3 min

Lament for an icon

Changes at The Duff signal end of 'radical' space

Credit: Xtra West files

There are three absolutes in the lives of Vancouver queers: death, taxes and the knowledge that the closure of yet another gay space is just around the corner. It could be fire (Ms Ts), financial mismanagement (Lava Lounge), structural instability (the original Celebrities) or any number of mysterious developments, but the sad truth is we are all so used to losing gay spaces (or not having access to create gay spaces) that each loss starts to feel inevitable, like watching a snowman melt in the sun.

On November 7, Steve Wyatt, manager of the Dufferin Hotel, announced to a packed house that the hotel’s infamous karaoke lounge would cease operations effective immediately after last call. As tears joined the beer flow, Wyatt informed a shocked crowd (including employees who had just learned they’d lost their jobs) that the lounge would be converted into a wine store. After almost 15 years, karaoke would be no more.

While 40 seats may not seem like a huge loss in terms of liquor capacity, those were, without a doubt, the most raucous and diverse 40 seats in Vancouver’s gay community. It was a favourite hangout of visiting indie Bands like San Francisco’s Pansy Division and Toronto’s The Hidden Cameras. Where else in Vancouver-or Canada-could you find elderly gay folk singing Frank Sinatra alongside gay cowboys singing Garth Brooks and queer punks punking their way through any number of guilty pleasures? Though often ragtag and homely, those seats offered a safe gay space for the many folks whose idea of fun didn’t involve taking their shirts off on the dance floor.

Coupled with the recent conversion of the Dufferin’s lower bar area from a stripper’s lounge to a pool room, the new wine store makes one wonder what the future holds for Vancouver’s oldest gay bar. Sandwiched between a new spat of very-straight bars along Granville St and seemingly ever-expanding residential developments creeping up from Yaletown, The Dufferin has long been viewed as the next one on the hit list by patrons used to losing their gay clubs to more straight-oriented enterprises. People could almost hear the Duff’s clock ticking.

Given the quagmire of government liquor licensing and the money it takes to create new bars, the future likelihood of replacing gay spaces seems remote. We’re losing the peripheries of our community and the radical spaces-where drag queens, sex-trade workers, leather lovers and artists feel comfortable and try out new things-which help define us. That’s not to suggest that everyone in our community needs to be part of a radical space; it’s just that everyone in our community should have access to radical space. Our options should be more than just fries or salad. Gay culture should not be fast food.

We need to fight against the McGay mentality.

The Duff was the most radical space we had, a place where edgy artists could perform transgressive material, where strippers and hustlers entertained, where different classes of people could come together. How telling that in recent months radical space has become something as simple as a gay man singing, “My Boyfriend’s Back” at a karaoke lounge. And even that’s now gone, too. Has a radical act in our community become something as mundane as eating carbs? Given the entertainment options in this city, it sometimes sure feels that way.

This by no way suggests that gay culture can only be fostered through the club scene, but given club culture’s influence on our community, it would be nice-progressive even-if we had both the opportunity and the gumption to support atypical queer endeavours. Having a place to dance to Britney is important, but so is having a place to watch a young drag queen perform Britney. And if someone wants to strip to Britney, they deserve a place too. And if someone wants a Britney-free zone, they deserve their place as well.

Yes, having Celebrities open up again was both a moral and functional victory. But, no, it does not mean everything is all right in clubland. If a bunch of the other gay clubs shut down (don’t pretend it’s not a possibility), won’t Celebrities simply function as a big box Wal-Mart, siphoning off all the little guys?

I don’t mind dying some day, I don’t mind paying my taxes, but I’m tired of watching my gay haunts disappear. A culture without peripheries is a homogenous muck. Vancouver, we deserve better.

* Poet and former Xtra West columnist Billeh Nickerson was a co-producer of Skank, a night of raw and edgy performance art that ran occasionally at The Duff for two years.