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Queer Royalty in The Queen City

Richard Burnett
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I escaped Montreal’s summer of protest to check out Gay Pride week in Toronto the morning after Montreal drag legend Jean Guida – a.k.a “Guilda,” Canada’s oldest female impersonator and a star in Montreal’s nightlife scene for over 50 years – passed away on June 27 at the age of 88.

So it was fitting that I met another drag legend the very day I arrived in Toronto, the Queen City’s very own Michelle DuBarry (a.k.a. Russell Alldread).

DuBarry – who turned 80 last November (“Double 40,” she says) – was holding court at my favourite Toronto gay bar, Woody’s on Church Street, when I broke her the news about Guilda.

“She was a real lady,” Michelle said as we raised our drinks in a toast to Guilda.

But things would quickly deteriorate from there when my boozing partner-in-crime Louis Michel Taillefer (half of the hilarious Two Gay Guys cooking show on Youtube) and I bid good night to Michelle and cabbed it over to join a couple of other fabulous friends, including renowned author and Globe and Mail arts critic RM Vaughan, for the uber-trashy second annual Dolly Parton drag contest Steers & Queers: Night of a Thousand Dollys at my new favourite hang out in Toronto, The Gladstone Hotel, which is located in the heart of vibrant Queen West (or “Queer West” as many like to call it).

Yeah, the place was packed with hipsters, gay and straight. But The Gladstone is also a fabulously queer space and the oldest continuously operating hotel in Toronto, innovatively restored as a boutique hotel with 37 artist-designed hotel rooms.

At Night of a Thousand Dollys things got trashy really quickly, with dancing cowboys, lipstick-smeared andogynes, smiling bears and groovy diesel dykes. Personally, I was drinking double-vodkas with a dash of cranberry and snapping way too many compromising photos for my own good.

I was a little worse for wear the next morning, but it was nothing that a good hearty lunch at the equally hip Drake Hotel – just a few doors over from the Gladstone on “Queer West” – couldn’t fix. The Drake has an excellent kitchen and menu, and I enjoyed eating lunch in their stylish and airy Lounge. You can also enjoy “Sunday Lobster Fare” on the Drake’s smoker-friendly, climate-defiant, all-season roof-top Sky Yard.

Just to show you how queer and edgy this neighbourhood is – and not just during Gay Pride – the same night I attended Night of a Thousand Dollys, New Orleans’ undisputed “Queen Diva” of “Bounce” music, Big Freedia (a.k.a Freddie Ross), was headlining the Drake’s basement Underground concert venue.

“Bounce music is not just connected to gay audiences because it’s been around for years before I started, and performed mostly by straight entertainers,” Big Freedia told me recently. “I’m a big black guy and my mission is take this music around the world. I’m very protective of this music and its legacy. People everywhere are dancing to bounce music now. There is a time and season for everything, and it’s the time for bounce music.”

The next night, a few blocks up on Dundas, self-described “drag terrorist” Christeene from Texas was headlining at The Garrison.

Everywhere I turned the city was hopping. In fact, on this weekend I felt like I was hanging out in the coolest queer place on earth. And I still hadn’t attended Toronto’s official Pride festivities yet!

This year Pride Toronto boasted nearly 300 performers – including a still-handsome Corey Hart performing his newly-recorded dance mix version of his 1988 song Truth Will Set You Free – on seven stages spread out over 24 city blocks. There was the Blockorama event celebrating Black queer and Trans history, as well as Clean, Sober & Proud, a substance-free space.

The Sunday parade itself is huge and the parade route – unlike the one in Montreal – is completely barricaded. So make sure you are with your friends because once the parade starts, it is virtually impossible to get to the other side of the street. Trust me, I know: I was stuck on one side of the parade for over two hours, grooving to the strains of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, Sylvester’s disco classic You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and Canada’s uber-cool National Band of the Naval Reserve performing Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline as they marched in their immaculately-pressed white suits.

The rest of my visit was also filled with stuff one can do year-round, like visit the always-amazing Royal Ontario Museum or take in some star-studded theatre performance. I’m a big sports fan, so I recommend checking out a Blue Jays game or visiting the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame at BCE Place.

And if you’re an opera queen like me, Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company (Canada’s largest opera company) launch their 2012-13 season with a much-anticipated new production of Verdi’s classic Il Trovatore starring famed singers Ramón Vargas and Russell Braun, beginning September 29.

Or check out stars like Scott Thompson, Lea Delaria, Carla Collins, Carole Pope and others regularly headlining at my buddy and stand-up comic Maggie Cassella’s Flying Beaver Pubaret on Parliament Street.

Finally, Toronto boasts over 9,000 restaurants. On this trip I got to dine at La Société, a 7,000-square foot Parisian-style bistro on Bloor Street that not only looks amazing – the joint boasts an absolutely gorgeous stained-glass ceiling – but also delights with excellent food and service.

Like most old-school Montrealers, I used to love slagging Toronto. But not anymore. This trip was a magic carpet ride and the huge success of Toronto’s well-organized Gay Pride festivities this summer bodes well for when Canada’s Queen City hosts World Pride in 2014.

WHERE TO STAY Hilton Toronto Hotel located in the entertainment district next door to the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts (home of the Canadian Opera Company). Guests staying in elegant rooms on the Executive floors have access to the 32nd floor Executive Lounge where a breakfast buffet is served alongside panoramic views of Lake Ontario and the CN Tower. http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/ontario/hilton-toronto-TORHIHH/about/index.html

WHERE TO EAT La Société is a plush and spectacular 7,000-square foot Parisian-style bistro (131 Bloor Street West). http://lasociete.ca

HOW TO GET THERE Porter Airlines has exceptional customer service, with daily service from Montreal to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport which is located on an island in Toronto Harbour. https://www.flyporter.com