You can’t blame a girl for having certain expectations about the big city.
Coming to Ottawa from a small, blue-collar town whose conservative attitudes are reminiscent of 1950s America, I saw Ottawa as utopian relief to the sexism and homophobia of my hometown. Having arrived here just nine months ago, one of the three confirmed lesbians I knew under the age of 25 from my little burg, I suppose it is understandable that I looked about me at the relative tolerance that is Ottawa with a touch of dewy-eyed optimism.
Gay bars, drag shows, queer newspapers, lesbian book stores, sex shops that didn’t have the words “PENIS PUMP!” in the window? Who can blame me for a touch of youthful exuberance?
There’s nothing wrong with Ottawa’s gay community. We have a lot if good things here and are fortunate to live in a political and social climate which is warm to us — and a damn good thing too, since this city is cold enough as it is. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any room for improvement.
Picture this. A young lesbian journalist, fresh from Smallsville, arrived in Ottawa a month before the Pride parade. Scenes of Toronto Pride — from newspapers and TV, mind you — flashed through my mind, throngs of people gathered to celebrate queer identity. Dyke Marches. I had never been to any of these things, which floated, tempting and exotic, in the ether of my imagination.
So you can see why I was a little disappointed to discover the parade was more of a festive gathering. Nothing like Toronto.
Which is fine, actually, since if I wanted to go to Toronto, I’d go to Toronto.
I was shocked to find my first Dyke March was a bunch of girls sitting on the ground beside a dog park watching a few very talented musicians try to work around inhumane sound conditions and battered equipment. I felt terrible for the women trying to perform, and even worse for the organizers, who were trying to do the best they could with nothing.
The Dyke March organizers do it with no major financial backers, and with not monetary help from Pride, which has had its own money woes over the last 10 years.
So, job one: Pride. And they’re working on it — everyone on a volunteer basis, I might add.
I’m not going to settle there. There are some great gay and lesbian establishments in Ottawa. Gay bars are not merely places to grab a cold one and break a sweat on the dance floor; we’re making important political statements about the right to gay “space”.
I want more — and I’ll bet I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Most queer interaction takes place at the bar. Now don’t get me wrong here. I salute the value of alcohol as a social lubricant. Drag shows and liquor go together like lime and tequila. At a drag show I worked at once, the lead performer declared, “Ladies, Ladies, drink up! The drunker you are the funnier it is!” While this is a universal truth for everything from drag shows to baptisms, the fact is as a community, we do a lot of partying.
Let’s consider other kinds of spaces. In recent months, a project to get a stretch of Bank St recognized as The Village has been gaining momentum. It’s important, I think, because it’s going to broaden the types of space that we interact in.
So, more space. And you know who’s going to win? Young people (okay, older folks too, but hear me out.)
Young people like to party. Part of being under 30 (or over 30, depending on how you spend your weekends) is knocking back a few, hanging out with friends, maybe doing a little dancing.
But aside from the bar scene, what is there for gay youth to do? How do you meet other gay people your age? And do you have to drink yourself into a state of mental torpor every Friday night to do it?
There are queer youth groups in this city. Pink Triangle Services runs one, and so do the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. All youth — gay and otherwise — needs a place where they can belong.
There are groups for older Ottawa area gay and lesbian people with common interests — the Ottawa Gay Men’s Choir and LIX for example. But where do the youth go? The generation that come before us had few social outlets available to them, so it is up to the younger generation to take initiative and provide ourselves with a place to call home.
To help out with Capital Pride, go to prideottawa.com.
To make your voice heard about The Village, check out the City of Ottawa open house on Mar 18 between 5 and 8pm at the Centretown Community Health Centre.
So this is it: year one in Ottawa has been a trip from starry-eyed to slightly disillusioned. And what does that mean? It’s time to roll up the sleeves and get to work.