5 min

Go west young man

In search of blue-collar hunks & college boys

MY WEEKEND IN HAMILTON. Our man intrepid, Chaos McKenzie, travels to Steeltown (aka Hamilton, aka The Hammer) looking for new debaucheries. Credit: Ingrid Vellekoop

The drive from Toronto to Hamilton is reminiscent of the drive from Manhattan to Brooklyn – the view gets a little more industrial, a little more rundown, a little more funk to its flavour. My mission is simple: to venture forth from my metropolitan urbanite playground and get a feel for the scene of my queer brothers and sisters in Hamilton. I come positive with visions of blue-collar hunks and college boys.

I climb off the Go Bus early Saturday evening in my mink fur coat and dressed to the nines – I figure if you’re going to spend a weekend in “The Hammer”(as Hamilton is known to the inhabitants), might as well go all out. My first brush with the local boys is some Toronto club kids (who, it turns out, are closeted Hamilton citizens) preparing to jump the bus en route to Toronto, escaping Hamilton for the weekend. When I tell them why I’m there, they immediately take pity, giving me a crash course in local social politics, helping to arrange my itinerary, wishing me luck and sending me on my way.

The map I downloaded from MapQuest made the different destinations of my adventure seem miles apart. They are, in truth, all walking distance from the bus terminal. Hamilton’s streets at 9pm on a Saturday night are as deserted as Toronto at 5am. The walk lacks enthusiasm and I soon discover that knowing your N-S-E-W is imperative for navigational survival.


The first stop is M Bar (164 James St S). Careful not to blink or you might miss it – even with a proudly displayed rainbow flag in the window, the bar manages to blend in seamlessly with the small shops that neighbour it. And if you did it miss it, that would be a shame. M Bar is the essential “Cheers” of Hamilton’s gay community. I turn every head in the place (all 12) when I enter, but every face is a smile. M Bar is very friendly, with an older crowd and a trickle of younger regulars. This is the kind of place you come to on an off night to escape for beer and queer conversation in the middle of the week.

Mark, the friendly and kind barkeep, is a focal point of entertainment, knowing everyone’s name and everyone’s business. He keeps everyone smiling at the bar – like an old time saloon. Mark is sad that I won’t be around for Thursday, when M Bar becomes the talk of the town with a packed live jazz night.

After about an hour, I realize there’s no point getting comfort-able. Already three beers in and I’ve still four more stops to go. My cab rushes me to the central downtown area of the Hammer (I thought I was already there) and the pub-like atmosphere of The Windsor (31 John St N). The crowd here is younger, and it’s my first brush with Hamilton’s heavily mixed gay and lesbian communities – one table sports one dyke, two gays and even a breeder to boot.

The Windsor is like the main level of the Barn in Toronto, with more dark corners and twice as clean. Managed by the no nonsense Val, older and straight, she reminds me of the type of lady who makes cookies for the kids on the block. Val has been in the scene for 15 years working at various gay bars. In Hamilton, it seems that bars change names and owners with the seasons, but Val has been running the Windsor for a few years now, growing in popularity with weekly drag shows and bingo on Sundays. The drag show sports two girls ready for the big time, the fabulous Kiena Dior and sassy Tina Forever, with a handful of try-hards. One highlight of the show is talented Drag King Jack, who kept things moving with humour and levity that was greatly appreciated

Next stop is The Werx (121 Hughson St N), a combination of Tango, Crews and The Black Eagle on the scale of Fly. Manager Damien Dommer laughs heavily as he recounts the long history of the building, which has seen more than 10 different names and images. Those behind The Werx feel it has the best chance for longevity, having bought the building cheap from its previous owners, who were sick of the constant stream of tenants going belly up.

After thousands in renovations, The Werx sports a huge, lodge-like bar, a clean leather area in the basement and a simple but effective dance space on the top floor. Again the theme here is friendliness, everyone is ready to socialize. I was starting to miss the feeling of being cruised and couldn’t figure out where to throw my attitude. Men be careful. As I discovered, The Werx hosts one of the largest palatial women’s bathrooms I’ve ever seen, dominated by Hamilton’s loud and proud dykes. Weirdest of all was that the fags and dykes party down together without any strain or animosity.

For loyal patrons, The Werx posts the hours of their most popular bar staff (“Louanne, Fri-Tues, 2pm-8pm,” in case you were wondering). The top floor bar’s Robbie is reason enough to spend a few hours gazing. The Werx has the most energy so far on my adventure, but even with a staff that would die for this bar, it lacks an aggression that I’ve always associated with the gay world.

I continue on to The Embassy (54 King St E), which is the Mecca of Hamilton’s fabled college crowd, though for the life of me, I can’t tell you why. The club is gorgeous, three floors with lots of room to dance, but beyond the layout and the hordes of gay and lesbian eye candy, Embassy has absolutely nothing to boast about. Versions of the story are mixed, but the consensus claims that Embassy was never an actual gay bar, but a straight club that got overrun with Hamilton’s gay youth. The staff here seem to be more than happy to be rid of them, and they don’t do much to keep them happy.

Super cutie Jay Adams who operates relates horror stories of DJs who play MuchMusic dance mixes in their entirety. Though the least supportive of the scene, Embassy oddly has a drag dressing room, and its straight patrons are either extremely tolerant or simply overpowered by the gays. There is a little more attitude and a lot of too-straight-to-be-gay personalities, but Embassy is the closest thing to Five you’re going to get in the Hammer. Having been the most consistent, always open, with the same name and image, Embassy’s familiarity has made it notorious in the college circles.

Last stop after a long night of bar hopping, is a chance to relax at The Warehouse Spa And Fitness Centre (401 Main St W). This bathhouse is pretty impressive, a full gym and a cleanliness that is astounding. But I later discover it isn’t that hard to clean up a bathhouse with practically no people. At all four bars, when I asked about the bathhouse people would look at me confused. Seems no one in Hamilton ever goes except for a small group of whom I assumed to be consistent regulars.

Despite an awkward layout, The Warehouse is one of the nicest bathhouses I’ve seen – it makes no sense why it isn’t overflowing with activity in the early morning hours of a Saturday night. Perhaps Hamilton’s community is too small and the lack anonymity makes it less appealing or maybe they’re all just prudes. Either way someone needs to start a sexual revolution in the Hammer and give that bathhouse some more life.

I realize while jumping a cab back to the bus station, what Hamilton lacks is the party-hard mentality that is so much a part of Toronto’s scene. Hamilton is more the place for those finishing a long workweek and in need of shaking it loose. The bars all boast clean and enjoyable atmospheres, but without the rush of a crowd it just felt to be missing something. Maybe if bored Toronto club kids were to descend upon the Hammer, the bars would live up to the excitement of their staff. For that matter, I would love to see the crowd of the Embassy, pour over to The Werx or The Windsor; they have the space for them and surely could cater at least a little corner to the club kids adding to the excitement of the spaces. Hamilton is surely friendly enough to be accepting of this kind of mixing.

Overall I’ll give the trip five stars for no other reason than the Abercrombie And Fitch thug who kept me occupied as we waited for the next Go Bus out of the Hammer but also to show support for a growing scene that shows life beyond the small town – it preps for metropolitan things.