Victoria’s last remaining gay space will stay gay despite its recent sale to new owners, all parties confirm.
“I wouldn’t have turned it straight for nobody,” says Prism’s outgoing owner and gay rights pioneer Gary Penny.
Penny sold the bar to long-time customers Terry Bex and his partner Attila (who goes by his first name only), on Feb 1.
The time has come to retire, Penny explains when asked why he sold the space. “I’m 66. I’ve been doing this for a long time now.”
In the last 46 years, Penny has owned and managed many gay clubs, including several in Vancouver. He bought Prism five years ago, having become a partner in the business three years prior.
Before agreeing to sell Prism, Penny says he needed to be certain the new owners would share his commitment to providing a space for the queer community.
As the only designated gay space left in Victoria, Prism has become a sort of community centre for some, Penny suggests. “This is a very multitask bar,” he says. “All sorts of people come here: young, old, men, women, trans and everyone else.”
Penny believes Bex and Attila will be right for both the bar and the community. “They want to continue the same policy,” he says. “It’s been a gay bar for years and they want to continue that.”
Though reluctant to discuss specifics, Attila confirms Prism will stay “gay as a three-dollar bill.”
Bex says they’re planning to do some major renovations. “We’re going to upscale it quite a bit,” he says. “Hopefully that will attract older customers who no longer come to the bar.”
Bex says he also hopes to capitalize on the bar’s central location to draw more tourists, including tourists from the cruise ships that dock in Victoria.
Community members say they’re relieved Victoria’s last gay space will stay gay, and they welcome the renovations.
Nicky Lavergne, who sits on the board of the Victoria Pride Society, feels the current state of the bar leaves a lot to be desired. “Things have to change there,” she says. “Your feet stick to the floor when you walk in and the bathrooms are absolutely disgusting.”
Photographer Andrea Kucherawy agrees that renovations to the bar are long overdue. “There’s nothing better than a can of paint to make things look professional,” she says. “It’s in a basement so it needs to be brightened.”
She says she’s relieved to hear the bar is staying gay because “there has to be a refuge,” but hopes one day there won’t be a need for such a space.
David Tillson, president of the Victoria Pride Society and manager of the nearby gay-friendly club Hush, says having a gay space is beneficial to younger queers. “It’s important to have gay space so that up-and-coming generations have a safe place to go when they come out,” he says.
Prism hasn’t always been the only queer space in town.
In the 1990s, Victoria had another gay bar called Rumors and, until recently, a gay bookstore called Bleeding Rose. Rumors was converted into the straight but gay-friendly Hush in the late 1990s, while Bleeding Rose went out of business a few years ago.
“I really miss Rumors,” says Kucherawy. “They’d have a women’s night on the last Friday of every month and nothing like that has happened since it’s become Hush.”
“Rumors closed down in the late ’90s because of a declining clientele,” says Tillson. “The younger people were more interested in music than community. Younger people wanted a place to dance and the older crowd wanted to sit down so they want to BJ’s.” Penny rechristened BJ’s as Prism when he bought it in 2002.
For Kucherawy, the demise of Rumors represented a big loss for the community. “Everything went down a few notches when it closed,” she says. “Everyone wants choices and the only choice that is available doesn’t offer many variables within it.
“When you don’t feel that sense of competition you don’t have the incentive to reach a wider community,” she continues. “Rumors was the place to watch drag shows. I went to one at Prism in September and it was not the same.”
Bleeding Rose, meanwhile, was Victoria’s closest equivalent to Little Sister’s bookstore. The store described itself as “Vancouver Island’s one stop queer shop” on its old website.
Kucherawy suspects demographics may have played a role in the store’s demise. “Little Sister’s does great, but then you have more gay people in Vancouver,” she points out. “When they open a store similar to that in Victoria it won’t survive as long.”
Jim Kirk, a member of the community and a retired business owner, agrees. “They tried everything to keep the business afloat, they moved to a new location but nothing worked,” he says. “There’s not the population to support it. They might have been able to make it if they had a much smaller store.”
Bleeding Rose’s owners, April Grant and Sally Calich, could not be located for comment.