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How gay can a gay bar be in the heart of BC’s Bible Belt?

Meet the couple behind Wilde Oscar’s in Chilliwack, BC

The scene: an historic English-style pub, once known as The Wellington, adjacent to the entrance of Chilliwack’s Royal Hotel, both of which retain much of their turn-of-the-20th-century design.

Built in 1908, the antique décor has seen a lot of change since horse-drawn carriages clip-clopped along an unpaved Wellington Avenue. Who would have predicted it would someday house a gay space in this conservative stretch of the Fraser Valley?

Fast-forward more than 100 years and drag queens are now known to burst in at will; patrons dance briefly on tables (well, one did, before a chandelier interfered); and a straight woman recently proclaimed, “I can’t believe I’m in a gay bar!”

The bar managers — only four months into operation and alternately grateful and slightly stunned by their success — swap stories with staff and patrons about everybody’s comings and goings, as if they were family.

Welcome to Wilde Oscar’s, Chilliwack’s gay bar, which opened April 20, 2016, in the heart of BC’s Bible Belt.

Still, the pub is discreet in its gayness. Like the patrons it serves, Wilde Oscar’s maintains a circumspect exterior to avoid drawing too much attention — attention that might make it a target for homophobic attacks in this generally conservative community of 78,000, about an hour and a half east of Vancouver.

But entrepreneur Garry Peddle, who operates the pub under the Royal Hotel’s business license, couldn’t resist putting a small rainbow sticker on the glass of the front door. He says it’s important to protect his business and patrons from harm, while still clearly making it known that there is a place for LGBT people at Wilde Oscar’s.

Garry Peddle pours a draught at Wilde Oscar’s.
Derek Bedry/Daily Xtra

Peddle grew up and came out in Toronto in the early 1980s when, he says, it was common to be called names or even gaybashed.

“I was always nervous walking around late at night because things like that did happen,” he says. “My friend and I once had to run for our lives in in the middle of the afternoon because this group of teenagers was going to beat the shit out of us. We managed to get into a hotel and they went away. But that’s in a big city, not small-town Bible country where people feel they have a right to decide who belongs there.”

Having formerly owned a photography business and then in 2010 getting his bachelor’s degree in education from UBC, it was never on Peddle’s mind to open a gay bar in Chilliwack, until he saw The Wellington while house-hunting and felt it was too attractive to remain empty.

He’d been considering opening a café, but felt the opportunity for Wilde Oscar’s was right.

“It’s about time something different came to the Valley,” he says.

Garry Peddle and Oscar Zhang stand outside what was once The Wellington pub, now revived as Wilde Oscar’s.
Derek Bedry/Daily Xtra

So far, Peddle is pleased with how things are going at Wilde Oscar’s. He estimates an 85 to 90 percent gay patronage, and 60 to 70 people through the door on busier weekend nights.

“It’s been interesting because the people in the gay community have been like, ‘Finally there’s somewhere to go,’ and the more accepting people in the straight community are saying, ‘It’s about time,’” he says.

“And then there are the people who are like, ‘Did you hear there’s a fudgepacker bar down the street?’” he adds.

“I said as long as they don’t beat us up or burn us down, we’ll probably be okay.”

Peddle can’t point to any concrete evidence of anti-gay discrimination in town, though the mayor and city council passed a policy April 5 allowing only the BC flag and city hall crest to be flown from the municipal building. That may have been a way to pre-empt Pride flag-raising requests, Peddle speculates, but can’t prove it.

Nor has there been any vandalism or violence aimed at Wilde Oscar’s or its patrons, but Peddle says recently a group of teenagers walked by and he overheard them deriding the pub, calling it “that fag bar.”

Still, Peddle and his husband Oscar Zhang say some caution is warranted in the face of such subtle resistance.

“We have to be careful,” Peddle says. “We have to be sort of straight-acting. We can’t be as open as we want.”

“Although, I guess lots of people who are sensitive, or looking for something, would figure it out,” he adds. “They would see us together all the time and figure it out. ‘Oh, they’re probably a couple.’”

Peddle met Zhang in Tianjin in 2011, where Peddle was teaching high school. They talked online, went for a beer and the rest is history.

Peddle sponsored Zhang for immigration to Canada in 2013 and they married in February 2015. Zhang says he is still more comfortable being gay in Chilliwack than his birthplace in China.

“China is right now still very traditional,” he says. “Especially older generations, they can’t take it.”

Zhang wanted to visit his mother in China for her 60th birthday, but due to pressure from her friends and neighbours, she asked him to spare her the embarrassment.

Zhang says he understands, and hopes his mother will visit him in Canada next year.

Oscar Zhang says he’s more comfortable being gay in Chilliwack than in China, where he grew up.
Derek Bedry/Daily Xtra

Lorraine Forrest may be a bit skeptical about the warmth of Chilliwack’s welcome.

A Chilliwack resident since 1979, Forrest says locals may not be ready to tolerate a venue specifically touted as “gay.”

“We’ve suffered the brunt [of prejudice] over the years,” she says. “It’s way better now than it was 30 years ago, but there’s still a stigma with a certain element in this community because it is so fundamentally Christian in these areas. Those are the people who write letters to the editor in the papers and who are so vocal.”

Forrest, who recently celebrated her partner’s 70th birthday at Wilde Oscar’s and now tries to pop in weekly for a glass of wine, says she’s seen other businesses fail when word got out they were gay ventures.

“All it takes is that one person in the conclave to stand up and start making a big issue of something and they close down because nobody wants to be tainted,” she says.

Still, she invited about 65 people to her partner’s party, and most of them were straight, she says.

“We have quite a few straight friends who really enjoy the ambiance,” she says. “But I don’t know how they’d react if it was labelled a gay bar.”

Forrest would prefer to call it “an inclusive bar that’s gay-friendly.”

Peddle says he wants his straight patrons to feel welcome too.

“We want to have people feel like it’s their home,” he says.

“And we especially want the gay community to feel that this is really a place for them,” he adds — even the ones who want to come but are afraid to be seen going in the door of Wilde Oscar’s.

It’s all about building community, he says, even in Chilliwack.

“Community does so much for the wellbeing of a person,” he says.