Toronto’s The 519 provides ongoing support to promote the health, happiness and full participation of the 2SLGBTQ+ communities…
By Christopher Turner
Brought to you by Olay
For 47 years, The 519 has served as a valuable and vibrant hub for 2SLGBTQ+ communities in the city and beyond. As Canada’s largest 2SLGBTQ+ community centre, The 519 provides programs and services critical to the survival and well-being of the city’s 2SLGBTQ+ population, and it has been a safe, accepting space and an affirming first touchpoint for many queer, trans and two-spirit folks looking to find community.
The community centre, a world-famous three-storey brick building located at 519 Church St., is a downtown icon but is also seen as a beacon of hope throughout the Greater Toronto Area. As a City of Toronto agency, it strives to make a real difference in people’s lives by working to promote inclusion, understanding and respect by providing service, space and leadership for the community. Through the years the centre’s staff have responded to the evolving needs of the 2SLGBTQ+ communities, offering everything from queer parenting resources to senior support services; as well as counselling services, training courses and consulting services for all ages, genders and backgrounds; trans programming; and a variety of coming-out groups.
The centre serves as an accommodating and non-judgmental space where individuals, organizations and non-profit groups can meet, organize and work towards their goals. On any given day, The 519’s daily schedule might be stacked with 12-step meetings, improv workshops, family playtime, prayer groups, legal clinics and more.
“The 519 provides welcoming spaces to meet and build community,” says Martha Singh Jennings, The 519’s manager, community engagement.
One of the ways The 519 helps build community is through their signature seasonal events. For example last summer, they hosted the Family Wellness series, an outdoor program that provides opportunities for parents and caregivers to bond with their child(ren) and learn good health and wellness practices. Over 200 participants engaged in the series’ programs, which were developed in partnership with experts in yoga, tai chi, dance and nutrition. Free clothing markets, field trips, distribution of frozen meals, and arts and crafts workshops also help keep families connected and supported throughout the year.
Another key program is The 519’s Trans Youth Mentorship Program (TYMP), which helps support members on their journey of building essential life, employment and community-building skills. The program offers online tools to help build skills in new ways of making connections, such as a Trans Youth and Dragons tabletop fantasy game program, and panels such as Trans Futures Now, a conversation between community and youth leaders that explored trans pride as not being about a single day but a daily practice.
More recently, reflecting the ever-changing, vibrant and diverse newcomer and refugee communities in Toronto, The 519 created new programs offering supports in health and language competency as well as financial literacy, and fostering spaces for friendships to build and community to flourish. Today the 519 is internationally respected for its newcomer and refugee-claimant support networks and programming, which assist LGBTQ+ people in finding housing, employment and community in the GTA after they have fled here to escape countries with oppressive and violent attitudes towards homosexuality.
“The 519 plays an integral role supporting LGBTQ+ newcomers to Canada,” says Martha Singh Jennings. “In 2021, we supported over 530 refugee claimants in addition to over 1000 new and returning newcomer/refugee clients, helping them navigate complex and often overwhelming paperwork, refugee hearings, and adjustment to life in Canada.”
Ever evolving and ever changing
Much has changed since the early 1970s, when a group of dedicated neighbours blocked the demolition of a condemned building and turned it into public space. The City of Toronto purchased the building in 1975 to create Cawthra Square Park and what was initially known as The 519 Church Street Community Centre, the first centre where programming was controlled by the community through a volunteer board of directors.
The community centre as we know it today began to form back in 1976, when the first gay youth group was proposed for the space. The initiative was met with some controversy, but was eventually passed by The 519 board. The space began expanding its LGBT services, with the first trans programming spanning back over two decades. As programs evolved and expanded, so did the physical space. The building underwent major renovations between 2000 and 2009, and had a grand re-opening in 2010. The light-filled, modern Salah J. Bachir Wing, added to the south elevation of the original building, increased event space by 45 per cent.
Of course, the past few years have not been without their challenges. Through the COVID-19 pandemic and Toronto’s lockdown measures, The 519 had to mobilize quickly to continue to advocate for and respond to the most urgent needs of 2SLGBTQ+ communities. They quickly built a response model that addressed urgent community needs, and ensured their commitment to service remained firm.
“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated deep needs within our underserved 2SLGBTQ+ communities,” says Stacy G. Kelly, director, philanthropy. “The 519 is supporting older adults in times of social isolation, addressing increased food insecurity and broadening our programs such as legal clinics, to close gaps in non-affirming social services. This work is greatly assisted by the generosity of our donors and our volunteers.”
When meeting virtually or in-person, or supporting the work of other organizations, the centre’s core commitment to celebrating, defending and honouring the identities and experiences of two-spirit, trans and non-binary community members remained central to all of the centre’s work.
Show your support
It’s been a while since Toronto has been able to celebrate Pride Month in person so there’s even more excitement than usual this summer and a ton of ways to celebrate (and help support) The 519. Four of the biggest Pride weekend events are in support of The 519 and are taking place right beside the community centre at Barbara Hall Park (519 Church St). Starry Night on Thursday, June 23 will feature performances from many of Toronto’s top drag queens as well as some of your favourites from RuPaul’s Drag Race and Canada’s Drag Race; One World: Afro House Edition on Friday, June 24 will feature world-renowned electronic music with an Afro House theme; Lipstick Jungle on Saturday, June 25 will feature leading DJs from Canada and abroad; and the legendary Treehouse Party on Sunday, June 26 is set to bring the community together to dance to the beats of an international roster of DJ’s.
The 519’s much-needed community-based response depends on continued financial support that come from everyday citizens and organizations like Olay, which recently made a $50,000 donation to The 519 as part of their commitment to diversity, equity and support for Canada’s 2SLGBTQ+ community.
Looking to get more involved or show your support? You can learn more about volunteer opportunities at The519.org/volunteer, and show financial support for The 519’s essential work at The519.org/donate.