Travelling around the world to promote June’s WorldPride in Toronto has made Kevin Beaulieu realize how important the event is globally, especially in its focus on global oppression.
“People have heard about this all over the world,” says Beaulieu, the executive director of Pride Toronto, which is hosting the fourth WorldPride. “I was in Serbia, for Belgrade Pride, with a number of Pride activists from around the world. For many of them, it’s the human rights conference that’s the most important. We’ve heard from a lot of people in Uganda who say, ‘We want to be there.’ People are excited.
“Sometimes we take for granted that we can have a Pride. But India has just recriminalized homosexuality. Russia has been threatening gays and lesbians; we know what’s happened in Uganda.
Even in the US, where gay marriage is being passed in more states, other states are passing laws that make it okay to discriminate. We’re standing in solidarity with all of those people.”
And in Toronto, where Pride has become a major annual event—more than one million people were estimated to attend last year’s event—this year’s WorldPride is expected to be bigger and better.
Beaulieu says he’s hoping for attendance of up to two million people this year. The 10-day event, between June 20-29, will also include a three-day human rights conference.
Events will also be spread out all over the city, with 75 events organized by partner organizations such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, OCAD University, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Toronto Jazz Festival, the Gardiner Museum and the University of Toronto. Events will also take place at Nathan Phillips Square, and there will be a number of events on the closing weekend at Yonge-Dundas Square.
There will also be an event commemorating the 45th anniversary of New York’s Stonewall riots, an event generally regarded as marking the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. The AIDS vigil on June 24, says Beaulieu, will reflect the international nature of the event. And musical acts will include Tegan and Sara, Melissa Etheridge, Chely Wright, Deborah Cox and KD Lang.
But the most important part of WorldPride may be the three-day Human Rights Conference taking place from June 25-27 at the University of Toronto. There will also be, as usual, an international grand marshal, somebody who is fighting for gay rights somewhere in the world. This year, though, all of the past seven grand marshals will return.
“We expect 150 thinkers, activists, artists, policymakers and others from all over the world,” says Beaulieu.
And despite past troubles with governments and politicians, especially at the municipal level, Beaulieu says that both governments and business have stepped up their support this year. “We’re quite excited at the enthusiasm we’ve been received with, especially across Canada. All three levels of government have been there to support us. We’ve asked our sponsors to step up, sometimes with cash, sometimes with services, and they’ve responded.”
There’s also been an enthusiastic response from international media, says Andrew Weir, the vice-president of Tourism Toronto. “We’ve seen great interest in the LGBT media around the world.
We’ve seen a lot of articles in Germany over the past month. And Australian, UK, US publications are all running feature articles this month.”
Weir agrees that the human rights conference has sparked a significant part of the international interest.
“That’s a big part of what Pride needs to be. As we’ve seen in the last months, Pride is as relevant as it’s ever been. We’ve moved on, but a lot of the world hasn’t. Sochi, India, Uganda reinforces why the celebration of victories won and the dialogue of conferences is so important. Toronto is the right place because of our long history of being such an activist city.”
But WorldPride 2014 also doesn’t have to go very far to surpass the three previous WorldPride events.
The first, in Rome in 2000, was marred by vociferous opposition from the Vatican and by opposition from the city of Rome itself. The second, in 2006 in Jerusalem, was notable for savage religious opposition, protests, violence, riots, death threats and calls for a “holy war.” And the most recent, in
London in 2012, was widely considered a flop for its poor attendance, logistical problems and widespread disorganization.
“It’s true that past World Prides haven’t lived up to their potential,” says Weir. “The good news is that it gives us a blank canvas. Future cities will have to live up to what Toronto has achieved. We’re finding that a lot of people seem enthusiastic about a WorldPride that will actually live up to its potential.”
And so far, this year has been different, says Alan Reiff, the co-chair of the WorldPride committee of InterPride, the parent organization of WorldPride. Reiff was highly critical of the way London, in particular, was organized. He agrees, though, that Toronto has the potential to be different. “Toronto
Pride started out with a plan and a structure to implement their vision for World Pride 2014,” he writes in an email. “They are a very secure and well-organized Pride committee to start with, so all of those procedures will carry over to the production of WorldPride 2014. One major difference this year is the consistency with key players throughout the process as well as secure and stable local government support. I would also note that Toronto Pride has been extremely transparent and vocal when working with InterPride. We really appreciate the unique mix of professionalism and activism.
“The first World Pride in Rome was more of a protest and demand for equality. Jerusalem was an example of how the LGBT Israeli and Palestinian communities coexist in peace, and London… well… it was ‘supposed to be’ an extension of a global celebration in conjunction with the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympic Games. Toronto will be an example of all the things the LGBT community has achieved in North America and yet still focus on what we have yet to achieve. It will be a global event for everyone to take part in, whether you are in Toronto or participating online virtually due to fear of political retaliation. Toronto has the potential to be the best one yet.”
But Reiff and Beaulieu both agree that things haven’t been perfect, especially in terms of timing and domestic promotion.
“It can always be better,” writes Reiff in an email. “There is a Europride event taking place at the same time, as well as major Pride events all over the USA. It might have been a good idea to try harder to coordinate all these dates so none overlapped. However, there is a large enough audience for each event to get a good share.”
And Beaulieu admits that Pride Toronto has concentrated on international promotion, perhaps at the cost of not promoting the event enough within Canada. He says, though, that Pride will launch a major billboard and television advertising and social media campaign before the event. “We’ve had to focus our resources when it comes to promotion because they’re limited, starting with international and then moving closer to home as we get nearer. Our approach has been to get the word out as soon as possible around the world, so people have time to make travel plans. Obviously, we would have preferred to have been able to promote it for the whole five years since it was awarded to Toronto, but nobody is able to do that.”
And while neither Weir nor Beaulieu can provide figures on hotel bookings so far, Beaulieu says that, anecdotally, he hears that hotels are filling up fast. But both also say that they’re looking for the event to serve as a springboard for bigger Toronto Prides in the future.
“The real long-term effect will be cementing Toronto’s place as one of the top LGBT destinations in the world,” says Weir. “Our goal is to use WorldPride to promote why Toronto is the ideal destination. My hope is that this will establish a template. Visitors won’t just go to party, but can go to an art gallery and see a very significant gay photo exhibition.”
Beaulieu says that he expects WorldPride to up the ante for future Toronto Prides. “We will have grown. It won’t be WorldPride every year, but we don’t expect to quite go back to what we were before.”
And Reiff, at least, is expecting great things. “I was in Toronto this November for a site inspection and everything I was shown blew me away. The locations, the cooperation with the municipal government, the museums, the diverse religious participation, the amazing university location for the Human Rights Conference, and the streets designated for rallies and festivals. Everything has made my heart beat faster and made me feel like a child opening up my birthday presents. I am especially looking forward to everything.”