3 min

Learning from Calgary’s dead gay scene

Gay communities thrive only when we support them

In the middle of August, I returned to my old stomping grounds of Calgary for a quick visit while my best lesbians got married. Perhaps I should have come dressed for a funeral.

When I left a little over two years ago, Calgary could boast a fairly vibrant gay scene, with eight or nine different bars plus coffee shops and the realistic talk of creating a gay strip along 17th Ave. Two years later, almost nothing remains. The coffee shops have all closed, many of the businesses have shut down, and half of the bars are gone. What happened?

After talking to a few surviving business owners and thinking about what I’ve seen over the years, I can think of three reasons for the decline.

The first is that Calgary’s gay scene is a victim of economic circumstance. In the booming real estate market and the overheating economy, most landlords doubled their rents when business leases came up for renewal. Faced with this, most owners of gay businesses were forced to pack it in–some of them were barely making it month-to-month as it was.

Reason number two is much more insidious, and is a problem facing many a gay scene across the Western world. That problem is the online world. When you can log in and order up sex like it’s a pizza, why bother going out to bars anymore? So people reduced how often they went out in Calgary, and the bars suffered. Granted, the geography didn’t help either. The suburban sprawl of (formerly) cheap and plentiful housing meant that many of Calgary’s queers bought suburban houses. Heading downtown to go to bars became a chore–especially if it meant a $30 cab ride home at the end of the night.

The third reason is a maturing of the market. Once upon a time, if a business was gay-owned or targeted squarely at our community, that was enough to attract customers. But we’re more sophisticated consumers now–and with mainstream acceptance (yes, even in redneck Calgary), we feel safer in spaces not specifically labelled as ours. Not long ago, it didn’t matter if your business was in a dingy basement, or if your customer service wasn’t exactly stellar–the community still supported you. But that business model doesn’t work anymore. Those business owners with a big heart but no marketing sense were no longer able to compete, and they too folded.

Once the herd was culled, there wasn’t a lot left in Calgary. A leather bar, a small pub, the tiny lesbian bar, and a twink bar–provided that you weren’t caught in the blanket bans the owners started issuing to people they didn’t like, or that you passed muster in the line-up and they deigned to let you inside. Oh, and let’s not forget the bathhouse that suffered a police raid a few years ago. And what does remain is often ensnared in the vicious backbiting and infighting that has set upon the community.

And now you’re probably asking yourself, why should I care? After all, this is Ottawa, not redneck Alberta. Well, you should care because Ottawa just might be next. After all, we’re close in population, and as Pride this year has shown us, our community is in a very vulnerable place right now. If we expect our community to not only survive, but to thrive long enough to see the creation of a formalised gaybourhood, then it’s time to start learning from the mistakes of others.

It won’t be easy, and it’s going to involve everyone playing their part. Business owners need to woo the crowds back and to provide the community with somewhere we want to–not just a space we’re expected to flock to simply because of our allegiance to the rainbow flag.

The rest of us also have a part to play: getting out there again and reinvigorating the scene by participating in it. Ottawa queers are especially guilty of this–we not only stay in and log on to the Internet, but also disappear on weekends to Montreal and Toronto to party. If everyone who complains that there is no scene in Ottawa stayed in town for the weekend, guess what–there’d be a scene!

We need to get out there, because if we don’t use our spaces, we lose our spaces. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t want to have to go to a straight bar to go dancing, no matter how “inclusive” it is because it’s still a straight space. Calgary has seen their scene die–will Ottawa be next? I hope not.