5 min

Small town gay bar

What happens when a Belleville gay bartender moves to Ottawa

“Can you believe these people?”

The man leaning against the bar was sipping on the sour-apple martini I had just shaken for him, a furrow of displeasure on his brow. He was in his early to mid-40s, maybe, white, heavy-set with that little paunch around the middle that comes from sitting behind a desk for 15 years.

“Can I believe what, sir?” I was only half listening, busily making a rum and coke for another customer.

“These people,” he frowned, swirling his drink contemplatively. It was neon green like liquid toxic waste and he looked absolutely absurd, drinking it and looking so thoughtful.

In those days (which really weren’t all that long ago) I was working as a bartender in Belleville, Ontario, population 48,000, in a little place called the Bohemian Penguin. It wasn’t strictly a gay bar, per se, but the owner was gay and the gay community tended to congregate there. Once a month there was a “Rainbow Dance” where the gay community, as small as it was, got together, young and old alike, to dance, drink and celebrate the fact that they were all here, queer, and that, although Belleville was not quite used to it, they still had something to do on a Saturday night.

The “people” the man was referring to were a gaggle of gay men, one of whom was gender bending (not to mention that he looked better than I did) and a pair of obviously lesbian girls. The boys were holding hands and laughing, and the girls, slightly apart from the group, were making out rather heatedly. Things could get, well, a little wild at those parties, I’ll admit, but when you only get to be gay one night a month, you might as well be gay to the extreme.

I shook my head, puzzled. The gentleman was there with a slightly younger straight woman who was there to “support” a gay friend who had recently come out and was in attendance. He, however, was so obviously straight-laced that his shoe-laces were probably cutting off the circulation to his toes, and quite apparently uncomfortable. I sometimes wished the “supporters” would just stay home, even though it meant more money for me. I had seen things get awkward, if not downright ugly, when a “supporter,” was mistaken for a “supportee,” in particular when liquor became involved.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean, sir.”

He made a face, lowering his voice, “Don’t you ever get, you know, uncomfortable with all these queers around? Aren’t you afraid you’ll get hit on or something?”

I raised an eyebrow, “Actually, sir, I rather like being hit on.”

It suddenly occurred to me that this man was operating under the assumption that I was straight. That seemed to be the assumption most of Belleville — who were usually, co-incidentally, blue-collar, white and aging boomers, in the majority — had of most people. To say everyone was “assumed heterosexual” in that town was about as over-obvious as saying everyone was “assumed human,” as well.

He stuttered a moment, nearly choking on his (I will admit) severely over-priced drink. “I, er, oh, sorry. I didn’t think… I mean, I didn’t know. I mean, you don’t like, look like a lesbian.”

I was tempted to tell him that he didn’t look like he thought too much of anything, himself, but I held my tongue. Sometimes the secret to being a good bartender is to just smile, like you know something really, really cool and have absolutely no intention of sharing.

“Oh,” I said, calmly. Granted, compared to the outpouring of homosexual tension in the room — studded noses, tongue rings, rainbow bandanas, men in high heels and women in ties and buzz cuts — I was relatively downplayed, dressed conservatively and professionally, as was my want. I knew everyone in the gay community anyway, so why dress to play a part?

“Well, for future reference, this is what a lesbian looks like,” I continued, and went back to mixing the drinks. The man, dumbfounded, quickly stumbled off into the bar. I didn’t see him again, and I’m pretty sure he left after that. He hadn’t meant to be offensive. He had simply been offended with what he saw, and had assumed, based on his extremely limited perceptions, that I was a safe person to conspire with. Obviously, if I looked straight, I must be straight, and therefore, if I were straight, I must feel exactly the same way about sexuality as he did. Classic “Bellevegas,” as we used to say.

It was like a scene out of Small Town Gay Bar, the Kevin Smith-financed documentary about life in small communities in the US South. Or maybe not that bad, I don’t know. The film won’t be shown in Ottawa until October, as part of the return of queer film festival programming Toronto’s Inside Out is bringing us.

Now, a year later, having moved to the big city, I still encounter — as I’m sure all of us do, from time to time — some forms of ignorance or prejudice, but it’s a far cry from what I’m used to. I saw a pair of girlfriends, walking down the street the first week I lived here, hand in hand, whispering to each other and very much in love and I’m ashamed to say I gawked like a Catholic school girl at a strip joint. It wasn’t that I thought it was weird — it was just that I was elated. I had never, ever seen such openness, such a public display of affection between two homosexuals before, and it made me realize just how different things really are here.

Here in Ottawa — and Toronto and Vancouver and all the other major queer hotspots of the nation — we are more fortunate than we realize. Recently, I heard someone complain about the lack of night life in Ottawa for queers. I looked at them and laughed. There are gay bars and bathhouses and queer bookstores and Pride parties and restaurants which proudly display the rainbow flag on their windows. Back where I’m from, there wasn’t even a queer department at my college — I guess, like the rest of the town, the school just assumed all its students were straight. Rainbows were for kids in kindergarten and the only thing queer about the community was how a small pocket of the 1950s had managed to survive untouched into 2007. Really, we were only queer — really, really, really queer, without worrying about being outed or what other people thought or would say — that one Saturday a month, up on the top floor of the Bohemian Penguin, drinking cocktails and listening to really, really bad dance music.

Want to imagine being gay in a small town? Smoke a joint, crack a beer, and sit down and watch an episode of I Love Lucy. Do absolutely nothing different, only assume Lucy and Ethel are secretly lesbian lovers. Now think about what would happen, based on the characters in the show, if it were discovered. It’s an extreme example, and probably not quite that bad in reality, but that’s how it feels. And if that’s the way something feels then that’s the way it might as well be. Now that you’ve got the picture, you can come back to the present age and be thankful you live where you do. There’s nothing more alienating than being somewhere, where you’re here, you’re queer — and no one is used to it.