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It’s the first Pride in two years, and I’ll be in the water at Hanlan’s Point

For decades, an afternoon at the nude beach on the Toronto Islands has been a sun-soaked reminder that queerness is a product of nature, not an abomination against it

A few weeks ago, I was baptized in Toronto’s most sacred gay waters. I moved to the city in the fall of 2020 — mid-lockdown and pre-vaccine, without any access to the queer culture I’d come for. This spring, as restrictions lifted and the temperature rose, the time had finally come for me to make my pilgrimage to Hanlan’s Point.

A one-kilometre, clothing-optional beach, Hanlan’s is on the Toronto Islands, a short ferry ride from the city’s glistening harbour. It’s one of just two official nude beaches in the country, and the only one created by and for queer people. 

Hanlan’s has been alternately praised and scrutinized for the sexual liberation it facilitates — naked bodies (mainly queer ones) litter the sand, which is hidden behind a wooded area often used for cruising. A site of activism and celebration since the mid-20th century, the beach became officially, legally clothing-optional in 2002 — 20 years ago — and has been something of a holy ground for queer folks in the city ever since. 

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“There’s something really utopic about it,” says Peter Knegt, a frequent visitor to Hanlan’s Point. “It represents this ideal of what the queer community could be, where everyone feels like they have a space, even if that space is sitting on a beach.”

Knegt first went to Hanlan’s nearly two decades ago, when he was just 19. At the time, he was freshly out, new to the city, and still uncomfortable with both his body and his identity as a queer person. It’s not news that queer people are often confronted with impossible beauty standards — standards that are uniquely insidious among queer men. 

“Hanlan’s is not like that,” says Knegt, a producer at CBC. “It’s a space where I actually learned to be comfortable with my body.”

Hanlan’s has been that utopia for decades. Toronto’s gay community started congregating there in the 1950s, a decade before homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada. 

A view of Hanlan's Point Beach, the subject of our story on Pride Toronto in 2022. Photo: Kirk Lisaj / The Narwhal
Toronto’s LGBTQ2+ community started congregating at Hanlan’s Point Beach in the 1950s, followed by a series of Gay Day picnics in the 1970s that led to the city’s first Pride Week. It’s been officially clothing-optional for 20 years. Photo: Kirk Lisaj / The Narwhal

On August 1, 1971, two years after the Stonewall riots ushered in a new era of queer activism, a few LGBTQ2+ organizations threw the first Gay Day picnic. The event was an opportunity for folks to come together and relish in their queerness in broad daylight. The picnic was held on Hanlan’s, one of the only public spaces in Toronto where gay people could safely gather without the police threats or proximity to hostile straight folks that plagued mainland gay bars

That first picnic, which boasted an attendance of 300, is considered the first major display of gay and lesbian solidarity in Toronto. Picnics were held annually until 1974, when they snowballed into Toronto’s first Pride Week. 

“There’s something about being somewhere with such an incredible history,” says Knegt. “There’s a vibe there that’s been passed down from generation to generation.”

Hanlan's Point. Photo: Kirk Lisaj / The Narwhal
The wooded area at Hanlan’s Point. The island’s status as a safe space was shattered after a homophobic attack last year. Beachgoers are also facing the threat of the climate crisis: in recent summers, flooding has cut off access to the beach. Photo: Kirk Lisaj / The Narwhal

At Hanlan’s, you’re surrounded by trees, coated in sand and blinded by sunlight refracting off glistening water.  Both then and now, actualizing your queerness in an environment where you feel in touch with the Earth is deeply affirming, a sun-soaked reminder that queerness is a product of nature, not an abomination against it. 

Although gay rights have come a long way since that first picnic, Hanlan’s remains one of the only places in Toronto where queerness is not only tolerated but normalized, where queer people make up a visible majority. 

Ordinarily, it’s only possible to access that kind of liberation at gay bars, which are far less accessible, far more expensive and often require a proximity to substances that can be alienating for some. At Hanlan’s, all you need is a few dollars for the ferry and a bottle of sunscreen. 

But even Hanlan’s can be touched by bigotry and violence. A gay man was viciously assaulted in a homophobic attack there just last year, rocking the community and shattering the island’s perceived status as a safe space. The police have always been a sporadic presence and are still dinging people for drinking on the beach, trying to assert their dominance over a space that rejects the hegemony they represent. 

Hanlan’s popularity has also grown over the years, attracting an increasing number of straight beachgoers who bring with them a looming fear that the Point might become gentrified and unsafe for the queer people who need it most. Meanwhile, the waters that have held such meaning for my community have risen as the climate crisis has intensified, causing flooding that has closed the beach in recent summers and is slowly submerging our beloved haven into Lake Ontario. 

Regardless of its checkered past and blurry future, Hanlan’s is still a place where queer people like me can find liberation, even if for an afternoon. COVID-19 has robbed us of two summers, two Pride seasons, two opportunities to party and resist, to celebrate how far we’ve come and contemplate how far we have to go. 

In those two summers, the world’s hostility against LGBTQ2+ folks has intensified: American politicians have tabled and passed legislation infringing on the human rights of trans folks, and just last week an apparent white nationalist riot nearly coalesced close to an Idaho Pride parade. Spaces like Hanlan’s haven’t been this urgently needed since the Pride picnics of the ‘70s. 

A statue of Edward Hanlan on the way to Hanlan's Point Beach. Photo: Kirk Lisaj / The Narwhal
On the walk to the beach from the ferry, there’s a statue of Edward Hanlan, the rower and hotelier for whom the Point is named. Photo: Kirk Lisaj / The Narwhal

The walk to the beach from the ferry is about 10 minutes. Along the way, you’ll pass an enormous bronze statue of Edward Hanlan, the rower and hotelier for whom the Point is named. He’s depicted as mustachioed, muscled and wearing only (very tight) swim trunks, an omen of what’s to come. 

I was nervous as I walked by Hanlan’s statue. I was entering a space where my body would be about as visible and vulnerable as it could be. But as I arrived at the beach, I was surprised at how immediately comfortable I felt. 

I was pleasantly surprised to see the smorgasbord of bodies on display. Big bodies and little bodies, bodies of all genders, queer bodies and straight ones, muscly ones and fat ones — rolls and fat and muscle and flesh all sharing one beach. Although I did not get fully naked, stripping off my shirt felt natural. I allowed myself to relax, to soak up the heat, to stare off into the waters, and to be at peace with myself, just the way I am.  

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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