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From the Field

The Struggle to Preserve Hanlan’s Point Beach as Queer Social Infrastructure

The march of neoliberal urbanism poses grave threats to nature and the people that use it. In this article, Ahmed Allahwala considers how activism against the City of Toronto’s plans for a music venue on Hanlan’s Point Beach, an important site for 2SLGBTQ+ life and history as well as a sensitive coastal area, might inform preservation struggles against such threats, in and beyond Toronto.

Nestled along a wooded stretch of environmentally sensitive freshwater dunes, Hanlan’s Point is a sandy beach on Toronto Islands (Treaty 13a), [1] a cluster of 15 small islands known as Mnisiing in the Ojibwe language, meaning “on the island.” Located in relative seclusion on the western edge of Toronto Island Park, a short ferry ride away from the busy downtown streets, Hanlan’s has long been a cherished gathering spot for the 2SLGBTQ+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community of Canada’s largest city. On warm summer days, the beach becomes the stage for a ballet of queer bodies, some in relaxed repose, others in ludic movement along the shoreline, in the water, and through the nearby woods.

Despite the pronounced seasonality of beach use around Lake Ontario, Hanlan’s is perhaps the most important social infrastructure of queer life in Toronto. The concept of social infrastructure, popularized by sociologist Eric Klinenberg (2018), has recently influenced a growing body of research—for instance, a special issue of Urban Geography co-edited by Latham and Layton (2022). Parks, along with institutions like libraries, playgrounds, or public pools, are seen as spaces that afford social connection and are fundamental to the quality of life in cities. While Klinenberg (2018, p. 160) acknowledges a need for “protected social infrastructures” for minorities, the socio-material complexity of queer social infrastructure has not yet been adequately theorized.

This study examines a recent planning conflict and community efforts to preserve Hanlan’s, contributing to the growing literature on the contestation of social infrastructure (Horton and Penny 2023; Luke and Kaika 2019; Penny 2020). Queer urban shorelines like Hanlan’s, Riis Beach in New York City, or the now demolished Belmont Rocks on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, face threats from urban redevelopment and climate change. As appropriations of parks, they blur the divide between public and private, visible and invisible, formal and informal spaces. They disrupt hegemonic notions of appropriate park use, challenging socially and legally enforced moral codes and architecturally designed regimes of surveillance. Furthermore, they are green/blue outdoor spaces where the body comes to the fore and where queer sociality is entangled in relations with the more-than-human world. The struggle for Hanlan’s articulates an ambivalent yet potentially radical queer environmental activism that must cautiously negotiate the precarity of the beach as both social infrastructure and sensitive coastal ecology.

Although the official motto of Toronto’s Parks Department is “a city within a park,” unprecedented growth of what is now North America’s fourth-largest city has put stress on its parks. At Hanlan’s, this manifests as an increase in visitors (queer and straight alike), crowded ferries, and a general space crunch. In late 2022, the Parks Department unveiled a draft master plan for the park that included a proposal for a permanent event venue at Hanlan’s, sparking concerns among many beach users. The city’s rationale was a seeming shortage of outdoor event venues in city parks and the mandate of the master plan to “enhance [the] visitor experience.” Yet many saw a disconnect between the feedback collected during the two-year planning process and what was being proposed: While community input had stressed queer heritage and safety as well as ecological conservation and beach restoration, commercial event organizers had championed permanent infrastructure to make events at Hanlan’s economically viable.

The perceived reluctance of the planning team to re-open consultations prompted a group of beach users to take action. They established the group Friends of Hanlan’s and launched an Instagram campaign with the hashtag #handsoffhanlans. The account quickly gained over 10,000 followers, who were encouraged to email their city councillors and the Parks Department. Virtually overnight, in February 2023, the issue made local and national news, forcing further consultations, which the campaigners used to their advantage: about 2,500 participants expressed their overwhelming opposition, many articulating how the spectre of commercialization threatens 2SLGBTQ+ history, the bodily safety of queer and trans visitors, and sensitive dune ecologies. This feedback and mounting political pressure quickly led to the withdrawal of the proposal.

The struggle reveals the intimate entanglement of precarious queer infrastructure and coastal ecologies. Records document harassment of beachgoers until the late 1990s, with trees shielding queer sociality from the hetero-prying eyes of law enforcement, perhaps as a matter of queer interspecies solidarity. Police proposals to remove trees to deter visitors from “doing this kind of thing in public,” as one police sergeant put it, referring to nude sunbathing (and presumably cruising), were only rejected by park officials due to the trees’ vital role in dune protection. Potentially more destructive to queer sociality though were plans by the Parks Department in the mid‑1980s for a 30,000-square-foot “family-oriented” wave pool, only abandoned due to lack of private investment. After sustained advocacy, the southern portion of Hanlan’s was designated “clothing optional” in 1999, making it one of two official nude beaches in Canada, gradually ending the enforcement of municipal bylaws, while arguably saving some trees along the way.

Figure 1. West-facing view of the central section of Hanlan’s Point Beach
Photo by Ahmed Allahwala, May 2024

Since the construction of a breakwater during the expansion of Toronto’s harbor in the 1950s, erosion has been a problem at Hanlan’s. However, recent climate change-induced floods and storms have exacerbated the issue. A gradually disappearing beach, combined with an influx of non-queer beach users, has heightened the sense of urgency expressed by many campaigners. “The north end of the beach was straighter and the farther south you got, the queerer it got. But there was this slow encroachment […]. People were being pushed farther and farther south, but we ran out of beach, it was getting washed away,” one activist commented in an interview. Reflecting on this combined threat, one of the co‑founders of Friends of Hanlan’s emphasized, “in order to protect Hanlan’s, we had to work on ways to beef up the ecology and make sure that people are making a more intentional choice to visit.” Sidestepping the planning process, the campaign worked with the city councillor representing Toronto Islands on two successful motions to recognize Hanlan’s as a historically queer space, install cultural markers and signage, replenish eroded sections, and expand the “clothing optional” designation to the entire beach.

Figure 2. Newly installed signage at one of the entrances to the beach
Photo by Ahmed Allahwala, May 2024

Recognizing the significance of embodied practices in the making of queer social infrastructure and mindful of the fear of being “outnumbered and overwhelmed” (Berlant and Warner 1998, p. 563), the campaigners organized several events last summer to reclaim the beach. These commoning practices are crucial because of contested understandings of what constitutes customary use of the beach. Large ticketed events, in particular an electronic music festival, had been held at Hanlan’s since 2014 and city planners argued that event infrastructure would simply “formalize” existing use. In response, a key strategy of what became an intergenerational campaign was to raise awareness about the long history of queer recreational practices, documented as far back as the 1940s in the film Forbidden Love about lesbian history in Canada. Beyond recreation, Hanlan’s holds importance as the site of the first “Gay Picnic” ahead of the We Demand March in 1971, marking a crucial moment in Canada’s 2SLGBTQ+ rights history. Despite this significance, Hanlan’s has often been labeled “under-utilized” by municipal planners, reflecting its ontological precarity as queer infrastructure and rendering its users vulnerable. “As a queer trans person, Hanlan’s is the only beach around that I can use in relative peace,” shared one participant during consultations, pointing to their embodied and emotional experience of precarity.

Figure 3. Flyer for the first Gay Picnic, in 1971, organized by Toronto Gay Action and the Community Homophile Association of Toronto
Source: Toronto’s First and Second Gay Day Picnics, 1971-1972. F0173-01-012, Toronto Gay Action fonds. Courtesy of: The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives.

Queer sociality has a historically fraught relationship to visibility and placement (Knopp 2007, p. 23). Its proclivity for placenessness and movement makes queer preservationist struggles difficult and ambivalent. While interventions like raising Progress Pride flags have been widely applauded at Hanlan’s, they risk essentializing a queer identity and being co‑opted by neoliberal place-branding strategies, potentially exposing the beach to further pressures. Aware of these tensions, a campaigner lamented, “Unfortunately, because of the mistakes made, there was no opportunity for Hanlan’s to stay in the closet any longer […] this was a stop-gap solution to undo a little bit of the damage that was done.” Perhaps in an attempt to regain control over the discourse about Hanlan’s, the Parks Department launched a “What We Heard” survey last September. But unfortunately, the heightened visibility provided some respondents an opportunity to express historically uninformed and latently homo- and transphobic views, suggesting that the queer preservationist efforts had rendered “a public beach an unsuitable space for kids and families.”

The queer social infrastructure that took root at Hanlan’s over decades is intimately tied to its fragile coastal ecologies. By combining elements of insurgent planning (Miraftab 2009) with queer commoning practices and calls for ecological restoration and rewilding, the #handsoffhanlans campaign disrupted the managerial planning process, highlighted the political nature of parks planning, and defeated an unpopular proposal. But the campaign not only protected a queer outdoor recreation space and its users from infrastructural violence by pushing back against the purported underutilization of the space, it also articulated an emergent praxis of queer ecologies that points to radically different ways of being in (urban) nature. While the future of the beach remains uncertain, its more-than-human entanglements gesture towards new tactics for preserving ontologically and ecologically precarious social infrastructures. The fight for Hanlan’s holds potential for preservationist struggles, not just in Toronto, but anywhere where embodied everyday urban ecologies and the social infrastructures that sustain them are threatened under conditions of neoliberal urbanization.


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Ahmed Allahwala, “The Struggle to Preserve Hanlan’s Point Beach as Queer Social Infrastructure”, Metropolitics, 28 May 2024. URL :

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