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The fight for historic Hanlan's
Some are celebrating the scuttling of a concert venue next to the beach, but activists say dangers remain
TORONTO—In a mere matter of days in late February, an intense grassroots campaign sunk a controversial plan by the City of Toronto to erect a concert and festival venue right next to Hanlan’s Point Beach, one of only two official clothing optional public beaches in Canada and an almost sacred spot for the local LGBTQ community.
While users of the beach out on Lake Ontario are celebrating that victory, organizers with the Hands Off Hanlan’s coalition say the nude and queer space isn’t out of danger yet. Most media coverage has focused on the venue proposal and its quick death after exposure to public scrutiny, but other city plans still in the works include cutting the beach in half, potentially putting its future in jeopardy.
Furthermore, friends of Hanlan’s Point say the city’s consultation process has been poorly executed at best, if not intentionally skewed to deny certain constituencies from having any input. And though much of the press may have moved on, many questions put forward by members of the public remain unanswered.
Rumors swirled and tempers flared in February 2023 as details emerged of a “Master Plan” for the future development of Toronto Islands, the massive park just a short ferry ride from downtown where Hanlan’s Point is located. The plan, which has been in the works since 2020, included the prospect of developing a permanent venue for event promoters on a large lawn on the islands’ western side, adjacent to Hanlan’s.
The new “open air event space” for hosting what the city billed as “Island-sized festivals and cultural events” was only one of several issues raised by Hands Off Hanlan’s over the proposed plan. But to the coalition’s chagrin, it became almost the only item to garner attention from the press.
“For better or worse, the event venue became the focus,” a representative from Hands Off Hanlan’s told Planet Nude when interviewed. Those leading the group expected a “soft launch” for what would be an extended campaign to build public support to preserve and expand Hanlan’s, but once word was out about the festival development, “things blew up.”
After days of intense public protest online, the event venue was officially killed by planning authorities. A standing-room-only feedback session at The 519 Community Center in the gay village on Feb. 28 put the final nail in its coffin.
“It’s amazing to see the city start taking the right steps in honoring the deep and impactful connection the queer community has had with Hanlan’s as a community hub for over 80+ years,” Travis Myers, another Hands Off Hanlan’s organizer, told the media following the announcement. Better late than never, perhaps.
The beach occupies a special place for LGBTQ people in the area, as it was the site of the Toronto’s first Pride in 1971 and remains a predominantly “gay beach” to this day. Along with protecting the ecology of the area, this status as a queer space is a central plank of the Hands Off Hanlan’s campaign.
Recent instances of homophobic and transphobic violence also shape worries about what might happen with an influx of party-goers who are not Hanlan’s Point regulars.
Cheri DiNovo—a former member of the Ontario provincial parliament, minister with the United Church of Canada, and progressive icon—drew attention to the need to resist the commodification of Hanlan’s Point.
At the Feb. 28 event, just before the venue was killed, DiNovo declared that she was there “to make sure that queer spaces stay queer spaces and that they’re not sold out for the almighty dollar.” She was present at the first Pride event in 1971.
“We don’t want another stadium for yet another concert venue…. We know what happens when you host events on beaches, it destroys them,” she continued. “We need that area protected, both environmentally and historically. It’s still a great place to go cruise, be naked, and have fun.”
Though total elimination of the nude section of Hanlan’s Point was apparently never part of the city’s re-development vision, preserving the beach’s nakedness was an aspect mentioned by several people opposed to the plan.
They argued that nudists visiting Hanlan’s Point are already subject to a steady flow of gawkers and voyeurs and that flooding the area with concert-goers would only worsen the problem and jeopardize safety—particularly for women and LGBTQ beach users.
One person participating in the city’s feedback solicitation process said, “A safe space for nude recreation should be preserved without worry of ogling eyes invading for thrills.”
“This is one of the only nude spaces in the whole city,” another said, calling the construction of an event space bringing in thousands of party-goers “dangerous.”
A third participant told planners a festival venue would “interrupt the beauty, nature, and freedom to be private and comfortable at the nude beach.” They pointed to the fact that the ferry which carries visitors over from downtown Toronto is already strained, even with just its current passenger load.
Greg Snow, president of the Federation of Canadian Naturists (FCN), told Planet Nude that “the idea of creating a permanent public events space” was “ridiculous to the naturist community.”
Totally Naked Toronto
Hanlan’s Point’s history as a place for nude recreation stretches back centuries. When attorney Peter A. Simm and the group Totally Naked Toronto Men Enjoying Nudity (TNT!MEN) were lobbying the City of Toronto to (re-)establish Hanlan’s Point as a nude beach in 1999, Simm produced research documenting hundreds of years of naked socializing at this section of the Toronto Islands.
Long before the first Europeans arrived in the area that is modern Toronto, Simm showed that the original inhabitants, members of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, used it as a health retreat—and, he noted in his extensive legal brief, they did not “wear Speedos.” Once the French and later the British had colonized the area and Canada was then established as a country, the tradition continued.
From the late 19th century until the Great Depression years, naked swimming was not only the norm at a number of Toronto beaches, it had the legal blessing of authorities. An 1890 by-law banned swimming in busy port areas but allowed nude bathing anywhere else in the waters of Toronto, at least in the dark, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
By 1894, nude bathing was limited to two beaches on the mainland, but the time for allowable nakedness was extended, stretching well into daylight hours, from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. Out on the island at Hanlan’s, meanwhile, swimmers could be naked any time they wanted.
For almost four decades after, skinny-dipping and nude sunbathing was completely legal in Canada’s biggest city. But the wave of anti-nudist legislation and police enforcement that swept many areas of the world during the interwar years eventually washed over Toronto. So-called “indecent exposure” laws were tightened, and nude swimming was outlawed.
Advocating the elimination of public nudity in 1930, then-Mayor Warring Kennedy said: “Our old by-law would allow people to go along the boulevard in their birthday suits. There is no city on the continent that gives greater freedom in our bathing places than Toronto.” Kennedy succeeded in his crusade.
The city’s main newspaper, The Toronto Daily Star, announced that summer: “New Law Insists on Clothes.” The Star glumly reported on July 30, 1930, “The right…for a person to bathe in the nude…passed out of existence through the action of city council yesterday.”
Though nary a bare backside would be seen on a mainland beach after that, unofficial nudity remained not-uncommon at the more secluded Hanlan’s Point beach. By the 1950s, the beach became an area for queer socializing, due no doubt to its mix of simultaneous accessibility and isolation.
In the wake of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s decriminalization of homosexuality, both in 1969, Hanlan’s Point was a natural choice for Toronto’s “first Pride.” In summer 1971, the groups Toronto Gay Action, University of Toronto Homophile Association, and Community Homophile Association of Toronto organized a “Gay Day” picnic at Hanlan’s. Gays and lesbians became a regular fixture in the years that followed, joining those who enjoyed sunbathing in the buff.
The accepting social norms of both nudists and queer people complemented one another at Hanlan’s Point, making it a place for everyone, even if it was still subject to periodic rounds of police ticketing. Journalist James Dubro told The Torontoist that he “basically lived” at the beach in the 1970s. “Hanlan’s Point was a place where we could take our clothes off and be ourselves.”
So widespread was the image of Hanlan’s Point as a naked destination that, in the 1980s, the World Guide to Nude Beaches and Recreation listed it as a spot for naturists to check out when visiting Toronto.
It was in this context that Simm and TNT!MEN launched the effort in 1999 to restore Hanlan’s Point’s status as a legal nude beach. With a pledge from City Councillor Kyle Rae that he would sponsor the measure at City Hall, Simm prepared his impressively documented historical research study reviving the lost history of nude recreation in Toronto. His brief was backed by the FCN and received a positive recommendation from city staff, who review policy proposals before they go up for a vote.
In May that year, City Council gave its stamp of approval, voting 41-9 to adopt a clothing optional designation for Hanlan’s Point, at first on a one-year pilot basis, and later permanently.
Although Hanlan’s Point thrived as a clothing optional and queer beach after going naked, it has suffered from environmental damage and neglect in recent years. Repeated flooding has washed away a large section of the beach, particularly in the southern section most popular with LGBTQ visitors. The beach also still has inadequate restroom and shower facilities, and the ferry serving this part of the island is often overloaded during busy summer weekends.
Can Hanlan’s Point survive?
For these reasons, an effort to revamp Hanlan’s Point as part of an overall Toronto Island revitalization initiative might have been welcomed, if not for the way city officials executed it. The drama of the secretive permanent events venue aside, the entire consultation process has left a sour taste in many mouths.
Even before the festival space scheme was uncovered, some of Hanlan’s Point’s primary users say the city had already been giving scant attention to their concerns. When asked for a consultation session specifically devoted to discussing plans for the southern section of the beach most used by nude bathers and queers, planning authorities hemmed and hawed, dodging meeting requests for months.
One observer described some of the city planners as “very proud and stubborn,” unwilling to admit that volunteer community members had done more extensive research on the history, heritage, and use of Hanlan’s Point beach within a few weeks’ time than full-time city staff had completed in two years.
The current iteration of the municipal government’s vision, after the nixing of the events venue, would still see the beach essentially cut in half, according to a representative of Hands Off Hanlan’s. The coalition says that a section of new headland is set to be developed, splitting the actively used nude and queer section of the beach.
The area south of the new headland is basically inaccessible given the current topography, and thus unusable. The area to the north, meanwhile, is the spot hardest hit by sand loss and dune degradation. So, while the plan officially maintains the nude beach at Hanlan’s Point, in effect it could mean a massive shrinking of the clothing optional space. The new headland area would be home to a prospective nature education area for “families.”
“The city is reprogramming the traditional clothing optional and queer area to be an area for ‘everyone,’ a ‘family space,’” says Hands Off Hanlan’s.
According to the city’s narrative, the plans for Hanlan’s Point include upgrades to bathrooms, the construction of an accessible pathway, new boardwalks, and installations highlighting the Indigenous and queer history of the location, including flags. It would also supposedly include the expansion of the nude beach northward toward the nearby airport and away from the traditional beach area.
Daniel Fusca, a public consultation manager with the Parks, Forestry, and Recreation Department, told the LGBTQ newspaper Xtra, “There’s no ulterior motive behind any of the directions identified in the draft master plan that are intended to disrupt activities already happening at Hanlan’s, whatever they are.” He maintains there are no plots to privatize, disassemble, or de-queer the beach.
If true, that might satisfy some in the naturist community. Greg Snow of the FCN said his organization would like to see the beach expanded to the area to the north. “Ideally, this would be labelled nude use only,” Snow said, pointing out that although Hanlan’s Point is popular, “over 90% of beach users are not nude.” An “emphasis on nude use would make the beach a much better place for naturists to visit,” he argued, along with toilets closer to the beach.
But many, especially organizers with Hands Off Hanlan’s, remain skeptical of the city’s promises, especially after feeling spurned in earlier rounds of consultation. “The city is pushing the narrative that this plan is still a draft…but in November , they said consultation was at its end,” the Hands Off representative told us.
That’s why activists are urging caution and say that celebrations over the death of the events venue have to be tempered. “The goal was never to just raise the issue of the festival space,” the Hands Off rep said, “It’s the question of what the future of the beach should be, what’s wrong with it currently, and what should it look like.”
Right now, queer and nude activists alike are pushing city planners to stick by the claim that they’re still listening to the community. While Hanlan’s Point Beach’s technical status as a clothing optional recreational space may not be on the line, the danger remains that it could become so hemmed in by other programs and uses that its character will be irrevocably altered.
Should that come to pass, it would be easier for future conservative crusaders or politicians running on “family friendly” platforms to target Hanlan’s. The beach already lost its nude status once before, in 1930. Campaigners warn it could happen again. That’s why a broad coalition of LGBTQ people, nudists, naturists, conservationists, and others with a stake in preserving this space must unite to save Hanlan’s Point Beach. 🪐
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