The world moves in a mysterious way, its cities reform, and though there are any number of ultimately undecipherable forces at work in the way any city evolves, there are almost always people who act as conduits. Sometimes it’s through direct influence, like Gian Naaz opening the Naaz Theatre at Gerrard and Coxwell in 1971, or City Councillor Kyle Rae expelling the financial underperformers from Yonge and Dundas and replacing them with a public square.
Other times, it’s more circumspect, like the way Jane Jacobs glamourized the Annex through her writing and her presence, or the way Geoff Polci and Alana Duggan, by opening Crema Café in the Junction, pushed the neighbourhood over the edge it had been teetering on for years, making it the sort of place people would finally admit to living in. Or the way Will Munro queered the city west of Yonge.
As he’ll be the first to tell you, he wasn’t the first. A quick browse through Rick Bébout’s online opus, Lives, times, & place (rbebout.com), or a trip through the Xtra, NOW, and Eye Weekly archives with the search term “Denise Benson” will tell you how long people have been leaving the gaybourhood.
Benson, who moved to Toronto in 1986, didn’t know about George Hislop, Peter Pan, and Charlie Pachter when she started her dyke nights at the Caribou above Sneaky Dee’s, and later at the Claremont where the Starbucks at Queen and Claremont is now, or later still at the Boom Boom Room across the street. And though she did know about various era-bridging forces like Bruce LaBruce, or El Convento Rico on College, the media, including the gay press, didn’t pick up on any trends.
It was only when Will Munro started Vaseline (later “Vazaleen,” after some pointed letters from Procter & Gamble) at the El Mocambo that the whole press machine started to take notice that there was same-sexing happening off Church Street, and that there was this thing called queer which, once you got over the initial strangeness, seemed a little on the sexy side. At least when it involved young people. Within a year of Munro’s starting up his monthly nights, the National Post, the Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star (in that order) had mentioned it in one way or another. By the time Munro had taken his night to Ottawa for the second time, in 2004, the Citizen ran a 1,200-word story called “Everybody do the Vazaleen.” Meanwhile, back in Toronto, the Star ran a 1,500-word piece in September (i.e., not hooked to Pride coverage) on a new gay generation “finding places to live and play” off the Church strip.
You could say it was timing. You could say it was how genuinely open Munro threw his arms — to men, women, trans, gay, straight, other — and how wide the media’s arms, and the city’s, too, were open to embrace his polymorphous non-disco DJing and band-booking at Spadina and College. Whatever the case, all of a sudden, you started seeing stories using cultural references like Go West, West Side Story, or clever wordplay turning Queen West into Queer West, to evoke this thing that was happening to the city and, apparently, to the sexuality of its citizens.
You might, if you had a mind to, distill it down into the space between two verbs. When asked why she started spinning discs to create a little centripetal dyke space, Benson says, “I created the spaces because I needed them.” According to Munro, 34, Vazaleen got started because, “I wanted a place to hear the music I like.”
As he sits drinking a pot of tea in the queer-friendly café space at the Gladstone, three doors down from his new venture, The Beaver, which he took a share of in 2006 with longtime friend Lynn McNeill (whose family bought the place, and who was the longtime queer punk presence behind the bar at Lee’s Palace), friends drop by the table to say hi. It’s like talking to Al Waxman in Kensington Market. “I’ve always lived in the west end,” says Munro, who moved to Toronto in the mid-90s from small-town Ontario to go to what was then OCA. “It’s where I feel most comfortable.”
And comfortable is just why this next phase of Munro’s queer sphere of influence is probably here to stay. This little café that’s become as much a physical hub as Vazaleen was a social and cultural one. Though only just into his 30s, Munro’s already evolved from the frenetic pleasures of the monthly blowout into the sustainability of a place to hang your very cool hat. It’s an evolution helped along by a recent diagnosis — one he’d rather not dwell on here — that’s brought him a good deal closer to his own mortality than most guys his age. “The Beaver’s a place you can go and just hang out,” he says. “You can get a coffee, or some good food. And it’s a place that queer kids can work.”
According to the website, they’re “the prettiest kids in town.” He still hosts nights there, and he loves the new-old-revived Queer Street West, but he doesn’t want to claim too much credit. He just did what he did, did what he wanted, and the city followed. Tea cold, conversation finished, he gets up to leave, and though I don’t follow, I figure that when he walks down his street, he smiles at everyone.