TORONTO — Members of the LGBTQ community are gearing up for the in-person return of Pride Toronto's festival weekend after two years of COVID-19 cancellations, eager to come together again to celebrate and affirm their rights.
Sunday's parade is set to be one of the largest ever, organizers say, featuring more than 300 registered organizations and 35,000 expected marchers.
"We know from the feedback we have been getting that the community is excited for what the staff team has put together for them to celebrate," said Pride Toronto executive director Sherwin Modeste.
"They are eager to celebrate and to party, but they are also eager to send a message to the global world that there are still queer folks being denied (basic human) rights."
Isolation due to the pandemic has led to increased need for Pride events, said LGBTQ advocacy group The 519.
"Opportunities like Pride for our communities to come together, celebrate, organize and protest are really important on many different levels," said Curran Stikuts, the group's director of public interest and community relations.
"The level of interest we've seen in events...is like nothing we've seen in previous years, pre-pandemic."
Antoine Elhashem has been attending Pride events and LGBTQ protests in Toronto for over 30 years, ever since he arrived in Canada from Kuwait. The past two years, Elhashem attended online Pride events while COVID-19 restricted large gatherings.
"It was weird," he said. "It obviously didn't feel the same."
Elhashem, who is a recording artist set to perform Sunday on Pride Toronto's Middle Eastern stage, said he's looking forward to connecting with friends again.
"After my performances we're going to walk (Toronto's Gay Village), check out people, check out venues," he said. "I'm planning on participating in a bunch of fun out there."
But amid the jubilation there are also safety concerns, and Pride Toronto will be working with private security firms and will check people entering designated spaces for weapons using a security wand, to ensure attendees can celebrate without fear.
Modeste said the organization has seen an increase in attacks on people and groups doing LGBTQ advocacy work during Pride month in June.
"We are working very closely with our security firms and our staff are going to be doing their due diligence to ensure that the festival is safe," he said.
Toronto police were not invited to march in this year's parade. In 2019, members of Pride Toronto voted against allowing uniformed police officers to participate in the annual march, a decision Modeste said has not changed.
Toronto police said officers will continue to monitor security issues in Toronto over the weekend and make adjustments to their plans to mitigate any potential risks to public safety.
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a non-profit organization that monitors hate groups and crimes in Canada, said they are aware of a spike in anti-LGBTQ material online and in-person during this Pride month.
Kelly Spencer, owner of Indigo Lounge Wellness Centre in Tillsonburg, Ont., said she received a threatening and homophobic letter earlier this month and Pride flags outside her business were burned, slashed and soiled.
"I initially felt very angry and to be honest a little scared, with the threats," she wrote in a Facebook post about the incident.
"Not being homophobic or not being racist is not enough anymore."
She said she puts Pride flags outside her business every summer, but there's been a trend of anti-LGBTQ crimes in her community this year.
A number of recent anti-Pride incidents have taken place in Oxford County, including stolen and vandalized Pride flags in Norwich, Ont. and a defaced rainbow-coloured crosswalk in downtown Ingersoll, Ont.
Hazel Woodrow, an education facilitator with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said that's only more reason for LGBTQ people and allies to attend Pride events.
"That's sort of the point, to scare people away from it," she said.
Stikuts said anti-LGBTQ sentiments and attacks are nothing new, but community members are looking forward to supporting and celebrating each other during festival weekend June 24 to 26.
"There's a real feeling of strength and support in numbers, so to finally be able to get back to that is a huge relief," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June, 22, 2022.
Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press