If there’s one thing we’ve learned as a community over the years, it’s that vibrant queer life needs safe, accessible queer spaces. Another thing we’ve learned is that once established, those queer spaces need to be constantly defended and preserved lest they fade away, or worse, are taken away by institutional force or economic circumstance.
Critical links in the chain mail of queer community are our bars and clubs.
When a gay bar opens in a smaller city, it’s usually among the first signs of an emerging queer scene. Once there’s a bar in place, the ideas, expression and friendships that are shared there are high octane fuels that fire the development of the wider local queer community.
Many of us found our queer mentors, first sexual experiences and first loves on the dance floor.
Another critically important contribution that queer bars make is the money and publicity generated by bar owners and managers for queer causes. Gay bars and clubs routinely raise-a toonie at time-tens of thousands of dollars for donation to the queer community. In my mind, the best part about those efforts is that they are entirely queer supported; it’s money and buzz that don’t come with the attached strings of government compromise.
Queer bars and clubs in countries around the world are also lightning rods for homophobia. When homophobic governments and narrow-minded citizens take it upon themselves to target queers for persecution, among their favourite tactics is to shake down bar owners and managers and to harass bar patrons.
That persecution is what came to a head at the famous Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village one night in June of 1969. The riots that ensued are seminal events in North American queer history and many credit that turning point as the birth of the queer rights movement.
In August, the New York Observer reported that the Stonewall Inn is on the verge of finally disappearing for good.
The reason for the latest closure: the gentrification of Greenwich Village. The former gay ghetto is now a place for well-heeled hipsters and a bar like the Stonewall doesn’t fit and can’t afford the rent.
“Stonewall over the last few years has been a blight on the community and an embarrassment to the gay community,” Rick Panson, a member of Community Board 2, told the Observer. “The gay community is not looking for a strip-club-mentality lifestyle.”
All things pass, change is inevitable I suppose, and New York is New York. But similar and more widespread economic pressures are radically changing the gay scene in our neighbouring queer community of Calgary.
“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,” wrote Capital Xtra columnist Dale Smith in September. “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.”
Alberta has no rent controls and according to CB Richard Ellis, a commercial real estate research company, retail lease rates in that city are climbing 30 percent year over year.
It’s pushing queer bars out of business and limiting the choices of social spaces in the queer community.
I’ve noticed slower but analogous changes in queer communities in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. This gentrification is a sign of economic prosperity and bars and clubs in Vancouver seem to be thriving, but as costs go up and wages stagnate our gathering places will continue to become less accessible to queer people who just can’t afford to enjoy them. Queer people are adaptable – we have no choice – but the gentrification of our queer neighbourhoods is a terrifying prospect indeed.