Mapping Collective History by Rio Rodriguez

Part of Special Issue #1 – QTBIPOC Space – Remapping Belonging in Toronto

The following is an extract from the Master’s Research Portfolio by Rio Rodriguez, in the Master of Environmental Studies program at York University.

In order to resist the historical erasure of QTBIPOC people, I like to use maps. This QTBIPOC map feature quotes from six interviews that I did with QTBIPOC community organizers. Each interviewee was asked to identify sites on a city map that they believed was significant to QTBIPOC history, particularly sites that they felt might be commonly misrepresented or underrepresented.

This engaging map differs from existing queer maps of Toronto. The stories that are told by this map do not use mapping in order to visualize sites that predominantly serve to commemorate consumption or sites of LGBT cultural triumph (such as existing Mapping Queer Toronto, Pride Toronto Maps, FunMaps, The short video Queeropolis, or the mapping app Queerstory). While this map does include some narratives of triumph, it also includes narratives of outrage, grief and loss. Some of the sites on this map refer to locations that still exist in the present. Other sites commemorate venues or locations that have closed down or are now defunct. Some interviewees identified sites that are commonly represented in existing LGBT maps. Others identified sites that have less public appeal as LGBT cultural hubs, and even fall entirely outside of that which is commonly identified as an LGBTQ space. This includes sites well outside of the Village, for example public parks in Toronto’s west end, as described by Anna Mallalla:

I think of QTBIPOC spaces as also including parks. Queer West soccer, a pickup weekly soccer meet is at Dufferin Grove Park on Sundays. It’s hosted by QTBIPOC’s and isn’t explicitly for QTBIPOC’s, but it is unquestionably an important community meeting place. Spaces of refuge and community for us are often outdoors. Maybe because we don’t feel necessarily excited about going to the Village or to queer parties that are mostly white. We make spaces where we can just find each other and gather. Sometimes it’s outdoors. For me, the meeting places where I’ve intentionally and meaningfully connected with other QTBIPOCS are when we plan to all meet in outdoor spaces in the west end, like down by the water by Parkdale, or in High Park (Malla 2016).

The map that I created in collaboration with my interviewees is littered with spaces, both public and private, that similarly may not be explicitly queer, but have been adopted as significant QTBIPOC meeting places. As stated by Aemilius Ramirez, “sometimes it’s hard to place where QTBIPOC communities are based, because even though our cultures are incredibly important, most of the time we do not own or manage venues, we just carve out temporary spaces there”. This sentiment was reflected in various stories on the map. For example, Syrus Marcus Ware identified a bubble tea shop on St. Joseph Avenue and Bay Streets, which no longer exists, as an important QTBIPOC space. This independent bubble tea shop called “Tea Shop” was two blocks west of the Village, and while it catered to a clientele that was not explicitly queer, it was adopted as the recurring meeting place for what Ware nostalgically refers to as “bubble tea lounges”. These events were monthly meeting places for queer Asians, and eventually turned into Queer Asian Youth (QAY) in the early 2000s, a peer-support youth program that began as a community-based collective. QAY hosted open meetings in bubble tea shops, and later became a project of the local nonprofit organization Asian Community Aids Service in Chinatown.

Unlike QAY, which now has a permanent home, the vast majority of stories on this map indicate that QTBIPOC communities have largely been confined to temporary use of venues or spaces. In fact there were only three venues on the map that were operated for and by QTBIPOC communities. This included the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, the Manhattan Bar, and Convento Rico, a latino drag bar. Every other site on this map was a space that I suggest we call ‘temporarily adopted’ by QTBIPOC community. Adopted spaces identified on the map include hotel rooms and men’s bathhouses that were rented to throw sex parties for queer people of colour, or the use of the (now defunct) Euclid Theatre to host Desh Pardesh, a large-scale annual queer arts and activism festival that is widely regarded as having made an enormous cultural impression on the Toronto queer and activist scene (Fernandez 2006). Monica Forrester’s narrative about street involved sex workers is particularly compelling, as it demonstrates a use of space that was not only temporary, but targeted for deliberate displacement from the adopted space.

When I came out, most of the trans women were mostly street based women. At the time, the trans people like us hung out at Church and Maitland. The social locations of the women who would hang out there were similar to mine. A lot of them were homeless, they were youth or marginalized, they did sex work for money or survival, most of us were people of colour. So Church and Maitland was where we worked and congregated to engage with each other. It was a meeting place for street involved trans people, because at that time trans people didn’t have spaces in the community that we could access. It was a working area and a community hangout area. It was around 1995 that the police started pushing us off of Church and Maitland to Maitland and Homewood. They said that the people on Church and the Ballet School on Maitland wanted us off the street, so the police moved us to Maitland on the other side of Jarvis. I think that the Church and Wellesley Better Business Association [sic] also wanted us out as well (Forrester 2016).

Forrester goes on to describe the ways that spaces for trans people have continued to shift, shaped predominantly by external interests, systemic violence and policing. She narrates her experience of having been actively displaced by police from Maitland and Church in 1995. In response to this, she describes, workers began to be more active at Maitland and Homewood Avenues. In 1996, however, three sex workers were murdered on Homewood Avenue. Forrester describes this tragic event and the ensuing media attention as a turning point for trans community. It was also a catalyst for the creation of the 519 Community Centre Meal Trans program, Canada’s first multi-service nonprofit support program for trans people. While the development of the program can be considered an organizing success, Forrester describes the effects of this institutionalization of trans politics as contradictory, including both effects of empowerment and erasure. This is illustrated by her own experience, as she eventually became an employee of the 519’s trans program. As an outreach worker for the 519, Forrester was directed to do regular shifts that involved watching and correcting the behaviour of local sex workers. Her job involved encouraging sex workers to keep noise levels down, discouraging fights and passing out flyers about the resident’s concerns. This surveillance also extended to her. When Forrester vocally refused to participate in what she felt was policing of communities that she belonged to, she was pushed out of her job with the 519. Forrester’s narratives are especially compelling as they demonstrate the repeated displacement of trans and sex working women of colour in the neighbourhood, by police, by nonprofits, and by residents.

In addition to expanding the scope of what is considered a historic space for queer community, interviewees’ contributions to the map also serve to contest the dominant representation of the few prominent sites that are popularly mapped as LGBT. One interviewee’s analysis of the municipally run 519 Community Centre on Church Street is a notable example. Colloquially called “The 519”, it has been a community centre in the Church-Wellesley Village since 1975. According to the 519’s official website, the centre presently hosts 80 LGBT focused programs and has over 300 community groups that use the centre as meeting space. The map created by the QueerStory digital history project echoes this self-description by the 519 and is positively beaming: “For more than 35 years, The 519 has been the epicentre of outreach, activism and social services in the Village. It is the place where people gathered together for community consultation to make change happen” (QueerStory 2015). One anonymous interviewee, however, diverged greatly from the triumphant narrative of the 519 Community Centre as the hub of LGBT strength, influence and inclusivity. Instead, various interviewees situates the 519 as a place that has been “lost” after changes that erase and marginalize trans women of colour.

While many of the mental maps in this QTBIPOC sample converge and resemble each other, others demonstrate very different experiences of the same location on the StoryMap. For example, Anna Malla’s account of the Toronto Women’s bookstore describes a vibrant QTBIPOC culture:

The Toronto Women’s bookstore was incredible. Irreplaceable. Before I moved here, every time I would visit the City I’d spend at least half a day there. [It was a nonprofit feminist bookstore] with tons of QPOC content and QPOC culture and staff. A lot of QPOC community events would happen there. A lot of people who are now part of the Toronto literary arts world were associated with the TWB.  Angela Golki is someone who now is involved with Another Story Bookstore, but she used to work there, as well as QPOC artists Rosina Kazi and Mel Campbell.

This quote demonstrates an experience of seeing the Toronto Women’s bookstore as a cultural stronghold and place of support. Aemilius Ramirez, however, complicated this celebratory narrative of the Toronto Women’s bookstore as an inclusive community space. According to Ramirez’s interview account, the bookstore was also a stage upon which community tensions played out. Based on the experiences of friends who were employees of the store, Ramirez shared that several Black employees were systematically fired.

The clear tension between the two narratives of the Toronto Women’s bookstore highlights that QTBIPOC space is contested in multiple mental maps, reflecting multiple positionalities. Indeed, the two narratives are contradictory and as such shed light on the multiplicity of narrative truth. It is evident that the Toronto Women’s Bookstore was welcoming to some QTBIPOC but not to others, which highlights the ways that QTBIPOC communities are cut through by power relations, including anti-Black racism and transphobia.

Unlike many of the existing LGBT maps of Toronto, then, this map represents the city not as defined by history projects that intend to commemorate institutional success, nor as places that have a single history. Instead, this map values the multiplicity of voices that are often erased from understandings of public history due to racism, transphobia and the erasure of sex workers. This map aims to recover some of the histories that QTBIPOC communities have much to pass on, despite and because of the erasure and marginalization that they face across the city of Toronto, including and especially from from various LGBT social and spatial landscapes.