3 min

Hamilton’s biting back

Bathhouse clampdown could hit anywhere

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. Hamilton is both a good and a bad place to be gay. Credit: Joshua Meles

Recently I moved to Hamilton. Hamilton is a highly underrated burg, with its mountain and secluded, overgrown bay. It’s prettier than Toronto. It also has less pollution, more stately heritage buildings and, best of all, a closely knit and diverse queer activist community.

The queer scene in Hamilton has lots to offer. And for those visiting, it may bring back memories of the heady, glory days of Toronto’s gay liberation. Hamilton has five gay bars: The Werx, the Rainbow Lounge, The Embassy, M Bar and The Windsor. There are no lesbian bars that I know of. But that makes it kinda nice because – well, when was the last time you saw a couple of dykes at Woody’s? Things tend to be pretty segregated in Toronto, what with the leather bars, the twink bars and the men’s and women’s spaces.

In Hamilton we aren’t that sophisticated. The younger (but not exclusively young crowd) at The Embassy, for instance, is pretty much half-and-half male and female (and at least a quarter straight). Sometimes I’m intimidated – but in a nice way – by all the butch transgendered types hanging out on the dancefloor. With their turned around caps, masculine mannerisms and hip-hop style – they make me feel a little less secure about being a boy. However, that’s something I generally like.

And on Aug 3 when the Warehouse, one of two Hamilton bathhouses, and Show World, a dirty video place frequented by fags, were raided by a phalanx of police and city officials from Hamilton’s Multi-Agency Task Force, the response was swift and impressive. In fact the community activism I witnessed in Hamilton put Toronto to shame.

I went to an information meeting offered by the police on Aug 5 at Hamilton City Hall. There were about 50 people there: a mixture of drag queens, community activists, local businesspeople, dykes, older fags and teenage queers. People were angry. The gaybashing of Hamilton’s Ronn Mattai a few months ago left our community vulnerable, and we decided to tell the cops we need to protect our safe spaces, not attack them.

I remember a similar raid on Toronto’s Bijou, then a porn theatre, now a bathhouse, by police in 1999. Along with several other passionate radicals, I tried to organize a march in protest. Frankly, it was a bust. About 10 of us strode proudly down Church St. People around us just seemed embarrassed. The fabulous Fab magazine made fun of us, and so did the buff, overly tanned, rich, professional, straight-acting gay crowd. What was all the fuss about? “Only sad, old-style queens hang out at The Bijou.” they said. (This is untrue. If they do, so what?) These rich circuit party girlfriends were too busy decorating their condos to bother making time for what are, admittedly, old-fashioned politics.

Well, political activism may be old-fashioned, but it’s still necessary. Torontonians feel safe bunkered down with a lefty mayor and a much vaunted world-class city open-mindedness. But my house in Hamilton is a couple of blocks from two anti-abortion safe houses – where girls go to be “counselled” not to have abortions – so I can’t forget the smell of ignorance.

When I first introduced myself to our next-door neighbours, they said I was the first gay man they’d ever met. They told me I seemed nice, so they could accept me. It’s a big, bad, gay-hating, misogynist and fundamentalist world outside Toronto’s borders. And that’s just other parts of Ontario, never mind Iraq.

Toronto queers shouldn’t feel too complacent. Multi-agency task forces – an insidious, paranoid and lazy model of policing – are popping up everywhere. Apparently there’s one in Toronto and one in Ottawa, too. The principle is this: police target a “problem” business (saying they’ve been getting lots of complaints) and swarm the establishment with anywhere from 10 to 30 people, including fire inspectors, health inspectors, the RCMP and drug experts. This is targeted policing of the worst kind. If these guys want to find a by-law you’re breaking, you can be guaranteed they’ll do it, and close your business down.

So if you’re not doing anything this weekend, let me suggest an easy and pleasant way to show your support for our feisty little community. Come on down to Hamilton, try out the Embassy and the Warehouse, and afterwards chow down on one of our greasy burgers while you sit in Gore Park and watch the 100-year-old fountain.

I know there’s some of you back in Toronto – condos or not – who still care about gay liberation.

But of course, I’ve been wrong before.

* Sky Gilbert is a writer, teacher and activist.