A robust and fragrant drag queen straddles my left thigh.
She has grabbed my head and is planting kisses all over it much to the delight of the rest of the audience, many of whom feel compelled to capture this hilarious moment in their digital cameras for later enjoyment.
This is what I get for sitting on the aisle.
It’s 10:15 pm on a warm Saturday night. I’m in the heart of Whalley in downtown Surrey, exploring gay life here by attending The Luv Show, featuring Amanda Luv and Mz Adrien, at The Fireside Café.
Amanda Luv and her alter ego Andre Hall have been active in the Lower Mainland’s drag community for more than 16 years. Luv was recently voted Drag Queen of the Year at the Xtra West Community Achievement Awards.
Born in Halifax, Hall spent his early life in Langley before moving to New Brunswick. He returned to British Columbia in 1989, and today lives in Surrey with his best friend in a condo that they bought together as an investment in the revitalized Whalley district.
When the 50s Burger and Pizza place went out of business last October, Surrey’s gay community was abruptly left without a venue in which to gather. Hall approached The Fireside Café as a possible venue for his show simply because he thought the name sounded gay.
To his surprise, after only 20 minutes of discussion with owner Robert Speed, they signed a deal to put on a monthly drag revue. The Luv Show has been running there since December, and Hall plans to increase it to twice monthly this November.
Before they met, Hall says Speed did not know what a drag queen was.
Speed says he doesn’t care about a person’s background. “I believe in equality,” he states. “Everybody’s the same. The colour of your money is the same,” he adds.
He proudly recalls a time when “a Christian group came in [to The Fireside] while a group of pagans enjoyed themselves 20 feet away.”
Speed, who is straight, opened The Fireside Café last September to serve “the greater Whalley community.” He describes his café as a “sanctuary from the chaos beyond the doors. I don’t kick people out if they’re sitting there behaving themselves.”
Surrey’s queer community is made up of more than just gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people, Hall points out — “which is a bit different than a lot of communities I’ve been involved in. We have a really strong straight community that is supportive of us. [They’re] always either at shows or fundraisers, [and] willing to donate. We work together really well.”
At the most recent performance, Speed confirms that “half the crowd is straight.”
He can think of “no negatives” since The Luv Show began. He now hangs a rainbow Pride flag in his window facing King George Highway.
However, he points out that drag is merely one of the offerings at The Fireside Café. People can enjoy live bands, classic movies, open mic nights, and even vintage cartoons with their sandwiches, cheesecake and coffee.
Straight friends who live in Delta had warned me earlier that my destination could be in a dangerous part of town. Aside from the young woman smoking a joint who passes me as I exit the SkyTrain station, the neighbourhoood is surprisingly quiet. My few block walk to the venue is uneventful.
From across a major intersection, I see The Fireside Café’s sign above its large windows. It is difficult to tell how many people are inside.
A woman approaches after I enter, to sell me an admission ticket. A couple of dozen people are already gathered inside to enjoy the upcoming slate of drag performers.
Although larger than it appears from the street, The Fireside is a pretty intimate space. Chairs have been moved to create a performance area in the back corner, past the dessert case and service counter.
With less than a half-hour to go before the show begins, most of the chairs are filled. Perhaps I had misjudged how popular this event is going to be?
Along with presenting his show at The Fireside Café, Hall developed and quietly launched Surrey’s new gay and lesbian centre last November.
The Online Pride Centre can be found at www.gaysurrey.ca. It features gay and lesbian business listings, community and media links, local and international news, as well as announcements and a calendar of events.
“Everyone’s been wishing for a bar because they think that’s the centre of a community,” Hall notes, “but I looked around and went, ‘Well a gay and lesbian centre’d probably be a lot better. We can focus on all aspects of our community, nurture certain parts that need help, and be there for people that are not comfortable coming to group events.'”
Over the years, he has been a volunteer at many organizations, including the Calgary and Vancouver gay and lesbian centres.
“I wanted to give back,” he offers, “so I decided the first step of getting a gay and lesbian centre physically is to put the website up, and that’s what I did.”
He is using this site to build awareness and support to develop an actual gay and lesbian centre locally.
“I want to do that sooner than later,” he says. “I’m shooting for the end of next year. I don’t want to do it half-assed; I’ll make sure it’s done right.”
To that end, the website is “accepting donations of furniture, kitchen wares, books, decorations, computer and office equipment.”
Hall admits that it’s a “little premature” to be sourcing funds for the centre. “I want to follow the procedures to get a board together. I have to get the people that want to start the organizational part of it.
“I know exactly what I see for [it],” he continues. “It’s going to be a resource centre, simple as that. It’s also going to have an information line [with] trained counsellors in case someone calls and wants to chat. I’m not trying to model [it] after any centre in particular, other than what I personally liked out of the centres I’ve been to, especially when coming out as a young man.”
Doug Klein, president of the Out in Surrey Rainbow Cultural Society, thinks the website is “fantastic.”
“Not everything takes place in Vancouver,” he says.
Out in Surrey is a not-for-profit group that organizes activities in the Surrey area such as dances, boat cruises and golf tournaments to raise funds for gay and non-gay charities. It supports the Surrey Youth Alliance, which holds weekly drop-in meetings for young queer people at the Newton Youth Resource Centre, and helps coordinate Surrey Pride 2007, the community’s Pride festival which happens over the Jul 6 weekend.
It is also home to the Imperial Sovereign Court of Surrey, Empire of the Peace Arch, which elects titleholders at its annual Coronation Ball, “Zoot Suits and Chop Sticks,” on Sep 29.
Surrey’s Online Pride Centre’s address may be confusing for some people because it is so similar to Out in Surrey’s existing website, www.gaysurrey.com.
“Gaysurrey.com is owned and run by Out in Surrey,” Hall explains. “That’s their organizational site. It’s not necessarily for everyone. Gaysurrey.ca is available for all members of the community.”
When asked about the potential confusion, Hall says he asked Out in Surrey’s directors about their address, “but they prefer to keep the gaysurrey.com webpage for themselves, for whatever reason, right now. I have no problem with them doing that.”
Klein thinks the distinction between the two sites is quite clear. He sees “two separate identities” for the two organizations. He explains that gaysurrey.com is for the activities of the Court of Surrey, while gaysurrey.ca is for a larger community throughout the Lower Mainland, because “some people are not interested in Court activities.”
He refuses to offer any additional comments on Hall’s website.
I find my seat down front and head to the bar. The sound system blares out the usual collection of gay standards from the likes of The Village People and Culture Club. Things start looking up when I pay only $3 for a cocktail.
I ask the fellow who has taken the seat beside me if he knows how long the performance will last, and what, if anything, people do afterwards.
“About an hour,” he replies, adding that people may hang around and dance later.
Prior to the show, the announcer explains that someone is in attendance to take photos of tonight’s performance. If anyone is uncomfortable with having their picture taken, he suggests that they move out of the first few rows.
As quickly as I have been caught up in the spirit of this place, I am reminded that I’m not in Kansas anymore. To my surprise, no one switches seats.
The performance begins and I feature prominently in the second number.
With a population of over 420,000, Surrey is British Columbia’s second largest, and fastest growing, city. However, it is not generally considered very gay-friendly.
That reputation is due, in part, to the legal battle between a schoolteacher and the Surrey School Board around the classroom use of three gay-friendly books. In 2002, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered the school board to reconsider its decision to ban the books. The board maintained the ban but grudgingly accepted a few other gay-friendly books. The perception of intolerance still lingers.
“When I moved here 10 years ago, it was a pretty scary place because of the reputation it had,” recalls Martin Rooney, who helped organize Surrey’s first gay dance.
“It was a very rightwing city,” he continues. “A lot of negativity anytime we had an article in one of the local newspapers. The Christian right got on our case. We were accused of being recruiters. We dealt with all of the stuff that growing cities coming out dealt with 30 years ago.”
“Today, we’re 10 times better,” he states. “I don’t know of any official gaybashing that has taken place within the Surrey or surrounding areas in the last 10 years.”
Hall, who lives three blocks from The Fireside Café, is also comfortable living in Surrey.
“I feel safer here than I do downtown,” he quips, “because all the homophobes are travelling from here to Vancouver.”
He describes the city as “totally gay-friendly.” Neither he, nor any of his friends, have ever experienced any homophobic incidents there.
Still, he feels that people need to be mindful here, as in all places. “You have to be safe and very cautious about certain things because there are people that don’t understand, or have anger issues.
“I just put myself out there in a positive manner and say, ‘This is who I am; this is what I’m about, and you’re invited to come to my party.'”
Vancouver-born, Debbie Lawrance moved to Surrey 20 years ago, and has been living here with her partner for the past 15 years. They picked Surrey because “we felt very strongly that it was important to have larger homes with properties and to care for our animals, [rather] than smaller homes in the city for the same price.
“We were both pleasantly surprised as to how accepting the suburbs have been to us,” she continues. “There didn’t seem to be any prejudice, or rejection.
“We had expected a lot of traditional, heterosexual, suburban couples with young families,” she explains. “We anticipated that they wouldn’t be so accepting of something out of their norm. You never know if someone is going to be fear-based or love-based.
“We’ve always been rather out, and very comfortable with who we are,” she notes. “We didn’t pretend that we slept in different beds. We’ve never experienced any major discomfort, even though we are in the minority. By making it a non-issue, that’s how we were accepted by the others.”
Now, she says, her neighbours use her and her partner as role models for “great gay couples [to] show their children that there [are] lots of people in the world that are different. Not everyone in the cul de sac has a mom, a dad and children.”
Although she has not yet visited Hall’s Online Pride Centre, Lawrance thinks it is “absolutely valuable. I’m sure that there would be a lot more community activities and support for us living out here if we were aware of it. If we had quick and easy access, we may go spontaneously to something that’s 15 minutes away that we may not do 40 minutes away.
“It also will help us get to know each other more,” she adds.
She also cheers the idea of a physical gay and lesbian centre. “There is such a need for it. There is quite a gay community out here, but we don’t know how to reach each other, except the odd dance. If we had the centre online as well as a building, it would be a place that people would come to support, to get information, network and build friendships.
“It’s really convenient and nice to have friendships with people that you have common ground with that are in your neighbourhood,” she says. “That’s the best connection you can make.
“The challenge is always people that live downtown,” she laughs. “It’s a mindset. It’s challenging for them to drive out to the ‘burbs to visit or come for dinner, but it’s never an issue for us to go in. We’ll just drive in for half an hour to go to a play, meet for dinner or do anything, even though we may have just driven home.”
“The gay community here is a little different,” Hall points out, “because people are actually in suburbia, they live the suburbia life. They have their house, their close friends and their parties. They don’t go barhopping. It’s not like the West End where everything’s steps away, and there’s always an event going on.
“A lot of people don’t want to travel down there,” he notes, referring to the West End. “I don’t mind, but it doesn’t do anything for me anymore. It’s too far. I don’t see why I have to leave my area to meet other like-minded individuals.
“Hopefully, when people see there’s a community here that’s strong, into the centre, having a regular show and doing good things, maybe people that want to invest in a gay bar or a gay restaurant [will] have no problem saying, ‘It’s viable, and we should do that.'”
“I’m a drag queen,” he states, “but I want to offer more because I’m more. I’m a gay male [and] I like to socialize.”
The performance has ended, and the café staff is moving chairs so people can dance. A few patrons alert me to the numerous red lipstick kisses that adorn my face. I head to the washroom to clean up.
When I return, The Fireside has pretty much cleared out. Some people are mingling a bit, while others linger outside and chat over a cigarette.
I notice the time, and although I will not turn into a pumpkin at midnight, I am acutely aware that the last SkyTrain for Vancouver departs at 12:41 am. I say my goodbyes and walk back to the station without incident.
In contrast to my initial apprehensions, my jaunt into Surrey’s gay life is not that different from my experiences visiting gay locales in smaller communities across the country.
However, my lengthy ride home amidst the empty beer cans and rowdy, drunken youth is more unpleasant and intimidating than anything I experienced while away.