Identity of Canada’s gaybourhoods fading as cities change, attitudes shift

Google employees march with Rainbow flags LGBTQ Pride Parade, Toronto, Canada - 25 Jun 2017. Shawn Goldberg/REX/Shutterstock

Neighbourhoods in Canadian cities that have long been enclaves for gay men and lesbians are losing their identity, census data shows.

The numbers of same-sex couples in long-established “gaybourhoods” haven’t necessarily fallen between the 2006 census, when they were last counted in detail, and 2016. But their share of the population has fallen sharply as neighbourhoods are developed.

In 2006, for example, 60 per cent of the population in a Toronto neighbourhood centred on Church Street and Wellesley Street East in Toronto were members of same-sex couples. By 2016, that number had fallen below 20 per cent.

Across Canada in 2006, nine census tracts — four in Toronto and five in Montreal — had over 40 per cent of residents living in same-sex couple households. In the 2016 census, only one tract (in Montreal) had a rate over 20 per cent.

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Global News looked at three same-sex enclaves across Canada: the neighbourhood around Church Street and Wellesley Street East in Toronto, the area around Davie Street in west-end Vancouver, and the Commercial Drive area of east Vancouver.

The data doesn’t usually show that fewer gay men and lesbians live in traditional gaybourhoods than did 10 years ago. In one tract in the Commercial Drive area of east Vancouver, for example, the number of same-sex couples roughly doubled over the decade. However, the overall population increased much faster than that, leaving them a shrinking minority.

Traditional gay villages are fading for three reasons, explains retired Laurentian University professor Gary Kinsman, an expert on Canadian gay and lesbian history.

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1. Increased tolerance of same-sex relationships

“People needed to have their own places and spaces to meet other people and also to have a certain sense of safety in terms of where they are living,” Kinsman explains. “There were incredible levels of violence and hostility that historically have been mobilized against gays and lesbians, from police and from queer-bashers and people who would basically engage in violence.”

“The gay villages, like Davie Street in Vancouver, have historically been seen as safe places. They haven’t always been safe – there has certainly been a lot of queer-bashing that’s continued to take place. But there’s this notion that if we’re all in the same place we’re going to be safer.”

With less prejudice against gay men and lesbians in the broader society, there is less need to band together for protection from ostracism or outright violence, Kinsman says.

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2. Rising real estate prices

Property values and rents are rising in large cities, and so some people who might like to live in traditional gay neighbourhoods just can’t afford to, Kinsman says.

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“One of the dynamics that’s gone on in the west end of Vancouver, and in the Church/Wellesley neighbourhood to some extent, is that you have processes of gentrification taking place. It’s led to higher rents, more difficulty being able to sustain yourself in these areas, and that’s had a bigger impact on women than it’s had on gay men.”

“As the Commercial Drive neighbourhood gets more gentrified in Vancouver, lesbians are moving further afield, into Burnaby and other places, so they can actually find places they can afford.”

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3. Changes to hookup culture

Neighbourhoods like Church and Wellesley were centred on gay-friendly bars, Kinsman says. As hookup culture moves more to apps like Grindr, the bars find it hard to survive. As the bars disappear, part of the neighbourhood’s identity as a gay enclave disappears as well.

“What we’re actually seeing, from everything I’m able to figure out, is that you’re actually seeing the dispersal of these concentrations of people. In part it’s due to the difficulty some of these gay establishments have in surviving when fewer people are going to bars, hooking up at bars, and there’s an expansion of a sort of virtual scene – many people are connecting that way. It’s not as necessary to be in the same type of neighbourhood.”

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“It’s the whole technological transformation of people’s lives – how people meet people in different ways. Grindr is one part of it, but not the only part of it.”

Areas in Toronto’s east end also have high rates of same-sex couples, the census shows — a new high-rise neighbourhood near Queen Street East and Carlaw Avenue ranks #27 out of over 5,000 census tracts nationally for same-sex couples, and five other census tracts east of the Don River are in the top 100.

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This is the first high-quality data about same-sex couples that the national statistics agency has released since 2006.

In the 2011 census, Statistics Canada asked a question intended to count same-sex households, but the question was poorly designed and didn’t distinguish clearly between same-sex couples and two people of the same sex sharing accommodation. At the last minute (actually the morning of the census release), StatsCan decided not to release the data. Global’s efforts to pry it loose with an access-to-information request were unsuccessful in the end.

The 2016 census counted over 72,000 same-sex couples in Canada, just under one per cent of all couples.

Breaking the data out by community, gay men concentrate more in large cities, and lesbians more in smaller ones.

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Top Canadian cities for same-sex couples

Male and female same-sex couples ranked as a percentage of all couples

Male same-sex couples

  1. Montreal
  2. Quebec City
  3. Vancouver
  4. Halifax
  5. Victoria
  6. Ottawa – Gatineau
  7. Stratford, Ont.
  8. Toronto
  9. Port Hope, Ont.
  10. Cowansville, Que.

Female same-sex couples

  1. Yellowknife, N.W.T.
  2. Whitehorse, Yukon
  3. Nelson, B.C.
  4. Halifax
  5. Victoria
  6. Prince Rupert, B.C.
  7. Kingston, Ont.
  8. Cold Lake, Alta.
  9. Moncton, N.B.
  10. Kentville, N.S.
Michelle McHale, an organizer of the first Pride march in Steinbach, Man., speaks to a crowd on July 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan

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