Close proximity to Toronto offers clear advantages to residents of York Region. But, when it comes to the quality of life on offer to the region's gays and lesbians, having such easy access to Canada's largest city can be a double-edged sword.
To the north, Barrie, Orillia and even Bradford managed to raise rainbow flags on civic flagpoles during their 2007 pride week festivities. Yet in that same year, a rainbow flag had been raised publicly in York Region only once, five years previously in 2002. Similarly, in both Barrie and Orillia, there are several social venues that are relatively well known as gay-friendly establishments. There have even been a number of gay nightclubs that have operated in Barrie over the past decade, with Club C'est La Vie nightclub on Essa Road presently opening every Saturday. In contrast, York Region has never been home to any exclusively gay bar or club, and the number of establishments renowned as gay-friendly can be counted on the fingers of one hand - with plenty of fingers to spare.
When comparing LGBT acceptance in York Region to the situation in Toronto, it's too easy to dismiss all differences as a consequence of historic conservatism versus more liberal attitudes that inevitably prevail in large cities. But that simplistic explanation fails to account for why Simcoe County often does better, even in small towns such as Orillia and Bradford. In truth, a key ingredient to the problems in York Region is the ease with which gay and lesbian members of the community are able to quickly escape.
Everyone enjoys social activity in Toronto from time to time, but for many gays and lesbians of York Region, it's often the norm. Ritually, they will trek up and down the 400 and 404 to provide themselves with a temporary escape, not merely from York Region, but from a closeted lifestyle. For them, Steeles Avenue is not just the first major road they will cross as they enter the city, it is also an important border that divides their two existences. To the north of Steeles, they are burdened with the stresses of perpetual secrecy and impersonation of heterosexuality. To the south, they are offered the opportunity for honestly about their sexuality; a chance to talk openly and to socialize without pretence. And, the fact that this border can be crossed after less than a one hour drive, makes escape to Toronto an extremely attractive proposition on almost any evening of the week.
The issue is not always one of temporary escape. Whilst many teenagers are offered the opportunity to study at university, for gay and lesbian teenagers this creates an added bonus beyond academic desires alone. It provides the option to move into a more accepting environment and away from a family home where it's perhaps deemed safer to hide gay sexuality. It also offers a chance to meet more tolerant and agreeable fellow students and to say goodbye to homophobic school friends. Eagerness to escape from homophobia provides just that extra incentive that can make the dffference between moving to Toronto to study there, rather than commuting daily. Meanwhile, others might elect to take up employment in Toronto, rather than locally, and use that as their opportunity for a permanent escape. Having left home in favour of an environment that is more accepting of gay sexuality, it's not altogether likely that these students and workers will later choose to return.
In past decades, gay sexuality was poorly tolerated in many places. In consequence, irrespective of geography, gays and lesbians would head for the cities and that migration brought about the creation of gay villages, such as the Church Street area of Toronto. Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, improved education and various other factors have all helped to bring about great improvements since that era. The reduction in all forms of discrimination means that geography, rather than outright rejection, is now more often the consideration that takes precedence. Consequently, from more distant areas of Canada, gay people have acquired a greater preference to integrate openness about their sexuality into their home life, with increased reluctance to travel great distances away from their families. Fewer are migrating into Toronto and residency within Toronto's gay district is reportedly now in decline. But whilst positive changes to this point have been sufficient to change the habits of those who would need to travel far from their families, York Region's close proximity to Toronto has inhibited a similar change of habits here. Without needing to worry about great distances, this region's gay residents find themselves able to relocate to Toronto whilst remaining reasonably close to their families at the same time.
The net effect is that the region loses out in many ways. The too frequent social visits to Toronto burn fuel and help pollute the environment. Families are destabilized by the escapism; it detaches kids from their homes and leaves parents with no knowledge of the secret social activities of their offspring. Every social excursion with its one to two hour drive brings about a greater risk of traffic accidents and creates circumstances that will increase the temptation to drive home after drinking. Money that might otherwise have been spent in York Region, for the benefit of local businesses, is instead diverted to businesses within the city. And local businesses lose out not only financially, but also by virtue of the skilled and talented individuals who depart from this region and choose never to return.
Ease of escape also brings about a vicious circle. So long as the region's gay and lesbian residents prefer to socialize elsewhere and find it relatively easy to do so, they are tempted to continue hiding their sexuality at home. And as long as the sexuality of gay individuals remains invisible, others continue to presume that everyone in York Region is heterosexual. Published statistics indicate that between 5-10% of the population is attracted to others of the same gender. But living in York Region it's easy to think that the statistic is maybe 15% in Toronto but only 1% north of Steeles. Yet, as the gene pool is much the same, common sense dictates that the ratio of sexualities should be fairly equal in both places. It's only the invisibility of the region's gay population and their habitual escapes that distorts everyone's view of reality. This distortion even fosters a belief amongst gay residents that there are seemingly very few other gay people in the region. And that misconception, in turn, suggests to them that a continuing lifestyle of regular escapism and invisibility at home is probably by far the safest and easiest option.
Yet some of the changes needed to help break this cycle are not earth shattering. It would not be such a bold step for some entrepreneurial businesses to stand up and be counted, by promoting the gay friendliness of their establishments. It should not be beyond the realms of possibility that some small proportion of our many entertainment venues in the region could choose to cater specifically for a gay crowd - perhaps if only for one, otherwise quiet day in each week. It would not be very costly for local government authorities to contribute more to the provision of local services for LGBT residents instead of leaving so much of this to non-profit and charity organizations.
Whilst almost half of York Region's public high schools operate Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs, students of other schools have faced major obstacles when trying to follow suit. But it would not be so difficult for our school boards to enforce policies that guarantee the entitlement of students in any York Region high school to form a GSA should they desire. Likewise they could also enforce their anti-bullying policies, rather than merely boast about them, to ensure all victims of homophobic bullying find remedy instead of inaction on the part of school staff too disinclined to get to grips with such problems. And it really shouldn't be so difficult for all decent parents in York Region to tell their kids that they can always depend upon being loved unconditionally, irrespective of what their sexuality might turn out to be.
GayYorkRegion.com is committed to the promotion of positive change to address these issues, in the hope that future generations of gays and lesbians will choose to stay in York Region. We want them to live harmoniously in their family environment regardless of their sexuality, to socialize openly in their home towns without fear of discrimination and to support local businesses.
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