Nude revival: Toronto’s Hanlan’s Point Beach will now be bigger than ever
A city scheme that could have “redeveloped” one of Canada’s clothing-optional beaches out of existence backfires in a glorious win for nudists and the LGBTQ+ community
TORONTO—In March, Planet Nude reported to our readers that Hanlan’s Point, Toronto’s famed clothing-optional beach, was under threat from city planners’ schemes to “redevelop” the Toronto Islands, the huge offshore park where the beach is located.
News emerged in February of a “Master Plan” being assembled by the local government which would have seen the erection of a concert and festival venue right next to Hanlan’s, one of two official nude swimming spots in the country and site of Canada’s first Gay Pride celebration back in 1971.
The leaked proposal sparked a firestorm of controversy, propelled a “Save Hanlan’s Point” campaign into existence, and ultimately backfired completely—leading to a major investment of public funds into the improvement and expansion of the queer and nude beach.
It wasn’t at all the outcome envisioned by planners when they first thought of handing over public space to private developers, but the LGBTQ and naturist communities alike are now celebrating a major victory.
Concerned community members immediately came together to oppose the festival stage plan that was conceived behind closed doors once they learned of it. They feared a giant concert venue would bring thousands of non-nudist members of the public into the clothing-optional space at Hanlan’s Point, inviting an onslaught of voyeuristic gawking and creating safety issues for women and LGBTQ beach-goers in an area already menaced by assaults and hate crimes.
Spearheaded by a quickly-organized coalition called “Hands Off Hanlan’s,” within just a matter of days enough pressure was put on city planners that they killed off any prospect of constructing the concert venue. But opponents dug further into the city’s Master Plan and discovered other proposals that put the survival of Hanlan’s as a queer and clothing-optional space in jeopardy.
Part of the city’s plan would have seen the beach cut in half, splitting off the section most heavily used by nude swimmers and the LGBTQ community from the rest of the beach and boxing it in with the development of a new headland. Given the poor state of maintenance, extensive sand loss due to flooding over the years, and degraded topography, the nude section of the beach would likely have become essentially unusable.
Though planners never called for the outright elimination of the clothing-optional status of Hanlan’s Point, by designating the new headland as a prospective nature education area for “families”—often code for anti-queer and anti-nude—the space would have been very uninviting for its traditional users. And the remaining northern section of the beach was to remain a textile beach.
As a Hands Off Hanlan’s representative told Planet Nude back in March, “The city is reprogramming the traditional clothing optional and queer area to be an area for ‘everyone,’ a ‘family space.’”
Although many were quick to celebrate the death of the events venue, Hands Off Hanlan’s raised alarm about the still-problematic Master Plan. “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.”
They pointed to long-existing shortcomings at the beach, such as insufficient toilet and shower facilities, poor dune conservation, devastating sand erosion, pathways that were inaccessible for disabled visitors, and more.
Also interviewed by Planet Nude, Greg Snow of the Federation of Canadian Naturists agreed. He said naturists would of course like to see the clothing-optional section expanded to encompass all of Hanlan’s Point. “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.” He argued that an “emphasis on nude use would make the beach a much better place for naturists to visit.”
Little did Hands Off Hanlan’s and the FCN know, they’d soon get (almost) everything they asked for.
In the realm of municipal politics, a few months can make a world of difference. In the wake of the intense media coverage generated by the festival venue proposal in February, it was like the citizens of Toronto suddenly remembered they had a clothing-optional beach—and they absolutely did not want it to disappear.
A return to the hush-hush “consultation” process that had defined the development of the Toronto Islands Master Plan was no longer feasible, thanks to the publicity generated by Hands Off Hanlan’s—now rebranded as the “Friends of Hanlan’s.” Every detail of the actions and ideas of city planning authorities faced fresh scrutiny; no more secret schemes.
Instead, staff at City Hall began working closely with the Friends of Hanlan’s, giving honest and throughtful consideration to the group’s research concerning the beach and its status as a landmark of Canadian queer and naturist culture as well as its environmental importance as home to a number of rare and endangered plant species.
The coalition submitted a 72-page report outlining the history of Hanlan’s as the oldest surviving queer space in Canada, its major ecological challenges, and its status as probably the world’s first official modern nude beach. The City of Toronto first designated Hanlan’s a nude beach all the way back in 1890. The Friends of Hanlan’s also detailed issues of anti-LGBTQ violence and harassment over the past several years.
From March onward, the collaboration between the community and the government started to see real suggestions for preserving and protecting Hanlan’s be put down on paper. In a first tangible step, Toronto City Council passed a motion in May recognizing Hanlan’s Point as a “historically queer space.”
Local political leaders with a strong base in the queer community and among downtown constituencies which frequent Hanlan’s also responded to the call for help. Then, in another unexpected turn, the sudden resignation of Toronto Mayor John Tory in an unrelated extramarital affair scandal elevated an interim leader into the city’s top office who was sympathetic to the Hanlan’s cause.
On June 15, 2023, City Council considered a motion co-sponsored by Councillor Ausma Maulik and Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie titled “MM7.15: Critical Measures to Restore Ecology and Preserve the History of Hanlan’s Point Beach and Surrounding Area.” The motion passed the Council—with unanimous support.
Thanks to MM7.15, not only is Hanlan’s Point no longer in danger of “redevelopment,” it’s actually headed for a major revamp:
Brand new cultural markers and signage will inform visitors about the beach’s prominent place in LGBTQ history, and a giant Pride flagpole will be permanently installed at the south end.
To combat erosion and trampling, there will be rewilding and replanting in huge sections of the beach’s lawn area to give nature a stronger foothold.
Proper fencing and pathways will be constructed to keep human traffic under control and allow diminished natural areas a chance to recover.
Work will begin on replacing the massively eroded sand coverage along the 400-meter southern stretch of the beach where Canada’s first Pride gathering took place. Currently, the place where Pride was held in 1971 is underwater.
And in perhaps the biggest change of all, the entire Hanlan’s Point Beach—not just a section—will now be designated clothing-optional.
On the latter point, the Friends of Hanlan’s says that “expanding and restoring the boundaries of the clothing-optional space is a nod” to the site’s long history as a nude beach and “formalizes the way people currently use the space.”
In a nod to the current homophobic and transphobic political attacks sweeping the globe, the group declared the installation of LGBTQ historical markers and the Pride flag to be major steps toward “honoring and celebrating queer history and queer culture in our city and our country, which is more important than ever.”
Bucking the trend
The pace with which Toronto went from nearly “redeveloping” its only nude beach possibly out of existence to modernizing and expanding it within the space of just a few short months is nothing short of astounding.
It bucks the trend emerging in other locales around the world that is seeing nude beaches and other clothing-optional recreational spaces shrink or disappear.
From Maui to Miami, nude beaches are facing fresh attacks from opportunist politicians of various partisan stripes and moral crusaders giddy for a fight. The times call for intense community organizing and the building of unity between nudists and others who take advantage of clothing-optional slices of nature.
In Canada’s largest city, an all-volunteer grassroots coalition of queers and naturists recognized the danger and put in the effort needed to reverse the tide—through research, lobbying, and media work. Within a matter of weeks, they turned the dial completely, transforming a looming defeat into a stunning victory.
Naturists, LGBTQ people, and occasional nude recreationists everywhere should all take notice. There is a way to win. 🪐