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by Jimmy Im
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Like all good love affairs, my relationship with Toronto was unplanned and unexpected. It began in 2000, when I fled the United States to explore a different country for the summer. Toronto was my choice, picked blindly by spinning a globe. Upon arrival, I was captivated by the casual, raw, urban allure of the city, which came naturally and didn’t seem forced. The gay scene, multicultural institutions, sublime parks and beaches, and art-inspired events were so engaging, my summer vacation spanned two years. Natives (impressively coming from a vast range of ethnic backgrounds) were genuine when they asked questions, reflective of that mythical Torontonian warmth. When asked why Canadians are so nice, someone simply replied: “We have nothing to be angry about.” This kind of attitude—blended effortlessly with great people, cuisine, attractions, and nightlife—created a dynamic that some may refer to as “the perfect life.” As a double minority (gay and Asian) I couldn’t find a better place to call home. An expired visa brought this romance to an end but I never said goodbye to Toronto, knowing I would one day return.

The reunion began on the flight over from New York. As my plane began its descent into Toronto over Lake Ontario, the city protruded majestically from the rest of Ontario’s coast, as if the province was flaunting its prized attribute. It might be far fetched to say that, from 20,000 feet in the air, I could sense a difference in the skyline, slightly altered from how I remembered it eight years ago.

While customs is always a hassle, I was pleased to find that the holding area was larger and more efficient with little wait time (Pearson International Airport had recently completed a ten-year redevelopment program). Furthermore, the young customs official welcomed me back with a smile and chat—something I’ve yet to experience at JFK. I knew my instincts were right about Toronto’s change as soon as my car neared downtown. Skyscrapers loomed, so unfamiliar, I had to keep checking the street signs to unravel threads of confusion. New restaurants, new neighborhoods, new condos (96,000 units in the past ten years), renovated museums, and a new skyline for crying out loud—this was indeed a “new” Toronto.

Toronto transformed into a metropolitan haven while retaining its “edgy” roots and cultural aesthetics that made it truly unique in the first place. This brilliant enhancement ensures “the city of creativity” is even more cosmopolitan than ever. In fact, the population grows by 100,000 each year, and the number of tourists steadily increases, prompting a swell of new accommodations (four more hotels will open in 2010) as well as giving a “facelift” to some historic elements. The iconic landmark, CN Tower, now lights up as of two years ago, enchanting and glowing like the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben, offering a bold statement of pride and heritage in the night sky. To meet demand, the already streamlined public transit system will soon offer new extensions, including a line that promises to shuttle passengers to the airport.

While Toronto’s metamorphosis is arguably the most dramatic in Canada, I was pleased to notice that one thing hadn’t changed: the diversity.

“More than 50 percent of Toronto’s population was not born here,” asserts Kyle Rae, the first openly gay city council member of Toronto. “They chose Toronto as their home, which is a significant endorsement for people around the world.”

“It’s amazing to go around the world and meet someone who has relatives here,” says Rae. “Toronto is a refuge for people who have suffered discrimination in their home country. We have a strong, rich, public understanding and history of valuing refugees and bringing them into our culture.” One of the best examples is the influx of Somalis that came during the famine and political violence in Africa. Toronto is also home to the largest Tamil population outside of Sri Lanka. Even thousands of draft dodgers in the States during the Vietnam War fled to Toronto to lead a better life. They come from all over, and more importantly, they stay.”

“Whatever race, you can come to Toronto from any place in the world and not feel out of place,” says gay TV host, author, historian, and columnist Bruce Bell. “No one is above anyone else, we’re all equal and Toronto is one of the first cities to illustrate this. When people move here, they bring their culture and share it—whether festivals, events, cuisine, or nightlife: it’s as diverse as a city can get!”

Diversity is expressed in lifestyle, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, which, in the city, is famously obvious and equal. The gay community in Toronto is widely accepted, prevalent, and fierce. As Kyle Rae says: “Toronto is not a gay-friendly city. Toronto is a gay city.” Rae also helped organized Toronto’s very first pride in June 1981 and spearheaded the celebration for eight years. “One thousand people turned out for our first gay pride parade in 1981. Last year, we saw more than a million.” That’s almost half the population.

Toronto is divided into distinct neighborhoods that thrive on their own pulse, identified by particular idiosyncrasies, whether ethnic like Chinatown or lifestyle-driven like the Village. The mother lode of gays and lesbians can be found in the latter, the pinnacle point being the cross streets of Church and Wellesley. History goes as far back as the 1970s when it was home to the underground gay scene. The bathhouse raid of February 1981 that had 300 gay men arrested fueled the summer’s gay pride and public education of the gay community. The Church Street Community Center still remains as the meeting place for various social and political groups. Kyle Rae works closely with a non-profit organization on building an archive for Canadian gays and lesbians in a heritage building on Isobella Street. “Most of us don’t have children or anyone to pass our memories down to. I feel our archives, which reflect our struggles and successes, are our family album.”

Modest during the day, the Village boasts a nightlife reputation that’s well known throughout most of Canada. Knowing I had a long night ahead of me, I started off right at Elmspa, one of Toronto’s most luxurious destination spas. It’s a quiet haven embracing a philosophy based on traditional Thai healings and rituals. My Bulgarian therapist pampered me with the Siam Signature treatment that included an invigorating body scrub and massage that calmed my nerves, fully preparing me for a night of debauchery.

Church Street is lined with great dining options, like the campy Zelda’s diner and pub-like Hair of the Dog, but I opted to try the new-ish Fuzion Restaurant Lounge & Garden, touted as the best patio on the block. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in the top three. You’ll spend so much time neck-craning (at both diners and wait staff), you might forget what you were originally there for (the cuisine…the signature Ontario Lamb is a popular dish). Perhaps it depends on priorities.

For drinks, almost everyone I met in the Village recommended the lively and cruisy Woody’s bar. It’s been serving Canadians since 1989 and gained international recognition when it was regularly featured in the American version of Queer As Folk (filmed in Toronto). While this place can get packed, the five bars ensure you won’t have to desperately wave colorful Canadian bills to get the aloof bartender’s attention.

If you haven’t already hooked up, head a few blocks north to Gloucester and endure the line up for Fly night club, Toronto’s premiere gay club that features live performances and an impressive sound system blasting house music.

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Great but what about us who can't leave home without our Pets? i.e. Pet Friendly Hotels & areas! Thanks
- Bob Kilpatrick , Rochester,NY,USA

Great article describing a lot of areas and activities in our city. Aside from a couple of spelling errors (Isabella Street in the Village, not Isobella; and the area of Leslieville, not Lesleyville), it certainly made me want to rediscover my own city.
- Marc , Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Great article! I love Toronto's gay scene. If you have time to take day trips to spend a couple nights outside of the big city, I do recommend a visit to Stratford, Ontario, and really gay cultured small city to visit for good food, theatre & fresh air!
- Richard Maloney , Stratford, Ontario, Canada.

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