Ottawa
3 min

Anchoring the queer community

The gay community is more than the sum of its parts. It’s also a feeling of belonging. An understanding of common history and cause. The emergence and nurturing of a common culture, a culture different than that of other, nearby communities.

It’s also about geography, about each of us individually, and all of us collectively, sharing a sense of place.

Geography is important in the emergence and progression of community. Take a look at Bank St, for example. A decade ago, there was very little queer presence there. But today, there are at least 38 organizations, institutions, bars, retailers and gay sex spaces in the corridor along and between Bank and Elgin streets.

Imagine: 38 queer organizations like Pink Triangle Services, Capital Xtra, Egale, Pride Committee, AIDS Committee Of Ottawa, After Stonewall. Bars like Swizzles, The Edge, Centretown Pub, Cellblock, VIP. Retailers like Venus Envy, Ottawa Women’s Credit Union, Wilde’s. Sex spaces like Steamworks, Cruiseline, 1 In 10. Lawyers like Anne Vespry, Kristie McCombe and Colin Lyle. Public spaces like Somerset Community Policing Centre, Jack Purcell Community Centre and the Centretown Community Health Centre that run programs or provide space specifically for us. And more, lots more.

There’s a momentum happening: The Ottawa Women’s Credit Union moved to the gaybourhood this summer, as did Venus Envy. (The latter left Bytown Market, which was once a minor gay neighbourhood but is now declining as such.)

Gay community is about so much more than a few bars concentrating in one neighbourhood. A close look at the 38 organizations shows a strong activist and institutional cluster, as well. We’re well-anchored here. Our community has spoken. This is where they they’ve put down roots.

The thing is, a gaybourhood is more than the sum of its parts. A synergy happens as more and more organizations move in. Every new queer retailer, bar, café, restaurant, newspaper, activist or service group brings in their own clients. But those clients then check out the other organizations and businesses in the area, creating a synergy and building an energy and a sense of place, belonging and, ultimately, community.

Of course, it’s sped up when many queers live in and around the gaybourhood, as we do in Ottawa. But even if we don’t live in the district, we identify with it. We know where to come to meet others of our kind, to join a sports team, drop in on the Sage senior’s group or Pink Triangle Youth, buy a book or tickets to an event, sip a coffee or beer with a new friend, pick up a sex partner at a bar, take a sex workshop or get a quick blowjob. For those who live elsewhere, the gaybourhood still becomes the “capital city of gay Ottawa.” And it emerges as somewhere we can relax, hold hands, a place where we feel like we belong and it belongs to us.

We’re there already in Ottawa. And we now need to ensure we have the tools to reflect that reality, as well as to preserve and enhance it.

We should, for example, work with city hall and the Bank St Promenade BIA to get rainbow banners along our section of Bank St. Living under the rainbow, seeing the sun illuminate a large overhead banner, does wonders for one’s mood – as Toronto and Vancouver queers can testify.

And we must insist that city plans take us into account – not only as individual gays and lesbians, bisexual and trans people, but also as a recognized community. A community of interest, a cultural community. That means city planning documents need to reflect the fact that there’s a gaybourhood here, one that needs celebrating, nurturing and protecting. And that gay businesspeople and gay residents need to be specifically involved in developing any plans and developments for this area. And that cultural activities held in the gaybourhood must be respected.

This is not happening now. City hall needs to catch up with reality. The reality that queers have built themselves into this neighbourhood, we claim it (living peacefully with our non-queer neighbours) and we will treat it as the territory in which our culture will play itself out and our community will grow and thrive and influence the world around it.

Happy Holidays. Don’t forget to vote on Jan 23. And see you at the Ottawa Centre candidate’s meeting (sponsored by Capital Xtra and Egale Canada) at city hall on Fri, Jan 6 at 6 pm.