Credit: (Gilberto Prioste)
More than 300 people turned out in Toronto’s gay village on Sat, May 28 for the unveiling of a statue to honour gay pioneer Alexander Wood.
Wood settled in the town of York (now Toronto) in 1797. As a successful merchant, magistrate and lieutenant in the York militia, Wood was one of town’s leading citizens until a sex scandal forced him to flee back to Scotland for a few years. “Alexander Wood’s story is an important part of our city’s history and our gay community’s history. The statue is an important symbol to show our lesbian and gay youth that we have a history. Wood was a great citizen of Toronto. A great, gay citizen active in politics and community,” says Dennis O’Connor, chair of the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area (CWVBIA), which organized and funded the statue project.
The Alexander Wood statue is one of just a few significant gay-focused monuments in the world – and is thought to be the first monument of its kind in the world. Gay rights monuments exist in Amsterdam, Cologne and New York, but none are large-scale foundry projects in the form of traditional bronze statuary used to celebrate more ‘mainstream’ historical figures.
Alexander Wood moved to Upper Canada in 1793 from Scotland and settled in York (now Toronto) in 1797. He became a well-respected magistrate and merchant and in 1826 purchased 50 acres of land on the northeast corner of Carlton and Yonge streets. But in 1810 Wood’s world fell apart.
A Miss Bailey reported to Wood her rape by an unknown militiaman, noting she had scratched the genitals of her attacker. Wood launched an investigation where he subjected a group of young men to an intimate physical examination.
With York, with having a population of less than 700, gossip quickly spread, with Wood being referred to a the “Inspector General of Private Accounts” and the nickname of Molly Wood, Molly a derogatory term for homosexual and to escape the scandal and namecalling Wood returned to Scotland, though his exile would last less than two years. When Wood returned in 1812, he resumed all of his previous occupations, including that of magistrate. But in the aftermath of a scandal Wood’s undeveloped acreage was mockingly nicknamed “Molly Wood’s Bush.” That land now contains Toronto’s modern day gay village, and the neighbourhood has three streets named after him; Alexander Street, Alexander Place and Wood Street.
“This statue – this giant, bronze gay man – is important not only to the lesbian and gay community, but it’s a symbol for any minority community that has struggled and fought to be accepted – for their place and home in our city,” says O’Connor.
The impressive eight-foot solid bronze statue by renowned Canadian sculptor Del Newbigging sits atop a granite block five-feet tall, located at the corner of Alexander St and Church St in Toronto’s gay village. The colourful ceremony featured marching parade of bagpipers and a performing youth colour guard, formed by members from Supporting Our Youth and the Righteously Outrageous Twirlers.
Interestingly, no known image of Alexander Wood exists with the exception of reproductions of a Georgian silhouette portrait.
“I have worked from the silhouette and researched the period for clothing styles and also added a gay flair which I am convinced he would have had,” says Newbigging.
The unveiling will mark the end of a two-year project supported by the CWVBIA membership and the City Of Toronto. Funding for the $200,000 capital project was cost-shared between the CWVBIA and the City Of Toronto, each contributing 50 percent.
Founded in 2003, the CWVBIA is an official agency governed by the City Of Toronto, and funded through a tax levy on property owners within the BIA district. The Alexander Wood statue is the first major installation initiative of the CWVBIA.
“Every business in the Church-Wellesley Village has contributed to this historical statue, and all of our members can proudly tell friends, family and their customers ‘I helped to build this monument,'” says O’Connor.
“The BIA believes public art is part of a vibrant, healthy community, but it must be public art that is relevant to our community. The Alexander Wood statue is a grand, majestic corner stone that our community can be proud of and celebrate,” says O’Connor.
The CWVBIA’s mission statement includes “civic engagement with a remembrance of a history rich in advocacy for sexual liberation, social justice and equality.”
“We’re trying to create a sense of place, a sense of history of why we’re here,” says O’Connor. “We’re pretty lucky to have a link back to the 1800s. How many gay communities can say that?”