There’s been a lot of speculation these past few months about the fate of Church St.
After all, there has been a spate of business closings, including Statlers and Il Fornello, and one gay hotspot, Zelda’s, moved around the corner onto Yonge St. While some storefronts didn’t remain vacant for very long (the Lettieri and Il Fornello spaces are being renovated for new tenants), others are still empty.
Because the neighbourhood appears to be in flux, it has everyone chattering — and that makes it the perfect choice for the latest installment of Bent: An Evening of Queer Expressions.
Bent is the brainchild of Bryen Dunn, a local writer and promoter keen on provoking discussion within the city’s gay and trans communities. Each month, Dunn invites a panel of expert speakers to hold forth on a topic. Themes range from literature and politics to beauty and relationships. Audience members are encouraged to ask questions and share their own views in a forum that strives to be both educational and entertaining.
“Not everybody wants to go out to a bar every night to socialize,” says Dunn. “This series is attracting people who want to find out information and have a normal discussion, to actually speak with people.”
Now moving into its second year at the Gladstone Hotel’s Art Bar, Bent draws a healthy mix of genders and generations, all keen to stretch their brains in a convivial atmosphere (and for those with fond high school memories of sneaking beers between classes, there’s always the on-site cocktail bar).
There is a certain irony in debating Church St’s relevance in an area many homo hipsters are touting as Queer West. But even as the baby queens migrate to Queen St and its gritty environs, long-time village advocate and panelist Kristyn Wong-Tam feels that the rise of more queer-friendly neighbourhoods can only be a good thing for all of us.
“The same parallel can be drawn with Chinatown,” says Wong-Tam, who also sits on the Church and Wellesley BIA. “There are five Chinatowns in the GTA, and each one is a very specific geographically placed neighbourhood. They all do fairly well, and there’s room for all of them.”
As excited as Wong-Tam feels to see queer areas popping up in other areas of the city, she points out that Church and Wellesley’s rich history and enduring attraction place it in a category of its own.
“I may feel very comfortable going into queer areas outside of the village, but Church and Wellesley is queer 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she says. “It’s known internationally as the queer village and is a very specific destination spot for tourists.
“Also, when our community organizes itself, we congregate on Church St. You’re not going to see that up in East York just because we’ve moved into the suburbs. Church and Wellesley symbolizes our community.”
Panelist Nick Mulé has certainly seen his share of political gatherings in the heart of the gay village. As an active member of CLGRO (Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario) and current spokesperson for Queer Ontario, Mulé feels that having a recognized gay area is essential.
“I address this from a perspective of space,” says Mulé. “It’s vitally important to have a place to go where you can feel relatively safe, be who you are, dress the way you choose, act the way you’re comfortable acting.
“When you think of the province of Ontario, there is no other street like Church St. We’re very fortunate to have this here, but at the same time it’s important to take more ownership of the street and turn it into something we want it to be for ourselves. And what that is, exactly, is what we need to have a dialogue about.”