When I moved to Ottawa in the winter of 2005, people I met told me that gay life was over in this city. They pointed to the disappearance of the Making Scenes queer film festival and the Act Out queer theatre group, the lack of a designated rainbow village and community centre, the stale feel in most gay bars and the tradition of gays travelling to Montreal on weekends to party and get laid.
“What have I got myself into?” I wondered. I wasn’t alone. As the marketers say, there was a lot of “pent up demand” for a more vital queer community. There were already a lot of people working on building community here, and others joining in. (Forgive me if I forget to mention your group or your work.)
Today, there’s a new queer Ottawa emerging.
Let’s start with culture, an area of great loss in the first few years of the millennium. In just this year alone, we’ve seen two great leaps forward: the first season of Toto Too queer theatre company and the just finished Inside Out film and video festival. Last year, Capital Xtra founded the Transgress Literary Festival, part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. In the past few years, we’ve seen SAW Video reach out to the queer community and Guy Bérubé start his magnificent La Petite Mort art gallery. And Caitlyn Pascal started up her monthly Divergence movie night. Cultural events for queers are clearly on a roll.
But there’s more. A gay village, complete with signs and rainbow flags, is likely to emerge out of the reconstruction of Bank St over the next two years. The community has lined up behind the project, and two gay men sit on key city-business committees involved in the redesign of Bank St.
Our community groups are also on the rebound. For two years running, we turned out in large numbers for the Pride Parade and picnic; as a result, Capital Pride made money at the 2007 festivities and continues paying down its debt. Pink Triangle Services, which has been through much chaos and governance challenges in the past several years, appears to have turned a corner with the hiring of new executive director Ken Mews and the election of a competent board of directors. The AIDS Committee of Ottawa, long alienated from the gay community for shirking prevention work, has reversed course and now boasts two gay men’s prevention workers.
And there’s a new generation of activists emerging. The queer university student groups, particularly the politically active group at Carleton, inspire members to change their world. The annual Dyke March has had an injection of new blood and soared to new heights this past year. The trans community is gathering momentum under Shannon Blatt’s bridge-building leadership.
Pride added a brilliant new activist dimension this summer with the gathering at the Human Rights Monument to acknowledge the lack of gay rights around the world, and the work still outstanding on trans rights at home.
A new kind of brilliantly creative grass-roots activism has emerged. Like the kiss-in at Mexicali Rosa’s on Dow’s Lake held this summer after a gay couple was reprimanded for a quick peck. And how about Guerella Gay Fare (yes, it’s spelled improperly), a Facebook-organized group that gets large groups of queers to descend monthly on a straight bar to party, and tackles two issues with one stone — queering a straight space and sending a message that our community demands respect, and also letting gay-bar owners know that our youth want more fun bars. And, yes, this is activism, not merely socializing.
Women-focussed party spaces and events are doing fine in Ottawa, in both official languages, with LIX, Elles Loisirs and Lesbian Outdoor Group. Venus Envy, since moving to The Village in 2005, has blossomed as a sex-education and queer-culture space. And Breathless, the poly-sex play party space above Venus Envy, is on a roll.
Our sports and recreational options, always a major strength of Ottawa lesbian and gay life, continue to grow. This past two years, Out Golfing grew 10 times in size and started a tournament, for example.
And while many of our bars still need a new look, at least we have them. Combined with the new bathhouse, Edge, there are fewer and fewer reasons for people to skip town on weekends. Of course, if we all committed to use the spaces that are available to us, and told the owners and managers that we want them to provide a fresh new look every few years, we’d all be ahead, wouldn’t we?
At Capital Xtra, we’re trying to do our bit to build community with our increased publishing schedule, ever changing content on our website and sponsorship of community groups. And our annual events like LGX, Heroes, and Transgress.
The fact is, the gay and lesbian, bisexual and trans community of Ottawa is on the move. We’re breaking out all over. Now, we can each continue to bitch about what’s missing, what could be better, what’s superior elsewhere. Or we can join with the many people who are beavering away to make this the best community we can be. One group, one event, one volunteer at a time. Wanna join us? We’ll all have more fun if you do.