Marie Robert-son says an identifiable queer district in Ottawa would make gays and lesbians feel safer.
Robertson is a local business owner in Centretown. She has been involved in many causes within the gay community, all the way back to the 1970s. She’s been honoured with an induction into the national portrait collection of the Canadian Lesbian And Gay Archives.
Robertson wants to see a queer district emerge out of the city’s renovation of Bank Street. It’ll add to our feeling of personal pride, she notes. But most of all, it would help gay residents in Ottawa feel safer.
“As a lesbian, if I’m walking up Bank St, it’s not a safe place to be walking around holding hands with my girlfriend at all,” Robertson says. “You go to Church St in Toronto, you feel that sense of pride, and all gay people can feel safe, hold hands with their partner and feel as part of the majority. There’s no safe place for me here.”
While the city is busy preparing for future growth and improving our transportation infrastructure by revamping Bank St, many people in the gaybourhood feel their voices need to be heard before improvements take place. Until now, however, the gay community has been excluded from giving its input.
In the last issue of Capital Xtra, Richard Holder, city project manager for the proposed construction, admitted that not consulting with the gay community was an oversight.
Even though the area of Bank between Laurier and Gladstone has nearly 30 gay businesses, community groups and institutions (with another dozen businesses and groups located within several blocks) – and so has been de facto “designated” by the gay community itself as Ottawa’s rainbow district, Robertson says most people in Ottawa don’t know it. Even some in the queer community itself haven’t come to terms with the fact that this area has emerged as their gay village, she adds.
Currently, Robertson is sitting on a committee tasked with moving forward in getting a queer community centre for Ottawa. That project, too, will help anchor a visible queer community in this city – if the centre is put in the right location.
“Having a visible physical space will increase the sense of pride in the community,” Robertson explains.
She would like to see the proposed changes on Bank St reflect the gay community model in Toronto, where “it is clearly a visible queer community.”
City plans certainly suggest that planning and engineering staff – and all city departments, for that matter – should be working with minority communities to enhance the human and physical geography of Ottawa. According to page 38 of the Human Services Plan 2020, “All cities must emphasize the needs to break down barriers of isolation, strengthen mutual support and provide adequate services to its citizens.” The document goes on to boast that the city is “collaborating with its community providers to better meet the needs of GLBT residents.”
City hall needs to prove it means what its documents say, suggests Robertson, adding to the chorus of gay business owners and activists who have spoken out in recent weeks demanding gay community input to the redesign of Bank St, particularly in the gaybourhood itself.
Holder says the community will have its chance. The 2006 budget for work on Bank St only allows construction on the stretch from Wellington to Laurier streets. Another public advisory committee for the proposed construction from Laurier to Gladstone will be formed soon, he says.
“We want to work on the detail design from Gladstone through to Laurier this year,” Holder says. “We won’t be constructing that section yet, but because we are, we will be forming a public advisory committee.
A meeting is being held Feb 15, and city councillor Diane Holmes wants gays and lesbians to turn out and tell city hall what treatment they want for the streets.
“We hope we can get people to come out to tell us about what they would like to see, to see if we have enough interest to do work on a more visible gay community neighbourhood on Bank St,” says Holmes.
Other cities, like Toronto and Vancouver, have developed unique benches, lampposts, rainbow flags, even a statue to mark the gay village. Chicago has rainbow gateways at each end.
Accentuating the gaybourhood “will be something that will hopefully be addressed in the overall strategy of streetscaping for main streets,” says city planner Holder. “[Queer cultural flags and street signs] are exactly the kinds of things we hope to be introducing on Bank St as a response to requests from the community and from business owners.”
Holder says the city will again advertise, deliver flyers, and put up posters for public consultation. This time around, he says, the city will also inform the queer community through Capital Xtra.
When asked if city hall will reserve a spot for a gay business representative on the next public advisory committee, Holder said he wouldn’t exclude the gay community provided there was adequate representation.
And the best way to ensure that representation from queer businesses is for the owners to join the Bank Street Promenade Business Improvement Area, says Wellness Project founder Bruce Bursey.
The queer community “can’t point fingers without pointing fingers at (themselves),” Bursey says. “If we want to turn Bank Street into Queer Main Street, the way to do it is to go in and join the BIA. Then when the terms of references for these things come up, you’re part of the people who voted yes or no. [The Bank Street BIA] is looking for new blood. And the businesses can then go to the city and say, ‘Here’s what we want.'”
After several years of working in the gay community, Bursey says that he understands some of its problems and some of its solutions.
“I wanted to make Bank Street a little more queer-identified,” Bursey says. “The BIA controls those things. What [the queer businesses should] do is join the BIA. Then you’re part of the establishment.”
But others say gay businesses should form their own organization.
Being ignored in the Bank St construction phases is a reminder that Ottawa no longer has a queer community association that speaks out on these issues, says Alex Munter, a former city councillor and a University Of Ottawa visiting professor.
“In the 1970s, there wasn’t much activity and it was easy to get everyone under one umbrella,” Munter says. “Now that the community has gotten bigger and more diverse, there isn’t an organization in the queer community that does advocacy for these things. We need a [queer] business organization.”
At the moment, Munter points out, there isn’t much political force within the local gay community. He says Ottawa’s gay community has mainly focussed on national issues, like same-sex marriage, human rights laws and hate crimes.
“My advice to the [queer] community is to get organized, bring together people who have similar concerns and make their voices heard,” Munter says.
Bank St BIA executive director Gerry LePage could not be reached for comment.