6 min

How a queer-friendly space is making a small town in BC’s conservative Fraser Valley more welcoming

‘I think it's really opened people’s minds,’ says The Stage’s general manager

Cory Cassel is the driving force behind The Stage, the queer-friendly space that’s popularized drag in Mission, BC. Credit: Graham Spence/Xtra

When Cory Cassel first assessed the empty space that had once housed a series of raucous straight bars, he didn’t immediately think of filling it with feather boas.

The space had been around for decades, attached to an old empty hotel in downtown Mission, about an hour east of Vancouver in BC’s conservative Fraser Valley. It had once housed a biker bar, and before that a strip joint, and it was often the only place open past midnight. It also saw quite a few fights in its day.

In 2013, having sat empty for several years, it was once again reincarnated, this time as the Zoo bar, but that too quickly failed. So the owners approached Cassel, a born and raised Missionite and an event planner, and asked him for ideas on how to transform the space.

At first, Cassel didn’t think of the bar as a potential home for queer events. He suggested turning it into something like the Commodore Ballroom in downtown Vancouver, which hosts events and performances. “I was going on about how there’s a lack of cool spaces, a lack of spaces with a liquor licence, so I sent them some links to venues downtown,” Cassel recalls.

When the owners hired him to be the space’s new general manager, they suggested he host one of the drag shows that he puts on every month in the nearby Vancouver suburb of New Westminster. He was hesitant at first.

“The first thing that came to my mind was safety. What are we setting ourselves up for?” he says. Cassel was concerned that the venue’s history as a rough and tumble place might create a less than safe atmosphere.

The owners assured him that the venue would be adequately staffed to ensure the safety of all the performers and everyone in attendance.

Reassured, he agreed. And in September 2014 The Stage was born.

Cory Cassel behind the bar. Credit: Graham Spence/Xtra

Cassel has resided in Mission his whole life. He knew from a very young age that he was gay. He came out in Grade 6 and for the most part, he says, his classmates accepted him. But he still felt out of place when he was growing up, and he hesitated to date until years later.

But that seems to be changing now, Cassel and other locals say, thanks, in part, to the welcoming space The Stage has created.

“I think it’s really opened people’s minds,” Cassel says.

“I don’t think anybody actually thought the drag show would be a thing in Mission,” he says. “People are realizing that not only do they need to start thinking outside the box, but the people in the Valley are ready and they want to think outside of the box.”

“People in Mission absolutely love the drag shows,” Cassel continues, especially, he says, when they get a chance to really understand drag as an artistic form of self-expression.

“I’ve realized that having a drag queen in the room totally changes the dynamic and, dare we say, the pecking order of it,” he adds.

Credit: Graham Spence/Xtra

As the first venue in Mission to feature a regular drag night, Cassel wasn’t sure how the queens would be received. But he’s been pleasantly surprised.

“The vibe that it creates in the room when there’s a drag queen is something unique to Mission, and it’s something that people crave,” he says.

When Jennifer Holmes moved to Mission with her wife in 2005, she was worried that they wouldn’t find queer community. But they soon realized there were plenty of people in Mission who were either queer or welcoming. And The Stage, she says, has helped bring together members of Mission’s LGBT community with other locals in the last few years.

“What I find best about The Stage is that on any given night, whether it’s a drag show, or burlesque or whatever, it’s everybody, it’s a cross-section of the Mission community,” she says.

She too was pleasantly surprised to see a drag show succeed in Mission. For one thing, it means she and her wife no longer have to drive an hour and a half to downtown Vancouver to find community and be themselves.

“For people in the queer community, it’s somewhere safe to be, where you can go and have a drink and sit with your partner and not feel like you’re going to get thumped if you go outside,” she says. Though she hasn’t faced hostility in Mission, she says other nearby towns aren’t always so welcoming. In Abbotsford, for example, she says she’s sometimes felt judged walking down the street holding hands with her wife.

Still, she wouldn’t have guessed that the bar attached to Mission’s old Bellevue hotel would be the place to host a queer-friendly space.

“It’s almost like the queer community is there to smudge the place, to get rid of those ghosts and bring some life into the downtown that’s not scary, and gangs and drugs and getting beat up,” she says. “It’s not like that anymore, we’ve kind of turned it around.”

Is The Stage revitalizing Mission? Credit: Graham Spence/Xtra

Cassel and his husband and business partner, Yosuke Nitta, are careful about calling The Stage a gay bar, though. They prefer the term “inclusive venue.”

“My heart said that people from all walks of life, from all over our community, feel like this is an accessible and welcoming space for them,” Cassel explains.

It’s important to him to make sure that people know they’re free to be themselves at The Stage — “that individuality and diversity is celebrated and embraced, and that no matter who you are or where you come from, you’re safe in here.”

“It’s an inclusive space where being queer is celebrated and embraced,” he continues, “but that doesn’t mean that heteronormative people aren’t welcome. It just means that this is a space where people can come here and let their freak flag fly.”

Denise and Candyce Fowle appreciate the inclusive space Cassel has created. The couple teaches zumba classes at The Stage from Monday to Thursday. They say The Stage has helped them create a place where people can work on not only their physical health, but mental health as well.

“Even before we started teaching here, this would be where we would come,” Denise says.

The two have practically always lived in the Fraser Valley: Denise moved to Mission when she was 11 and Candyce grew up in nearby Maple Ridge. They both consider Mission an LGBT- friendly place and, since discovering The Stage, they’ve also found a greater sense of community here.

Denise and Candyce Fowle say they no longer have to leave Mission to find community. Credit: Veronnica MacKillop/Xtra

“It’s way bigger than anyone would have thought,” Denise says of Mission’s LGBT community. “I’ve yet to have somebody say something negative or derogatory to me,” she adds.

Like Holmes, the Fowles used to leave the Valley and travel to Vancouver to feel like they were part of the LGBT community. Now, they say, they no longer have to leave Mission to find community and make friends.

Holmes hopes the The Stage will continue to be a place where people can come to exchange ideas, meet new neighbours, and build a cross-section of queer-friendly community that spills out onto the streets of Mission.

People are open and friendly here, Holmes says. It’s where the fringe dwellers go, where people of all backgrounds come to look for affordable housing and find an open, accepting community, she adds.

“People don’t care what you do, they don’t care if you’re a little left field or a little kooky,” she says. “I think they kind of embrace that kookiness.”

Jennifer Holmes and Cory Cassel stand outside The Stage in December. Credit: Veronnica MacKillop/Xtra

“No matter what your background is, you have an opportunity to do whatever you want to do in this community,” Cassel agrees.

Neither hosting a queer-friendly space nor being openly gay himself has negatively impacted his success, Cassel notes. “My identity isn’t as ‘the gay guy’ because I’ve invested so much into this community that I think people recognize me for my contributions, not my sexuality,” he says.

Cassel hopes to keep introducing new events, like drag queen karaoke nights, and someday he hopes to remodel The Stage’s exterior too. Though he and his husband are planning to move to Japan in late 2018, he is confident that The Stage’s success will continue, with or without them.

“We’re not holding back, we’re talking about improvements,” he says. “The owner is very much about letting the room be what it wants to be, and over the last four years, the room has shown us that it wants a drag queen in it.”