Toronto
3 min

The man lesbians love to hate

Bob Tivey worries that gay men are losing a vital part of their erotic identity

FRANK TALK. Bob Tivey looks into his soul - and wonders whether opening up bathhouses to women somehow lessens the space's sexual appeal for gay men. Credit: Mark Bogdanovic

Lesbians have always demanded what the politically-correct call women-only space. But that space is slowly being lost.



The yearly Dyke March, held just before Pride Day, is women-only. Still, men are welcome – on the sidelines, and preferably waving placards and yelling their support.



The exclusively female Woman’s Common closed its door a few years ago. Parliament Street’s lesbian bar The Rose had an on-again, off-again policy on men. Now it’s become Pope Joan and encourages guys to pop by.



It works the other way, too. Gay men are now finding their sexual and erotic institutions being encroached upon by lesbians.



There’s always a kerfuffle about who’s allowed into leather bars, with women gussied up according to the dress code trickling in.



And twice so far this year – most recently on Feb 11 – Toronto bathhouses, the last of the all-boy playgrounds, have hosted Pussy Palace nights for the girls.



Reaction has been mixed.



“I really think that there’s so much division between the male and female elements of the gay community already, that I was frankly a bit tickled by the fact that they were in a bathhouse and they were indulging in some of the behavior we think of only gay men indulging in,” says playwright Brad Fraser, whose testosterone-tinged plays always include lots of explicit gay sex on stage.



“I think that’s important. I think it kills stereotypes and I think it makes people realize the differences between men and women, gay or straight, are perhaps not as dramatic as we might believe.”



Others are not so sure. Like Bob Tivey – whose comments about the sacredness of men’s bathhouses resulted in a torrent of abuse, mainly from lesbians, in the letters pages of Xtra.



But why is men’s space so important? Why are the bathhouses and gays bars so valuable to some men that they get so fired up about women using their facilities?



Tivey describes the bathhouse scene as an essential part of gay men’s culture. When he came out at age 16, he sought out spots that were exclusively male. And in 1959, when you had to be 21 to get into a bar, men-only spaces were places like bathhouses.



“I, like many gay men, as part of the coming out process, first engaged in anonymous sex,” says Tivey. “Sometimes in outside venues in the summer time and in bathhouses and sex clubs, and places like that, when the weather was not so great.”



But for Tivey, the bathhouses are about more than just the physical contact.



“Quick sex, for me, is part of gay male culture. Even though it’s empty for some, it’s very therapeutic and pleasurable to others. There’s something very primal and tribal about going into a male sex club and just feeling the vibe there, and knowing that there’s only men. For me, personally, there’s even a smell of men that is very erotic, very exciting, it’s almost intoxicating sometimes.”



But did women hanging out at Club Toronto take away from that vibe?



Tivey now regrets the tone he used in his much-maligned letter to the editor. But he says the bathhouse controversy is another symptom of an ongoing rift between the men and women of the community. (Most of the men contacted for this story refused to comment.)



He says many of the conflicts arise from a lack of communication. And he suggests some sort of forum to start to address some of the problems.



Tivey is happy to see women breaking new ground, but says he’s talked to several men who are still uncomfortable with women at the bathhouses or in certain bars, or with their position in the community.



“Here goes the old male macho thing, but I can’t help it I’m a man,” says Tivey. “With men having lost so much, there’s kind of a mixed feeling. I am so happy that women have moved into a lot of leadership positions and have helped keep our community strong. At the same time, at the very same moment, sometimes I feel there aren’t enough men’s voices.”



Certainly there are many men in positions of power. But it also certainly seems true, at first glance, that women control many of the community’s bigger and most prominent institutions and programs.



The artistic director of and general manager of Buddies In Bad Times are both women. The head of the 519 Church Street Community Centre is female, as is the coordinator of the bashing phoneline. The managing editor and the features editor of Xtra are women. Women head of the Inside Out film festival and the Supporting Our Youth program. The list goes on.



Says Tivey: “We almost aren’t players some times. Especially uninfected men. The HIV-negative gay men, we are not players. We’ve lost our seat at the table almost. Just to have a great big forum to bring us all together. I think it would be fabul