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Understanding the particularities of how queer urban ecologies have taken shape in Toronto

Understanding the particularities of how queer urban ecologies have taken shape in Toronto

by Loren March

Loren March

While there have been many studies on queer geographies and geographies of sexualities in the city of Toronto, these have – with some notable exceptions (for example Sandilands & Hobbs 2013) – tended not to focus on urban ecologies or more-than-human worlds. As a postdoctoral fellow at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (EUC), I am seeking to understand the particularities of how queer urban ecologies have taken shape in Toronto, and how they have been uniquely affected by both urban development pressures and by a pandemic that dramatically altered urban spatial practices. I am pleased to undertake this work at EUC, under the supervision of Dr. Catriona Sandilands.

What is meant by ‘queer ecologies’? Queer ecologies is a field in which queer theory collides with questions of nature and ecology, fostering a ‘sexual politics that more clearly includes considerations of the natural world and its biosocial constitution, and an environmental politics that demonstrates an understanding of the ways in which sexual relations organize and influence both the material world of nature and our perceptions, experiences, and constitutions of the world’ (Mortimer-Sandilands & Erickson 2010, 5). For me, the political project of queer ecologies strives for queer inclusion in ‘nature’ (for instance, revealing queerness within nature and pushing back on the categorization of queer sexualities as ‘unnatural’) but also, perhaps more importantly and promisingly, involves a radical rethinking of ‘nature’ itself. Queer ecologies render visible diverse forms of life, affiliation, and kinship that are vulnerable to marginalization, erasure, and eradication, and can challenge exclusionary operations in the question of what is ‘natural’ (see March, Cane & Prado forthcoming).

Fig. 1 Discarded building materials at the Leslie Street Spit

In this research, queer ecologies references both place-specific, more-than-human life-worlds along Toronto’s shorelines, and the lens through which I am examining these worlds. This work focuses on sites that include Hanlan’s Point Beach, Cherry Beach, and the Leslie Street Spit. My research is guided by several questions: What kinds of queer ecologies have emerged along the city’s waterfronts and how have they taken shape? What kinds of more-than-human relations do they involve? How are queer ecologies affected by urban development processes in Toronto? I am using a mixed-methods approach that combines media analysis, policy analysis, archival research, site visits and observation, walking interviews, journaling, and vernacular photography in order to gain insight into how these sites have come into being, how queer communities in the city have become entangled in their more-than-human worlds, and how these are affected by urban processes in Toronto. In a sense, with this work I hope to complicate and expand understandings of the city’s queer geographies, and to contribute to a growing body of work (for example Gandy 2012; Heynen 2018; Patrick 2014; Sandilands 2001; Sandilands & Hobbs 2013) emphasizing queer ecologies in cities.

Fig 2. Remains of demolished Toronto neighbourhoods

I have begun to delve into the ever-shifting materialities and complex becomings of these shorelines, and into their relationships with one another (for example, the increasing erosion of the beach at Hanlan’s, in part worsened by the construction of the Leslie Street Spit). My time so far has been divided between digging through archives and visiting beaches. I am thinking with water, sand, and stone; with wind, wave, and sedimentation; with seagull, songbird, and cormorant. The shore, as an object of study, presents us with an interesting conceptual boundary-space, a queer space of liminality or transition, flux, and impermanence. These particular shores, large sections of which were produced through infill, also demand that we consider toxicity, contamination, the politics of what Michelle Murphy (2017) has termed ‘alterlife’ – ‘life recomposed by the molecular productions of capitalism in our own pasts and the pasts of our ancestors, as well as into the future… life entangled within community, ecological, colonial, racial, gendered, military, and infrastructural histories that have profoundly shaped the susceptibles and potentials of future life’ n.p.). The Leslie Street Spit, which is made up of construction materials and the remains of demolished Toronto neighbourhoods (see Schopf and Foster 2013), is perhaps the most obvious entry-point into such questions (see Figure 1 and 2). Other parts of my study area, however, such as Cherry Beach and the Port Lands, which are also made up of infill, present us with these questions as well. I engage with these questions queerly, inspired by the work of scholars like Murphy and Mel Chen (2012, 2023). In this project, I seek to interrogate toxicity, to understand the unique transcorporeal chemical intimacies and vulnerabilities involved in toxicity in these places, as well as the worlds toxicity makes possible and the closures it might enact.

Fig 3. Water, beaches, and dunes in Hanlan's Point have provided a gathering space to queer folks in Toronto for over half a century

A significant part of the work is focused on the combined impacts of urban development processes and pandemic-related changes in spatial behaviour on queer ecologies in Toronto. A prominent example of this can be seen in Hanlan’s Point, where the water, beaches, and dunes have provided a gathering space to queer folks in Toronto for over half a century (see Figure 3). It is only in the past year that Hanlan’s has been formally recognized by the City of Toronto as a ‘queer space,’ as a result of community activism on the part of loosely organized groups like Friends of Hanlan’s. For many, spending time at the nude beach at Hanlan’s acts as a ‘reminder that queerness is a product of nature’ (Hoard 2022, n.p.).

During the pandemic, Hanlan’s became increasingly important to queer communities who have seen a loss of gathering spaces in the city as beloved venues and bars shut down (in part because of unaffordable commercial rents) while also becoming popular with a cis-heterosexual crowd seeking new places to gather. My work is exploring the implications of such changes, while also reflecting upon the need for safe queer spaces amidst worsening waves of homophobia and transphobia that have occurred alongside the pandemic (apparent in the violent homophobic attack that occurred at Hanlan’s in June of 2021). I am examining how new conflicts have emerged as the pandemic, urban development, and various forms of gentrification have put pressure on such spaces, and contextualizes more recent events within longer trajectories of queer struggle for urban nature spaces in Toronto. I am also excited to be exploring current lived and embodied relationships of members of 2SLGBTQ+ communities to spaces like Hanlan’s and beyond. While fieldwork is currently in process and ongoing, I am pleased that participants’ stories and input have already begun to add nuance, complexity, and dissonance to existing narratives about my study area, and look forward to further exploring queer relationships to the more-than-human city.

March co-presented a session with SlowPitch Sound bringing Leslie Street Spit to Berlin for the Nature of Cities Festival, June 2024.

This research has grown out of the doctoral research I conducted at the Department of Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto under the supervision of Dr. Susannah Bunce. My doctoral research and dissertation titled ‘Queering the in-between: Liminality and environmental gentrification in Toronto’ explore the more-than-human and affective dynamics of urban environmental redevelopment and gentrification, looking at two greening initiatives in downtown Toronto: the Green Line and Reimagine Galleria. In this work I explore complicated feelings that emerge around urban greening, as well as around certain bodies and places in the context of gentrification, shining light on strange feelings and more-than-human relations. This project ‘queers’ the in-betweenness of gentrifying more-than-human spaces through paying attention to non-normative feelings and relationships that people have with them.

I use 'queer' in an expansive critical sense here. I argue that queer geographical theory can help us to see how liminality, as a relational phenomenon, might render these spaces abject, illegible or undesirable according to normative categories and understandings, and queer affect theory can help us to understand the non-normative attachments that some might have to them. There are those who have affective relationships with these marginalized spaces. Many people use them and feel an affinity for them, and they are composed of complex emergent ecologies and locales of what some community members call ‘spontaneous’ and ‘unruly’ worldmaking. In this work I deploy a methodology of queer affective ethnography that involves archival research, observation, and walking interviews, while paying attention to seemingly ‘inappropriate’ attachments to marginal urban spaces and non-human beings. My work explores what liminality, as an affective phenomenon, is doing in the urban landscape, how it shapes what belongs, what matters, and trajectories of becoming in the city.

Author Biography:
Dr. Loren March joined EUC as a postdoctoral fellow in February of 2024, under the supervision of Dr. Catriona Sandilands. Dr. March is a queer scholar, activist, and human whose work focuses broadly on queer urban ecologies and affect. Through the lens of queer theory, they examine shifting affective relations with more-than-human spaces amidst environmental gentrification in Toronto, Canada. They have been a member of the Affordable Housing Challenge Project at the University of Toronto's School of Cities, a convener at U of T Anthropology's Ethnography Lab, and a member of the Queer Ecologies Network (QUEEEN) at the Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity at the University of York. In their work, they seek to expose and respond to everyday forms of violence and harm caused by urban development processes.

References

Chen, M.Y. (2012) Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Chen, M.Y. (2023) Intoxicated: Race, Disability, and Chemical Intimacy across Empire. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Gandy, M. (2012) Queer Ecology: Nature, Sexuality, and Heterotopic Alliances. Environment and Planning D: Society & Space, 30(4), 727-747.

Heynen, N. (2018) Urban political ecology III: The feminist and queer century. Progress in human geography, 42(3), 446-452.

Hoard, K.C. (2022) It’s the first Pride in two years, and I’ll be in the water at Hanlan’s Point. The Narwhal. June 16. Accessed at https://thenarwhal.ca/pride-2022-hanlans-point/ on July 14, 2022.

March, L.; J. Cane and A. Prado (forthcoming) What is queer about queer ecologies now? Elgar Encyclopedia of Queer Studies. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Mortimer-Sandilands, C. and B. Erickson (2010) Queer Ecologies: Sex, nature, politics, desire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Murphy, M. (2017) Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations. Cultural Anthropology, 32(4), 494-503.

Patrick, D. (2014) A matter of displacement: a queer urban ecology of New York City’s High Line. Social & cultural geography, 15(8), 920-941.

Sandilands, C. (2001) From unnatural passions to queer nature. Alternatives Journal, 27(3), 30- 35.

Sandilands, C. & P. Hobbs (2013) Queen’s Park and Other Stories: Toronto’s Queer Ecologies, in L.A. Sandberg, S. Bocking, C. Coates and K. Cruikshank (eds) Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region. Hamilton: L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian Studies, McMaster University.

Schopf, H. and J. Foster (2013) Buried localities: archaeological exploration of a Toronto dump and wilderness refuge. Local environment, 19(10), 1086-1109.

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