4 min

Gayway builds new home

Huge space will facilitate expanded mandate

Credit: Natasha Barsotti photo

Gayway, the Vancouver wellness organization for gay men, is moving from its tiny location at 913 Davie St to a huge 6,000 square-foot space at the corner of Helmcken and Hornby Sts.

As Xtra West goes to press, Gayway’s staff are preparing to move administrative and volunteer operations immediately. But future plans for the new digs read like those of a mini community centre with drop-in activities, meeting rooms, an art gallery, yoga and tai chi classes, and a coffee kiosk.

Gayway’s new home, which was formerly a law firm, is currently zoned as office space. Phillip Banks, director of HIV prevention services at AIDS Vancouver and Gayway’s manager, says that getting the zoning changed and the new space renovated will involve navigating the complexities of city bureaucracy.

“[They have to put up] a white board asking if people mind gays using that space,” he says impatiently. “I don’t mean that in a nasty way; the city has been supportive. We’re doing stuff in the same block [as the old space] so we don’t anticipate being turned down. But it takes three months to ask questions, and then we put in for renovation permits.

“In the meantime, our groups have to find other homes,” he continues. “We can’t be [in the old location] by [Mar 31]. They will have to meet in other spaces, and we can’t start any new groups until we open the space [to the public].”

But in the interim, says Banks, there will still be opportunities for gay men to get involved in Gayway.

“We’re going to be doing a lot more out-in-the-community events to maintain visibility and to be able to continue some of the work that we do,” he says.

But after the move and renovations are complete, a process Banks says will take about five months, gay men will see some great changes in Gayway.

“We actually have to turn some people away now,” says Banks. “More people will be able to participate. The other thing is we’ll be able to offer those activities at different times, making them more accessible.”

Banks says Gayway will also offer a wider range of activities.

“This will give us the opportunity to broaden into more physical wellness aspects,” he explains. “It will also allow us to create more of a cultural space.”

Moving from such a tiny office to a large multi-use space requires substantial financial resources. Banks says finding enough money is an ongoing effort, but that it is coming together.

“Our funder, Vancouver Coastal Health, increased Gayway’s funding by about $100,000 a year, which is great but not enough [for the new space],” says Banks.

He explains that many of Gayway’s current activities incur venue rental costs that will be saved when groups eventually begin meeting in Gayway’s larger home. Also, says Banks, some new activities planned for the space, like yoga and tai chi, will actually generate revenue. To make up the rest, Banks says he’s working on a funding development plan.

“In some cases it’s money that we have, and in some cases we’re going to have to hustle a lot to bring in new money,” he says.

Banks hopes that one way to save money on the renovations will be to use Gayway’s connections in the community to defray some of the costs.

“We’re going to be working for licenced contractors for the big work downstairs, but we want it to feel like a social cultural space that reflects some good design principles,” he says. “We’re looking for people to help us source things out, to make connections and to make donations.”

Banks readily acknowledges his amazement at the rapid strides Gayway has made since its inception in 2003.

There was the sense in the late ’90s that anti-retroviral therapies had done their job, that gays guys had got it together, leading to a shift in focus away from HIV prevention, Banks explains.

The findings of an AIDS Vancouver focus group study showed that gay men were fed up with being seen as “receptacles for a virus,” and wanted more meaningful connections to community than what they found in bars, bathhouses and parks.

The issue of establishing space–in the social, spiritual and physical senses–was identified as a priority as far back as the late ’80s, early ’90s, Banks notes, but it wasn’t until Gayway opened on Davie St that gay men began discussing and planning the kind of community they wanted to see. It was a space that stands alone from, but does not ignore the stigma of AIDS, he explains.

It’s so easy to focus on the negative when it comes to gay men and the issue of health and wellness, admits Omar Dominguez, Gayway’s community outreach and exchange coordinator, who recalls the day he walked through the Davie St doors after learning about a friend’s suicide.

When conversation turns to gay men’s health, pessimism-inducing statistics often become the order of the day, he notes.

“The highest rate of HIV infections, the highest rate of addictions, the highest rate of suicide; a whole range of problems, and that’s a reality,” he says. “What we don’t often acknowledge because we have to deal with all of this, is that gay guys have learned to be resilient, compassionate and creative in order to survive. Gayway celebrates and acknowledges these things.”

By the time they engage with staff and volunteers, they go back out the door less a victim and more of a catalyst for idea, resource and life experience exchange, he asserts.

Getting involved is as simple as walking in off the street and identifying what you’d like to participate in or contribute to, says Banks.