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The first time I went to a gay bar, I was eighteen years old. It was in 2017, during a pivotal summer between the first and second years of university, when my friend Sarah and I—still navigating the transition between adolescence and adulthood—decided to take a trip to Quebec City. Both of us are queer, but prior to that weekend, we had spent most of our time awkwardly fumbling around straight-dominated spaces in Ottawa, trying to figure out who we were and whom we liked.

After we arrived in Quebec, we learned that one of the city’s few gay bars, aptly named Le Drague, was located a few minutes’ walk from our Airbnb. We were fascinated by the idea of it, imagining the debauchery we might get into and the fellow queer people we might meet. It felt a little taboo, but we were in a new city, safe from the leering eyes of familiar faces in Ottawa. We could be ourselves here, we thought, and what better place to do it than Le Drague?

That night, as we entered the bar, we saw our first drag queen. She was clad in all black, lip-synching to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” while swinging one through the air. Sarah and I didn’t speak; we were transfixed by her choreography, the swishing of her hips, and the noise spilling out of the audience. As the song swelled to a climax with the triumphant final line of the bridge (“Gonna let the rain pour / I’ll be all you need and moooooore”), the queen unfurled her umbrella, releasing a blast of confetti that rained on her as she dropped into splits. The crowd let loose an almost feral sound—an emittance of pure giddy joy.

The next few hours were a whirlwind of thrilling escapism—our very own gay fantasia. One queen pulled me on stage to ask the crowd if anyone wanted to sleep with me (many hoots ensued), then gave me a lap dance to Kesha’s “Woman.” I made out with a strange man for the very first time, and two older gay men invited me to a threesome—a request I respectfully declined.

Before Le Drague, I had never been among so many gay people, nor had I ever seen others so shamelessly wear their queerness on their sleeves. That experience led to countless other reckless, wild nights at gay bars in Ottawa and beyond. I came of age within the musty walls and sweat-soaked dance floors of these spaces. They are where, for the first time, I felt like I was part of a community. To be queer is to be different; queerness comes with a hyperawareness that most of the people in a room are not like you and some of them might even hate who you are. Gay bars eliminated that, allowing me to be in the majority—even if only for a night.

But opportunities for the gay bar adventures that have been so pivotal in the lives of countless queer people are growing increasingly sparse. Over the past two decades, these spaces have been disappearing at alarming rates. A 2017 report by researchers at University College London found that seventy-two of the UK capital’s 125 queer spaces had closed since 2006. In the US, it has been estimated that over a third of the country’s queer spaces shuttered in about the same timeframe, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem. Among the recent Canadian casualties are Club 120—which Now Magazine called “one of the most inclusive nightclubs in Toronto”—and some of the few remaining gay bars in Fredericton and Halifax. With each closure, it becomes clearer that, in order to preserve these safe spaces, bars need to reposition themselves for new realities.

Designated queer spaces have existed in the country for more than a century. The earliest known establishment in Canada, the deceptively named Apple and Cake Shop, operated in Montreal in the 1860s. As an 1869 Montreal Star article revealed, it was no ordinary bakery. “The business is only a cloak for the commission of crimes that rival Sodom and Gomorrah,” wrote the Star, according to an article by the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness. The article suggested that the shop was a cruising spot for gay men: “We regret, for the credit of our city and humanity, to say that several respectable citizens have been found frequenting it and evidently practising abominations.”

Over the next hundred years, more queer spaces popped up in cities around the country. But, because homosexuality was a crime in Canada until 1969, they were forced to operate in secrecy. Gay bars became a vital element of the queer experience, facilitating sexual encounters that could have resulted in arrest or worse. Despite the covertness of these spaces, they were still regularly surveilled and raided by the police, resulting in hundreds of assaults and arrests. Names were occasionally publicized, which could destroy the reputations of privately gay people.

A new era was ushered in after homosexuality was decriminalized, but this legal change was mainly nominal. Brutal police raids of gay bars and bathhouses persisted. In 1977, police stormed Montreal gay bars Truxx and Le Mystique, resulting in the largest mass arrest since the October Crisis. Four years later, in 1981, Toronto police arrested 306 people in a series of bathhouse raids known as “Operation Soap.” The ensuing protests helped spur the modern Canadian gay rights movement.

In the decades since, gay marriage has been legalized and gender identity and sexual orientation have gained substantial legal protections. But LGBTQ2+ people continue to be targeted. In 2000, Toronto police raided a women’s bathhouse during a Pussy Palace event, a party to help women explore their sexualities, and as recently as 2016, over seventy people were charged in the “Project Marie” operation, which targeted men cruising in Toronto’s Marie Curtis Park. These events have demonstrated a persistent effort on the part of Canadian institutions to persecute and demoralize queer people, and now, the spaces that sheltered us in our worst years are languishing.

The reasons for this are numerous. For starters, opening a new bar is extraordinarily expensive, costing anywhere between $110,000 and $550,000 (US), according to the American Nightlife Association. For existing spaces, rising rents and gentrification in major cities like Vancouver and Toronto have made it tough to stay open. A report by the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board found that commercial rent in Toronto grew by over 38 percent in 2021—and, since there’s no cap on how much commercial landlords in Ontario can increase rent from one month to the next, it could continue to skyrocket. Developers also threaten these spaces. In March 2020, alarm spread after it was announced that Crews and Tangos, one of Toronto’s most legendary gay bars, was going to be turned into condos. There’s also the rise of dating apps like Grindr and Scruff, which offer digital versions of the connections once hard to find outside of gay bars and may have caused demand for these spaces to dwindle.

Jay Wice, who has worked in queer nightlife for half a decade, has witnessed the toll these closures can have. Their last job was working as a bartender and server at The Beaver, an alternative gay bar in Toronto’s west end that, after fourteen years, closed during the summer of 2020 amid a lapse in income due to the pandemic. The Beaver was celebrated in Toronto for its raunchy flair. It hosted wacky themed parties for tattooed queer folks and platformed many nonbinary, trans, BIPOC, and other performers who didn’t quite fit the polished mould of many bars in the city’s more central gay village.

I met Wice at Sweaty Betty’s, another queer-owned bar just down the street from where The Beaver once stood. They led me through a small lounge where portraits of historical figures with photoshopped tattoo sleeves hung alongside an impressive collection of horror movie posters.

Wice, who is nonbinary, has green, blue, and purple hair, and is heavily pierced, started working at The Beaver in 2017. It was a place where their differences were accepted and even celebrated by staff and patrons alike. That freewheeling ethos has extended to Betty’s. There’s a sign out front telling anyone who is “homophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist or just an asshole” to steer clear, and the bar regularly hosts many of The Beaver’s old patrons and staff.

Betty’s, like The Beaver before it, is backed by a strong community. When COVID-19 forced bars to close, a patron started a GoFundMe that raised enough money to help Betty’s cover its costs. “That’s proof people want us to stay alive,” says Wice. “I don’t believe we would exist if that didn’t exist.”

But the fate of The Beaver still looms over Betty’s, serving as a reminder that many off-kilter queer spaces stand on a precipice and could shutter at any time.

In response to the widespread closures, a camp of preservationists has emerged. Their efforts are largely oriented around official historical-site designations. Once obtained, this status ensures that a building is protected due to its historical significance. In 2016, activists were successful in getting New York’s Stonewall Inn—the site of the 1969 uprising that influenced the gay rights movement—designated as a United States National Monument, and just one year earlier, one of the UK’s oldest gay venues, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, was named a protected site by the country’s heritage ministry.

Canada, by contrast, has no federally recognized historic sites specifically tied to the queer community. Parks Canada, the government body that facilitates these decisions, has made an effort to represent “stories about groups whose histories have been marginalized,” including Indigenous peoples and women. But, according to Noah Powers, the LGBTQ2+ community has been overlooked.

Powers, who authored a report in 2019 about the closure of queer spaces in Canada, says that, while the country has made certain strides in advocating for diversity in its historical-designation process over the past twenty years, more progress needs to be made.

Securing an official designation of historical significance in Canada can be a lengthy process. First, a site or person must be nominated (anyone can make a submission), then the nomination is evaluated by Parks Canada historians. If the historians decide the nominee is up to snuff, there are a series of reports that must be compiled as well as committee meetings to be held in order to determine whether it should receive that coveted stamp of approval, but the final decision lies with the minister of environment and climate change. The entire process can often take between two and three years.

In 2000, Parks Canada committed to providing community outreach, workshops, meetings, and research efforts to three underrepresented groups: Indigenous peoples, women, and “ethnocultural communities”—and it paid off. Between 2000 and 2019, each group was able to secure several representative historical-site designations. The LGBTQ2+ community, however, was not explicitly included in this commitment.

“To my knowledge, Parks Canada have not offered the same opportunities for engagement and outreach to the queer community for achieving designations in the same way that they have the three groups above,” wrote Powers in an email. “It also makes doing any type of heritage or conservation work exceptionally difficult because not having access to the fact that you are underrepresented . . . really restricts what you’re actually able to do.”

In an email statement, a Parks Canada representative told me that the department is trying to be more inclusive in its historic sites—a sentiment echoed in a 2019 update to its National Historic Sites System Plan, which includes a renewed commitment to diversity. “Gender and sexuality are recognized as a part of this narrative, which acknowledges the LGBTQ2+ community as a marginalized group,” the agency wrote.

But the preservation of these spaces is about more than just history. In his report, Powers argues that the loss of queer bars has caused an increase in social and cultural isolation among LGBTQ2+ people. Loneliness has been linked to poorer mental and physical health, which, according to a study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, LGBTQ2+ people already experience at higher rates than straight people do.

“The queer community has always historically been isolated,” Powers added. “If we are put in a position where we have no spaces, I’m afraid that isolation of our community will increase.”

I, like so many others, have experienced this during COVID-19. Going out to gay bars was once a thrill; every time I ordered an Uber to one of my favourite spots, I felt like I had the world by the tail. But the past two years have been desperately lonely, and I worry that could become the new norm even beyond the pandemic.

Last February, writer Jeremy Atherton Lin published Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, a raunchy account of his own exploits in gay bars interspersed with the tattered and complex histories of these spaces.

In the book, Atherton Lin, who is Asian American, complicates the narrative that gay bars have always been progressive safe spaces for the LGBTQ2+ community, pointing to West Hollywood’s Studio One, which was accused of racism and sexism in the 1970s. He argues that BIPOC people like himself regularly experience alienation in queer spaces. “It was becoming apparent that being homo did not amount to being the same: I clearly was not like other gays,” he writes of his excursions to Axis, a newer iteration of Studio One. “Someone who looked like me might also have been denied entrance.”

Over Zoom, Atherton Lin tells me how the saga of Studio One encapsulates the debate over whether preservation is the right way to tackle the problem. Some preservationists had been trying to conserve The Factory, which formerly housed Studio One and Axis, for years, citing its lengthy and rich history in the Los Angeles queer scene. But dissent against these preservationists continued to grow. Some argued that, since the club was often defined by racism and sexism, preserving it would ignore the marginalization that has always existed within the queer community. Others, Atherton Lin says, suggested a compromise: the space could be converted into something more productive, like a queer youth centre.

“What interests me is that preservation can go hand in hand with progress,” says Atherton Lin.

Despite all of this, West Hollywood’s city council voted to partially demolish the building in 2018. The fate of The Factory was ultimately left up to a real estate firm called Faring, which purchased the location a few years ago to build a luxury hotel complex. Because of COVID-19, construction has been delayed, but the proposed plan includes a restaurant hall, a parking lot, and a nightclub.

Much of the discourse around the changing gay bar scene is wrapped up in the idea of physical space: both its social merits and the history and culture that can be held within it. But the pandemic forced the nightlife industry to reevaluate whether its business model is still sustainable—and to consider online alternatives.

For some, the new digital era may seem completely antithetical to what gay bars have looked like for decades. For performers like Allysin Chaynes, a mainstay in the Toronto drag scene, it represents new opportunities.

For nearly a decade, Chaynes has been making an impression in one of the country’s most competitive drag circuits. She got her start at The Beaver and subsequently booked gigs around the city, eventually landing a coveted spot hosting Monday-night drag at Crews and Tangos. Chaynes is known for sporting a hairy chest and witchy costumes and for performing little-known songs with bombast and charm.

As was the case for almost everyone in the nightlife industry, COVID-19 halted her career overnight. Bars closed, gigs dried up, and performers like Chaynes found themselves suddenly without income. But, instead of tethering herself to the uncertainty associated with live, in-person performance, in March 2020, alongside friend and tattoo artist Lizzie Renaud, Chaynes started Speakeasy TV.

Chaynes and Renaud originally envisioned Speakeasy, which can be streamed on Twitch, as a way to platform and pay out-of-work queens. It has grown into a full-fledged channel with near-daily content and a variety of virtual programming, much of which is hosted and produced by drag performers. “A lot of people in the beginning really wanted to treat digital drag as a replacement for their regular stage drag,” Chaynes tells me. “[For me], it was more of a new medium to explore,” she adds. “I still feel like I’m operating at the same level in drag, just in a different realm.”

Speakeasy’s vibe is different from the mayhem of the gay bars where drag has traditionally been done. Chaynes thinks of it as more of an artistic sanctuary—a place where she gets to put on whatever kind of show she can dream up. The night before we met, she was streaming live from the studio’s resident bathtub, where she was pelted with rubber duckies whenever a viewer tipped.

Another show she produces, called Hollywood Squares, features drag performers (and, occasionally, pugs) answering trivia questions for charity. According to Chaynes, one instalment raised $1,400 for queer-refugee charity Rainbow Railroad. Digital space might not offer the communal experience of going out, but it does have advantages: it’s more accessible, it’s not oriented around the sale of alcohol, and it transforms outdated notions of what the queer community can be.

Chaynes still picks up the odd live gig when she can. I managed to catch her on Sweaty Betty’s patio the day before we chatted. She appeared in full drag, immense in her heels and wig, her hairy chest bulging out of a stunning dark dress. Wice, who was working the door, bellowed out to the crowd, demanding that someone bring Chaynes a cigarette. A patron obliged, and after her dart, she kicked off the show.

Chaynes later told me that this had been her first live show in a long time, but you would never have known it. As I watched her performance, mesmerized, I couldn’t help but remember how I felt during that night at Le Drague all those years ago. The bar remains open to this day, and if its Instagram—which is filled with pictures of impressive drag performances—is any indication, it’s thriving.

Chaynes finished her performance by marching into the middle of the street. She stood in front of moving cars, lip-synching into windows and directing traffic. The drivers seemed unbothered. They didn’t honk or jeer, they just looked on at Chaynes, smiling and patiently waiting for her to let them go ahead. For a moment, it felt like the whole of Toronto was hypnotized by the raw power of a great drag show—the kind that can transfigure the opening of an umbrella into a moment so cathartic it shifts the tectonic plates of a young gay man’s world.

KC Hoard
KC Hoard is an associate editor at The Walrus.