FROM FEBRUARY/MARCH 2019 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
Just as being the only trans woman at a party sucks, writes Gwen Benaway, being a trans woman in Doug Ford’s Toronto isn’t great either. It’s clear who belongs in his government “for the people,” and who that government is trying to erase
The West End of Toronto is a geography of loss. Everywhere I turn, the memory of old life lifts from the sidewalk and rises into the night air. It’s not just the ghost of Garrison Creek that runs underneath Christie Pits, but the spectres waiting in dive bars in Little Portugal and tucked away in the back aisles of corner stores. On winter nights, heat collects in the narrow spaces between the red-bricked houses, distilling the afterlife of jerk chicken, roti and bulgogi into materiality. Here and not here, the West End is constantly caught between its past and its imagined future, gentrifying as rapidly as its infrastructure disintegrates.
I remember the moment that I found out Doug Ford had won the provincial election. I was on a smoke break during a Can Lit event. My friend was winning an award. I was his awkward sidekick, the lone trans woman in a room of very drunk and powerful people. It’s a funny feeling knowing that you are the only trans woman present, possibly the only trans woman that anyone in the room has ever seen at an event like this. As if my skin was breaking up into a thousand tiny torn pieces throughout the night, disintegrating under the fervour of their eyes.
This is why I smoke. It gets me out of the room and into the night for a few small seconds of humanity. Smoking isn’t cool anymore, more vice now than ever before, so it guarantees me that no one will come within five meters of me while I’m holding a lit cigarette. I use my temporary break to check my phone. I load CBC’s election tracker on my browser. It’s a PC landslide, decimating the Liberals while giving the NDP a small boost. Doug Ford is our premier. I butt out my cigarette in despair and go back inside.
I have no illusions about Doug Ford and what his government will do in office. For the first few weeks after the election, everyone around me clings to a vague hope that things won’t be so bad. It’s quickly shattered as Ford begins his rushed dismantling of Ontario, savaging off pieces to sell and bulldozing down almost two decades of policy-based decision-making. Within months, it’s clear that his reign will be as eventful as every other part of the Ford family’s political saga. Except this time, there’s no police investigation to save us and the damage isn’t confined to Toronto.
There are entire worlds in the West End with private histories that I will never have access to. My first Toronto apartment was on Havelock Street, a basement bachelor hidden underneath a duplex and covered in ivy. A Portuguese barbecue with a large open-air dining area was just behind my apartment’s backyard. Every night, the place would fill up with crowds of people, materializing from nowhere. The sounds of their voices would move through the oak trees in the backyard and carry into my bedroom. I’d lie awake at night, wondering who they were and where they were going. What history brought them to this place?
My second apartment was on Westmoreland Avenue. At the end of my street, there was a magic shop run by two elderly women. The store was filled with candles promising fast money or good health, holographic icons of saints and a shelf of unlabelled and perfumed oils. One day, I wandered into the shop and discovered that the women would do divination for customers or offer incantations for whatever problem was inflicting them. A sign advertised that curse lifting was available for a negotiable fee, as was “hexing.” Beside the cash register, a dilapidated television played an infinite loop of Italian soap operas.
The shop closed suddenly in the middle of summer. It sat empty for a couple of months before being replaced by a head shop. I never found out what history compelled the two women to open it and whether their magic powers were real, a scam or some combination of both. The West End is filled with stories like this, moments and spaces that exist for a single brief flicker in someone’s mind before vanishing back into the city. When I was new to Toronto, before my transition, when I still believed in wonder, I used to wander the city at night, searching for these incandescent spots.
There’s something about living in a city that encourages forgetting. Toronto, more than any other place I’ve lived in, seems to want to forget itself. It’s always pushing forward in a relentless drive toward the imagined future. Its history is barely known by anyone who lives here, even when their lives are materially defined by the city and its past. There are two mass graves at Yonge and Bloor, a potter’s field and an Indigenous burial mound. At King and John, there was a quarantine site for Irish immigrants who fell victim to cholera on their voyage over from Ireland. In the West End, every neighbourhood has a story of arrival, creation, departure and dispossession.
In Toronto, we don’t talk about the past. We are too busy with the present. Even Toronto’s future gets more attention than the past, but it’s always limited to vague threats – to develop the waterfront and dismantle Ontario Place. We’re too concerned with surviving in Canada’s most expensive city, paying our rent and darting between pockets of warmth in the winter. If someone asked me to explain what the typical attitude of Toronto was, I would say “disinterested.” Drake’s iconic album cover featuring a photoshopped image of him sitting on top of the CN Tower is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of Toronto life. All alone, perched in empty space and vaguely proud about it.
Just as being the only trans woman at a party sucks, being a trans woman in Doug Ford’s Ontario isn’t great either. Transphobes have a certain look. I don’t know how to explain it, but there’s something in the eyes that tells you when a person thinks you’re subhuman. I see it in Doug Ford’s eyes. So far, he and the provincial Conservatives have been distracted by bigger problems, but sooner or later they will get around to trans women.
I tell all of my trans friends to get their surgeries as soon as they can. We think Ford will delist trans healthcare and surgeries from OHIP soon. Mike Harris did before, and cutting back trans healthcare benefits fits with Ford’s broader mandate to “balance the budget.” It’s a form of economic cruelty rooted in the premier’s apparent understanding of who belongs in his government “for the people” and who doesn’t. The list of bodies outside the safety of the administration’s perimeter grows daily. Since his election as premier, his cuts to programs that support students, people with chronic health conditions, children with disabilities, trans folks, immigrants, queer folks, Indigenous nations and communities of colour offer a clear view of who is excluded from the category of people who matter to the provincial government.
It’s revealing that one of Ford’s first actions as premier was to roll back the updated sex-education curriculum, largely due to the lobbying of social conservatives within his party with explicit anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans agendas. His government has already begun to constrict academic freedom on post-secondary campuses under the pretense of “free speech” and targeted funding cuts while also introducing even stricter requirements for OSAP eligibility for mature and low-income students. The government also appears poised to roll back reforms to Ontario’s police accountability processes, putting the lives of people of colour – particularly Black and Indigenous men – in even greater danger.
This category of “people” – the ones that Ford claims to represent – isn’t Ford’s invention. The history of Canada and the United States is based on creating and making “the People,” the mostly straight middle- and upper-class cis able-bodied white men and women who comprise Ford’s core constituency. Their legacy is one of white supremacy, colonization and erasure. They build their homes on the house of forgetting, erasing histories of violence as they build new futures where no one but them can afford to live inside.
In a city with no past and a blurry future, Toronto is trapped again in another political time warp. A hundred condos spring up overnight as we demolish another cultural landmark to proliferate our catastrophic skyline. I walk down College Street and don’t recognize a single store. Where is the government? Rather than protecting the things people love about Toronto, Doug Ford seems always to be planning to wage war on the city by forcing change on it. In the meantime, I’ll try to save up enough money for breast surgery to go from a B cup to a C. Life goes on, relentless and quiet. Toronto will always be here, consistent in its absence and entanglements of bodies.
I love this city, but I hate its collective forgetting. I’m worried about Toronto, about Doug Ford, about Ontario’s sudden lurch forward into a dystopian future. Doug Ford is a manifestation of its detachment, governing with a determination to erase everything that has come before. My love and hate for Toronto remind me of my relationship with my abusive ex-boyfriend. Some hurts feel good because they’re familiar. They remind you that you’re alive and something precious is at stake in your living. I can’t stop the changes as they flow out of Queen’s Park or roll back the clock on the demolition of Honest Ed’s, but I can remember what was here before.
A winter night, a magic store, the weight of the sky above Christie Pits: how everything beautiful in Toronto is brief, singular and destined to die.