4 min

Our window of opportunity for a gay village

Why gays are putting the 'Q' in John Q Public

The loud, obnoxious, traffic-ending road construction that rocked Bank St from Wellington to Laurier is about to chew through Ottawa’s gayest neighbourhood.

It could be the best thing to happen to the neighbourhood. Why?

Right now, the City of Ottawa is asking regular folks who have an interest in Bank Street for their input in redevelopment. The queer community is accustomed to speaking up. Frankly, we’re not always accustomed be being asked; we usually just do it. And that makes this planning session a rare opportunity, one that represents a major chance to get recognition for a rainbow village in Ottawa.

Where other groups struggle to meet quorum at their meetings, The Village has piqued the community’s interest and is gathering momentum. Queer folks — dozens, hundreds — have offered their support or signed up informally.

The open house is from 5-8pm Mar 18 at the Centretown Community Health Centre on Cooper St. The plans cover Bank St from Laurier to Somerset — the area that’s going under the knife this summer. (Bank St from Somerset to the Queensway will be handled separately, since construction in that area is planned for 2009.)

In Ottawa, we have a track record of queer folks making their voices heard. We speak up in the civil service — and not only through Public Service Pride, although it’s good that they’re there. We speak up at our kids’ schools — sometimes aided by groups like Around the Rainbow and Jer’s Vision, but more often on our own. We do it in social groups, where we’re sometimes the only gay or lesbian at the dinner party. We speak up at home, with our parents and extended families.

We invite our straight friends to The L Word marathons. We ask our straight friends to help us raise funds during Taste For Life and Walk For Life. We proudly introduce our lovers to our families and friends, our acquaintances, even strangers.

We pour out of every neighbourhood, every ward and every riding, each year in August to attend Pride celebrations. Thousands of us cheer on the parade, attend parties, and wave the flag.

People march under all kinds of banners: The Ottawa Knights for leather men, SAGE for older queers, Gender Mosaic for trans people, Pink Triangle Youth for our teens. Hundreds of other people march in the parade — not under any banner — and even more cheer from the sidelines.

Pride is not about a small cabal of decision makers, but a broad swath of Ottawa: gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transfolk, the BDSM community and all people of good will. The current Pride planning committee reflects this; there’s a mix of longtime agitators and lots of folks who don’t have a lengthy activist CV — in that way, it has a lot in common with the Village project.

The Village project’s goals are modest — to add some identifying markers on Bank St between Nepean and James (or thereabouts) that recognize and celebrate its diverse character. A little rainbow on the street signs or a few flags or banners. C’est tout.

And yet, a little change like that goes a long way. For all of us, it would be a source of pride — a sign of how far we’ve come and a sign we’ve arrived. For those just coming out, young and old, it will be a powerful reminder that they are not alone. For citizens who are uncomfortable with gay and trans people, it will be a sign that we’re not going anywhere.

Historically, neighbourhoods that the gay community adopts undergo accelerated gentrification. Gays take good care of their space, spruce up their properties and increase pedestrian traffic and safety. In Vancouver, this has happened at such a pace that lower- and middle-income queers are getting pushed out — a worry that’s a far cry from the situation on Bank St, where’s there’s a good mix of upscale and affordable apartments within walking distance.

Most importantly, it reflects the existing character of the town. Queers live all over Ottawa and Gatineau, but this little strip of Bank St is the gay downtown. Over 30 queer businesses and services pack seven or eight blocks: After Stonewall, Venus Envy, One in Ten, Wilde’s, The Buzz, Centretown Pub, Pink Triangle Services and the Kelly McGinnis Library, Bruce House, AIDS Committee of Ottawa, Breathless and Capital Xtra among them.

Every now and then, an issue sets our community ablaze. Usually, it’s a national cause — but not always. We rose together as a country to fight for the rights of those who want to marry. We fought battles to be included in federal human rights law. We fought to end censorship of our reading material at the Canadian Border (a job, incidentally, that is only half done). We fought fear and hatred in the midst of AIDS — a fight that galvanized our community in a way that’s irrevocable.

Sometimes, the issues are local — and here Ottawa can be especially proud. We fought to end discrimination at city hall and sensitized our police. For years, Ottawa queers ran Gayline, a telephone support service aimed at gays young and old and their families. Other volunteers ran a free queer newspaper called GO Info. When in the mid- ’90s we outgrew those projects, dozens of other ones blossomed.

Activists and individual agitators played a role, but the community supported the initiatives by the hundreds — supported them with their time, their energy and their dollars. And in all of these cases, it was regular folks who proved to be the tipping point.

It’s not the first consultation session about Bank St. Two years ago, in Feb 2006, over 100 people packed a meeting called by councillor Diane Holmes. At that meeting, people let her know that they expected some demarcation for Bank St’s diverse character.

This time, Holmes and city staff will have a working plan for what the reconstructed site will look like. They’ll have information about the sidewalks, bike racks, parking, streetlights and garbage cans they plan to install. It’ll help give you a sense of what they want Bank St to look like after the construction is over. In turn, they’ll be asking for your opinion.

See you there!