Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer features essays which explore Toronto's evolution from a conservative, provincial city to one with a renowned and thriving LGBTQ community. The following essay, This Space is Taken, is by Globe and Mail reporter Stephanie Nolen.
I’m fairly certain I had never actually held a football before the first day. My friend Roberta took me to the game: pickup football in Trinity-Bellwoods Park on a Saturday afternoon. She was my best friend’s new girlfriend, a jock who knew her way around a football. ‘Why?’ I ask her now, as I try to remember how it started. ‘Why take me?’
‘I was trying to get you laid,’ Roberta replies. Kidding. Kind of.
The games began on one of those first weekends in spring barely warmed by weak sun, and lasted into the autumn, when the yellow leaves stayed late on the maple trees. A bunch of queer women meeting up at midday to play football in the park. The football calibre was not high. But so much else was happening on that field in 1999.
We took up space. We took space: this wasn’t a place that was designated ours for an afternoon, or a tiny part of the city carved off for us. Not Pride, not the Church Street ghetto. This was popular, premium Toronto real estate, and we biked up, skated up, walked up, a group of visibly queer women in their twenties who claimed it, boisterous and confident, unconcerned. We owned a chunk of the park each Saturday, for a few hours, and if we made anyone uncomfortable, it was on them to hurry past.
Roberta remembers that the game grew out of a casual desire to throw a ball around – something many of us had not had the chance to do growing up. Not like this, in a group, where the sight of us together made it obvious who we were. The fact that we had enough players to field two sides for football, assembled just by word of mouth – no texts, no Facebook back then – makes me realize now: there were a lot of us. By 1999, we felt safe enough to gather like this.
Some of the women knew each other through Savoy Howe’s women’s boxing club — the one that today is Toronto Newsgirls. A few played Pink Turf soccer together. But most of the people who became regulars were connected in an L-word kind of a way: everyone was somebody’s ex and somebody else’s current lover.
But it became a place to make friends. It’s tough, in the city, my friend Steph pointed out, to make actual friends – you could go to a dozen dyke bars, you might hook up, but you wouldn’t make friends. I met Steph at football; today she and her wife are the fairy godmothers of my children. ‘It was the first group of dykes I’d ever hung out with,’ Steph says. Me, too, if you don’t count Take Back the Night.
In hindsight, that game marked the beginning of a westward shift for the community, particularly of women. We all lived west of Spadina; our social pole was not Church and Wellesley but Queen and Bathurst. We went to Vazaleen, and we packed out Ciao Edie on Sunday nights.
After the games, we went to La Hacienda or Squirly’s on Queen West for beer on the patio. We picked up more than football, obviously. On one of those first Saturdays, I developed a wicked crush on a girl with a near-black brush cut and lean, strong arms. I wangled to sit next to her at La Ha, and then that night the beers carried on to a party in someone’s tiny apartment in the Annex, and by midnight we had a date lined up. We were together for the next couple of years.
That first summer, we did whatever we did late on Friday night, but we still made it out of the house for football on Saturday.
Most of the people who played were stylish butch girls like Roberta. There were three or four of us femmes. We wore our hair in braids, and shorter shorts than the butch women. It was broadly true that we were less adept with the football. But we were stroppy. One afternoon Beth, her lipstick as red as the bandana that held back her curls, plucked the ball from the hands of the broadshouldered woman who held it and announced, ‘I’m QB,’ daring anyone to disagree.
Now, looking at the pictures from those Saturdays, I see several trans men who were pre-transition. There is one, Liam, who has passed away. The game had a whole separate value, I suspect, for the players who were living as ‘bois,’ as they identified then, beginning to feel out something new, beyond butch dyke identity.
Over the course of the season that we played, several people changed the name they used. No one changed pronouns — not yet. The public conversation about the difference between butch and boi and trans was just beginning.
The boy-girls knew they belonged, though, while we femmes had to justify our presence. When I start asking around about who remembers what, trying to capture this sliver of history, one butch friend observes that a few femmes always showed up. ‘I guess they liked the social aspect,’ she says. Because she still couldn’t quite conceive that we liked the sport, liked the hitting and the shouting and the occasional play that came together.
I ask Roberta why we stopped going; I can’t remember. ‘Because it stopped being fun for you,’ she says, ‘because of that stuff.’ And then I recall the bitter tinge of exclusion, the in-jokes among the bois, the sense that I wasn’t the right kind of queer, even there, in the park.
I kept the friends, though, and for a while, the girlfriend. And I kept the sense of myself as a person in a community rooted in the city, with borders that were slowly growing wider.
Excerpted with permission from Coach House Books. All rights reserved.
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