The last time I was here, I was a fourteen-year-old runaway. At least at heart.
My dad was out in the woods for a day or two. He thought I would do what unsupervised teens usually did back then and raid the liquor closet while he was gone. He was getting very worried about me and desperately wanted a bonding exercise.
It was becoming increasingly unlikely then that I would follow in his path as a soldier. There were whispers that I may have inherited the family malady that had kept a generation or three finding solace in a bottle. I had ... but I was old enough by then to know that I had to keep that to myself.
Dad was gone, and I was tired of pretending that I was normal. Toronto had public transportation and freedom beckoned ... Canadian freedom that I could not get back in the States, where the watchers watched those whose fathers had security clearances.
I remember very little about that day, nearly forty years later. Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop was in a different location then. The selection was small, and the lone staffer behind the desk was worried he might get a visit from the police if someone had spotted me coming in. The plan was to get the “malady” out of my system through the visit and never return.
Little did I know then that this was not how the unrequested blessing works…
“Now let me get this straight. The purpose of your visit is to go dancing in a bookstore?”
Disheveled and sleep deprived is never a good way to cross an international border. The non-stop on a Greyhound was a decent idea if I had been twenty years younger.
At fifty, with a new name and a corrected gender marker, the selection of steerage travel gets you a special seat in the interrogation room. Americans my age are supposed to fly, per the field manual. Turning up here in the dead of winter also made me a little suspicious.
Toronto has changed little in the thirty-plus years I had been gone. It’s still friendly, sprawling and pleasantly cold in winter.
What has changed? Glad Day is now in a better location, smack in the middle of the LGBTQ+ district along Church and Wellesley Streets in the old town. Despite the zillions of Pride flags that line the shops, streets and murals throughout the city, it’s still someplace special for people like us.
Glad Day is now the world’s oldest operating LGBTQ+ bookstore. The bookshop has expanded after nearly dying a few years back. It has a bar now and room for the occasional dance when the time is right. New Year’s Eve was one of those nights, and this is becoming a tradition for me. Having missed the chance to be queer in my younger days, I will take the opportunities when I can get them.
The kids waiting in the rain outside to get in were more than half my age. I sipped the faux gin and tonic the kind bartender had especially stirred for me as I watched them. Dad was really gone now. You don’t think about getting old when you are truly young, but I thought about it that night as I lifted a quiet toast to my late dad. Out, sober, not taking crap for living my truth. He still wouldn’t understand, but I suspect he would be proud.
In front of me, dancing to the beat, was a scene you rarely see in our part of North America: a room full of queer Indigenous, Asian, Hispanic, Pakistani and African souls, with a smattering of Caucasians too. I was very much in the minority and loved it. The scene in front of me was a snapshot of what the States may look like by the time my daughter becomes my age. The times we live in are a mere anticipation of that future. Let it come.
In walked a well-dressed, middle aged Korean woman who looked just as afraid as I was all those years ago. No, she really didn’t fit the scene, but neither did I. She stood with her back planted firmly against a dark wall, as the kids were grooving to a music I pretended to know. Her eyes and ears adjusted to the altered landscape as she scanned the floor. I watched too, because I had the feeling that I was about to witness something special.
Out of the darkness walked another lovely middle-aged woman. She smiled at her Korean friend as she gently took her hand and led her onto the dance floor. They slow danced while the kids surrounding them did their own thing, and soon fear gave way to laughter and sweet smiles. Another soul had likely crossed the border that night.
Just like I did way back when... Welcome home.
Julie Chase is the pen name for a local trans woman. For more from Julie, see Freedom Awaits, Love Still Wins, etc.