with gay bars closing, how do we create community space?
I was sitting on the Go bus heading to Toronto lazily killing time avoiding my writing and scrolling through Facebook on my phone, when I first saw the rumours. A bartender I was friends with had posted that the locks at their place of work had been changed and they couldn’t open for their scheduled shift. The Embassy Club, Hamilton’s longest running gay bar seemed to finally (if rather suddenly) have closed.
Of course I was not surprised by this, the signs had been there that this was coming. The massive, sprawling nightclub had been under construction for a long time. What had once seemed a labyrinthine opulent palace had whittled down slowly, as area-after-area was closed off until the only remaining piece functioning as a bar was the dank and uninviting basement. Like other clubs of its ilk, it had been suffering from less and less patronage, the last drag show I had attended there drawing a crowd of dozens, not the 100+ who had once filled its cavernous multiple levels. It was an undignified and slow death, not worthy of the place that had once been southwestern Ontario’s hottest gay nightclub outside of the GTA. The Embassy was a place where all the queers and weirdos who happened to live outside of Toronto gathered to party, to cruise, and to live in a fantasy of being hot shit in a context where gay bashing was still a terrifyingly common occurrence on the streets of downtown Hamilton. The Embassy was the stage on which many intricate and complicated dramas, coming-of-ages, stupidly bad decisions and incredible life-changing beginnings played out for so many of us. The Embassy was Hamilton’s equal-parts trashy-and-classy queer Versailles, the place one had to show oneself in fully resplendent faggotry to be considered of any consequence in our rag-tag little community. The Embassy was a place where outcasts of every stripe came together, without the inevitable siloing that occurs in cities large enough to maintain establishments catering to specific identities and lifestyles. The Embassy was a place where we were haughty and cruel Regina George wannabes for a few hours, before the lights came on and we took off the pretense to make sure everyone had a plan to get home safely. The Embassy was a place that had thoroughly ruined every other gay bar for me by creating the expectation of dramatic sweeping Victorian staircases and crystal chandeliers in an establishment that rarely cost more than $2.00 cover to get into and where drinks put you back around five bucks. Although ‘dignified’ would never have been a word I would have used to describe her, she deserved a more dignified end than this.
My relationship with gay bars had always been complicated, and so my feelings at this news were doubly. Back in the fledgling days of social media and online hookup/dating culture, back when physical presence in a community space was the only way to get laid or make friends, I grudgingly accepted that I needed to go to these places if never appreciating their value. These spaces were not without their issues of course, and I often left them feeling deflated and more like an outsider than I had at the beginning of my evening. As someone who in their early adulthood was marginalized not only by queerness but also by what could only most generously be described as an ‘eclectic’ sensibility of style and a set of politics my gay peers found isolating, I often felt very much an outsider in the culture of gay clubs. The early-naughts obsession with preppy sports wear, tanned flesh, smooth depilated bodies and frosted-tipped stalagmites of gell-hardened hair was never the thing of an awkward lanky man-child inexperienced in the world and all-together too fond of black eyeliner. My social anxiety and tormented feelings of questionable self-worth certainly didn’t help the situation either, as I painfully navigated past the trauma of having been hopelessly effeminate in a rural conservative upbringing. But like everyone else, in spite of the anxiety it often produced, I showed myself at what a friend once aptly described as the ‘giant drunk high-school’ frequently enough to stay relevant, and with the foolish assuredness of one who has not lived long enough to see the volatile changeability of the status-quo, assumed that this state of affairs was eternal, and that by accident of my sexual identity, was a culture I would begrudgingly exist in forever.
I had a similar experience months earlier at another conference in Toronto. After a long day, I needed to take some time to get some work done quietly, and wanted a corner to hide in with a pint and pub grub, a place where I would not be disturbed and could focus on my writing and perhaps miraculously actually meet my deadlines. I felt around for suggestions with my Toronto friends, where near the Ramada at Jarvis and Carleton could I find some peace and quiet? A suggestion was made of a nearby pub, an easy walk from the hotel. I was at first happy to find the space, noting only that it was much larger than one would expect from such an establishment, with empty floor-space above us and beside that would clearly have been ideal for hosting large and rowdy events, and seemed an utter waste for the half-dozen patrons who apart from myself were crowded around the bar. It wasn’t until I saw the bathroom that I recognized the iconic crescent of urinals against black tiles, and realized I was in the space that had once been The Barn. My last experience at The Barn had not been a pleasant one, ending with harsh words, hurt feelings and me leaving in the throws of a retrospectively juvenile tantrum. I was surprised by how unaccountably sad I felt at the loss of this space.
I think it is a sign of leaving youth behind, the feeling of missing something you didn’t at all care for back when it was a big part of your life.
This is a story that has played out across the world, even in cities one would presume had a greater capacity for nightclubs catering to queer folks. It seems like at least once a month I am hearing about the closure of an iconic gay bar, whether it’s close to home in Hamilton or Toronto, or farther off places like London, New York or San Francisco. I often find myself feeling sad about it, even when they were spaces that held no specific significance to me. Even if I have no personal investment, I know that these spaces were someone else’s Embassy, and that in every city that once had a thriving and vibrant queer nightlife, there are folks like myself, in their mid-30s and beyond fondly remembering a time when we could easily leave our homes and find our people, and all the good and the less-than-ideal that made those spaces so important.
People are quick to blame the rise of Grindr and other social media/online mediums that now define the way we meet each-other, connect with each-other and (if we are so inclined and have luck on our side) fuck each-other, but I think it’s more complicated than that. In my career as a sexual health educator for gay, bi and other men who have sex with men, I spend an awful lot of time online, ostensibly to answer questions, connect guys with resources, and chat about staying healthy in today’s sexual context. And yet, when I find myself talking to guys in places like hookup apps and chat sites (many of whom are young enough to never know a world where our sex lives were not defined by shopping for faceless torsos on our smart phones), I spend at least as much time talking about feelings of isolation and loneliness as I do making referrals to anonymous HIV testing and PrEP-prescribing doctors. The more I talk to guys online, the more I am convinced that nobody is thrilled with this new digital status quo, and everyone is wondering where their community has gone.
I have theories. A perfect storm of the gentrifying of urban cores and the mainstreaming of queerness have created a situation where it is nigh impossible for gay spaces to survive, let alone thrive. Our decades of respectability politics, our focus on getting married and assuring the heteros that we were really deep down no different than they were play a part in all this – with every step we take towards mainstream integration, it is a step away from the ostensible need for our own unique and safe spaces. As our cities continue to gentrify and become the playgrounds for the wealthy, any space like a nightclub cannot survive without doing the briskest of business. Certainly no establishment catering to such a respectively marginal and small population can expect to make ends-meet. Adding to this, we were so thirsty for acceptance from the world-at-large that we seem to have forgotten that we are still, all of us, misfits and weirdos, that this is what gives us power and makes us a force to be reckoned with, and that spaces where we can be amongst our own people nourish and strengthen our souls.
It is not all bleak though. As our permanent spaces disappear, folks are banding together to find ways we can create spaces of our own. Well-connected members of the community have been increasingly hosting queer events in whatever spaces we can find. If you know where to find them, there is something exciting happening many nights in any given month, whether its the underground bear party, the Oral Groove party for women and trans folks, a dance at a usually-straight establishment, social groups like coffee nights or games nights. It has taken some time for us to figure it out, but more and more queer people are realizing we need these places, where we can shake off the burden of the heteronormative society we live and be unapologetically ourselves. And we are finally seeing folks responding to this need, and taking steps to make those spaces happen.
I feel blessed to be in a position where I can be amongst those of us doing something. The first time myself and some friends decided to try our hand hosting a queer pub night, we admittedly did not expect much from it. We were having quiet drinks and complaining about how our spaces were gone, but it suddenly dawned on us that we were already taking space, the four of us, and that it was entirely possible to simply invite other queer people to join us. The worst that could happen was that nobody came, and we would be stuck hanging out with each-other (a very agreeable worst-case-scenario as we already did that all the time). We created a Facebook event and reserved a quiet corner of Gallagher’s Bar and Lounge, expecting that we might be joined by a handful of other queer folks who happened to have the night free. We grossly underestimated just how much people needed the space. Our event packed the entire bar and ran the poor insufficiently scheduled bar staff ragged (one of whom is a good friend of mine and to whom I thoroughly apologize and hope she made an absolute killing in tips). The band scheduled to play that night looked overwhelmed, clearly not prepared for a crowd of rowdy homos on a Thursday night. Their door guy too seemed completely unable to comprehend what he was dealing with, on a shift that by all accounts should have been quiet how had his bar reached capacity before 9pm? It was hugely successful, and in the several pub nights we have run since (we made them monthly due to their ongoing success), we have had line-ups at the door every time. I am seeing folks that I haven’t seen since the heydey of the The Embassy or the Werx or the too-brief Steel Lounge, Hamilton queers are coming out of the woodwork and making these spaces feel alive. It is a testament to queer resilience that we are finding ways to make space for ourselves in a city that seemed to have pushed those spaces out.
There are rumours of course that The Embassy is not closed forever. Many folks who are in the know claim that the intention is to reopen after renovations. I am not holding my breath, not because I wouldn’t love to see the place thriving again, but because I don’t think we can rely on gay bars anymore. Their time is largely over, and we won’t just be handed community space again, as sad as it may be. But that clearly does not mean we need to accept the cold isolation that replacing these establishments with online hookups, dating and social media provides. We can hold their memory close and reminisce, but we can’t live in the past and hope for them to come back, bigger and better than ever. The last several months has shown me that we still need to take space for our communities. We must keep it up. If you want something, make it happen. Throw a party, host a night. We need to make space for ourselves. It’s time to create our own spaces, and and in my experience, if you build it, we will come.
[ Editors Note: for a list of queer events and social spaces in Hamilton, check out Bent Q’s Calendar ]