Ottawa
3 min

Gay bar let-down

Why all the basements and back alleys?

Scuttling off to the gay bars this weekend? Let me take a moment to point out the perfectly obvious. Soda is in the basement. The Edge is in the basement. Swizzles is in the basement. The Lookout is on the second floor, as was Pink. And the entrances are tucked out of sight, on side streets or down alleyways. Ottawa is short on ground-floor front entrances to gay bars (CP excepted), unlike gay bars in Canada’s other big cities.

Consciously or subconsciously, our side doors and back alleys reinforce the message that when we go to queer spaces in Ottawa, we should feel embarrassed. I mean, doesn’t it look like we’re doing something a little bit shady? It hardly seems like a squeaky clean mission we’re on, disappearing down dark alleys or descending into basement clubs like members of Ottawa’s seedy underbelly.

Ottawa has Canada’s fourth largest queer population; gay bars in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver aren’t hidden, making one thing abundantly clear: Ottawa is Canada’s biggest small town.

Take Hamilton, for example. The gay bar (The Embassy, if you’re ever in town) is located on the city’s busiest street. But, to get in, you have to cut through a side street and then an alleyway. And, honestly, it’s to be expected of a town farther down the list of Canada’s biggest cities.

And Ottawa? We need to come to grips with the fact that the city is a stodgy, backwater government town, choosing to be no more sophisticated or liberal than Hamilton. And we have gay spaces, attitudes, and reactions to gay issues that reflect this stodgy reality.

For those of you who want to be discreet about your queer extracurriculars, the geography of Ottawa’s gay bars is probably a blessing. After all, shy queers can slip into side entrances covertly without being noticed by passersby. If the gaggle of gays hanging around outside the Edge is any indication, the need for this kind of stealth is in decline, but, for those of you who want the option of cloak-and-dagger evening expeditions, Ottawa is your kind of town.

And for those of you who are just beginning to come to terms with your orientation, the discretion provided by side doors and basements is probably a relief. I remember, as a teenager, directing the cabbie to the building next door to my gay bar of choice, and I think this is a common feeling among those still grappling with their own sexuality.

But now? Can I go out to a gay bar in Ottawa with, if you’ll pardon the pun, a little pride? I feel a tinge of embarrassment walking past the fry shack beside The Lookout. Should I feel ashamed? No, obviously not, but Ottawa’s hidden entrances reinforce the shame that keeps gay culture closeted.

I can already hear the shrill outcry from Ottawa’s ultra-cons: it’s a safety issue. Keeping the entrances off the main drag (sorry, a second pun) ensures that members of the queer community will not be harassed–or worse.

While it doesn’t guarantee anything, the alleyways, presumably, make it safer for partiers to spill out of the club without getting gaybashed. But with a cop car perpetually parked in front of the Lookout (and I don’t mean to pick on my favourite bar), is the danger worth it? We have to ask ourselves: when we hide, what price do we pay? With gay suicide said to be a bigger killer than homophobic violence, we should wonder at the heavy burden our shame carries. Whatever happened to, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it?”

While side entrances to gay bars are more symptom than disease, it does us well to recognize that we live in a city that’s still different from Canada’s big three.

Ottawa has never been Canada’s cultural hot spot. When Queen Vicki picked the lumberjack camp as Canada’s capital, she passed over the bigger and more obvious choices (Montreal, Toronto, Quebec City, and Kingston). Since then, federal politics has formed the backbone of Ottawa culture, and the city has never blossomed into a world capital with any substantial draw.

As hard as it is to admit, Ottawa has more in common with Calgary or Hamilton than Montreal. Capital Xtra readers already know about how the City of Ottawa has been handling Ottawa Pride. While Canada’s biggest three cities set aside between $25,000 and $100,000 for their festivities, The City of Ottawa contributed just $1000 this year.

The recent events at city hall have led pride treasurer Gordon Boissonneault to comment on Ottawa’s “parochial attitude.” I couldn’t agree more. What are we going to do about it?