3 min

Kiss-in commentary

Sometimes activism is just about taking up space

Let’s just say it felt like an odd place for a radical action. It kind of felt like a wedding. There were people applauding and clinking their drinking glasses. Every time they clinked, we kissed harder. The setting was Mexicali Rosa’s restaurant near Dow’s Lake in Ottawa. After Adam Graham and Phillip Banks were told to “cool it” for kissing softly on the restaurant’s patio in July, a few of us decided to organize a queer kiss-in to demonstrate that we won’t tolerate homophobia — even at a relatively benign family restaurant.

It was empowering to feel so visible — even if only for a few moments. My usual low-maintenance femme attire generally means that strangers don’t recognize that I’m queer — unless I’m holding hands or sucking face with my lover in a public place. The kiss-in was a conscious attempt to draw attention to our queer identity and sexuality.

In the end, we were able to extract an apology from the restaurant’s management, but the real success was that we organized more than 30 people on a moment’s notice. We took over a hetero-normative space, and turned it into a queer and sex-positive one. And it was so much fun.

For me, the kiss-in confirmed the fact that fighting discrimination and injustice isn’t always about changing people’s minds through carefully worded education campaigns. Sometimes it’s about staking claim to physical spaces — without asking permission.

People in the environmental community have known this for years. The Reclaim The Streets movement was born in London in the mid-1990s, and has since spread to cities all over Europe, Australia, North America, and Africa. The premise is simple: ignoring traffic regulations and permits, activists invade major intersections and throw spontaneous street parties, transforming car thoroughfares into vibrant community gatherings. The parties help people imagine what their cities could look like if the streets weren’t ruled by cars and commercialism.

At a now-legendary Reclaim The Streets party in Toronto in 2000, late activist and mayoral candidate Tooker Gomberg rolled out a flatbed truck full of sod onto York St. Within minutes, people were dancing barefoot on the grass in front of the Toronto Stock Exchange. Activists are now advocating that the city create a new network of bike lanes called “The Tooker” in his honour.

Toronto is rife with other inspiring examples of reclamation of public space. The group Streets Are For People has been sponsoring car-free Pedestrian Sundays in various neighbourhoods all over the city. They’ve also been throwing “parking metre parties,” where people throw some money into a parking metre, then set up a tea party or picnic in the space they’re just rented. The action is good for a laugh, but it also demonstrates just what you can do with a tiny space and allows people to imagine what their city could look like if parking lots were replaced with public squares.

I think there’s an analogy to be made between the inadequacy of physical urban spaces, and the difficulty in finding truly queer-positive social spaces. Right now, gay and lesbian community members and business are working with the city to designate a stretch of Bank St as a Rainbow Village. This is a good first step.

In the same week as the kiss-in, I was hassled three times by creepy dudes while holding hands with my girlfriend on the street. One man muttered, “This whole city is turning gay,” prompting me to yell back, “Yes, and we love it.”

It makes me happy that the local Business Improvement Association understands that a gay village will make Ottawa a more welcoming and celebratory destination for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. But I have to wonder if the need for a Rainbow Village only got the attention it deserved a few years ago, when activists painted a pink line down the middle of Bank St as part of Pride. There was no denying who owned the street that day — or for the weeks afterwards that it took for the paint to fade.

The enthusiastic reception to the kiss-in at Mexicali Rosa’s proves that there’s an appetite for direct action in Ottawa’s queer community. We’ve already got a local branch of Critical Mass — the group of bicyclists who flood the streets during rush hour once a month. Perhaps it’s time we imported an idea like Guerrilla Gay Bar, which has taken off in Los Angeles and New York. A bunch of queers get together every month to take over a straight bar, “planting a gay flag wherever they fancy,” according to a recent article in the New York Times. Instead of confining their affection to the village, they spread the love — and the gay — wherever they choose to.

We’ve conquered Mexican cuisine and we soon may lay claim to part of Bank St. Where should we plant the flag next?