities because I don’t know them well, and I haven’t been out long enough to find my community in Columbus quite yet, and and and. Whatever! Talk to me when your weekend plans are to cycle through the twelve single queer people in your city on every single dating app that exists after spending a frustrating afternoon spelunking around suburbanites for your copies of Dykes to Watch Out For. Yes, it’s by the Fun Home lady, Karen. Now please leave me be.) 

At first I thought I just loved queer neighborhoods in other cities because I tend to be introduced to them by queer people I have crushes on. But the more I travel, the more I realize I am drawn to certain places because of their own qualities, not just because they happen to be the homes of attractive people who will eventually reject me. A large, vibrant, and supported queer community is one of those qualities that I want to have in the place I call home. 

If I can’t find that in Columbus, do I have to leave? Do I stay and just hope things will change, or resign myself to the fact that they probably won’t and make do with what I’ve got? Is any neighborhood in the world ever going to make me feel like I do walking around a place like The Village on a clear August morning? 

Am I just going to chase that feeling forever?

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