Quick: when was the last time you saw a lesbian in the Village at night? If you had to really dig back in your memory banks to answer that question, you’re not alone.
A quick glance at Toronto’s Village might make you believe the city’s LGBT community only consists of gay men. But the truth is, downtown Toronto was once home to bars and clubs that were made exclusively for lesbians. Over time, that number has dwindled, until Slack’s remained as the sole place for women. Toronto, for the first time in years, is now facing a dearth of lesbian bars. Granted, the lesbian party scene is still going strong — but the parties exist as one-offs, and have no permanent place to call home.
But before we dance in the present, it’s important to step back and look at the past.
Lesbian parties of the past
Where: 30 Hayden St, at Yonge and Bloor streets
What: When Chez Moi first came on the scene in 1984 it wasn’t intended to be a strictly a lesbian bar. Before its transformation, Chez was a restaurant and live music venue called Korenowsky’s, named after the family that owned it, and was operational since 1942. Lesbian bartender Sharon Flannigan and gay prodigal son Russell Korenowsky convinced his mother to change focus and cater to a gay crowd. But because gay men at that time had a much larger selection of gay bars, the place didn’t attract as many people as hoped.. According to Denise Benson’s recounting of Chez Moi’s history, it was Flannigan who is credited for turning the newly named Chez Moi around and packing it with women, who were eager for their first real central lesbian dance club. Before this, women had to contend with weekly events usually on off nights like Sundays or Thursdays. With a rectangular main floor and basement space for pool, Chez was large and comfortable. Its spacious dancefloor was packed with people enjoying the hits of the day — like Prince’s “Erotic City,” Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional,” or Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” It was also here that musician and local legend Carrie Chesnutt made a name for herself. Even lesbian celebrities Carole Pope, Lorraine Segato and kd lang would sometimes visit. Chez Moi unfortunately closed suddenly in the early fall of 1989.
The Fly By Night bar
When: Early 1980s
Where: Behind Filmore’s Strip Club, 212 Dundas St E
What: You might notr think a lesbian bar would spring up behind a men’s strip club, but this one is testament that real life is always stranger than fiction. Interesting locale aside, this bar addressed the growing concern of alcoholism in the lesbian community — they sold a wide variety of juices, herbal teas and other non-alcoholic drinks, as well as reasonably priced food, and servers were forbidden to push alcoholic beverages onto patrons.
When: late 1990s–2003
Where: 547 Parliament St
What: Named after a fabled 13th-century woman — who, legend has it, reigned as pope — this two level spot featured DJs and live performances. Before it was Pope Joan, it was The Purple Onion and The Rose Café, both lesbian bars. The Rose, which at first catered to a more upscale clientele, would go on to reign as Toronto’s longest-lasting lesbian bar for over a decade. It wasn’t, however, as welcoming to gay men as The Chez. (Men were required to have a certain number of women with them before they were allowed in.) Opened in the late 1990s, Pope Joan had a large main floor dancefloor and darkened second floor — and it closed for good in 2003. Revived briefly as Foxy’s and Coyote’s, the owners decided to close shop in the summer of 2004. The venue simply wasn’t providing enough income as a women-only bar.
Where: 482 Church St at Dundonald
Where: 482 Church St
What: Like many prime locations in the Village, this one had many incarnations. Before it was Voglie it was also The Looking Glass, another lesbian favourite. With an upscale first-floor dining area, an upstairs bar and huge back patio to cool down after some sweaty dancing, this spot had a bit of everything. Snatch Saturdays were popular for luring in the ladies.
When: 1997–2005/ 2005–2007
Where: 562 Church St, at Wellesley
What: Acting as a restaurant during the day, this spot became a lively bar and dance spot in the evening, especially on the weekends. Poplar comedian Heather Mackenzie (who more recently operated The Flying Beaver Pubaret) and Stephen Brailsford first opened the venue as Slack Alice in 1997. Oddly, this spot was meant to be more of a mixed space and was never intended to be a strictly lesbian hangout. But as more women flocked to the space, Slack Alice was quickly coined a “women’s place.” In 2005, the venue was taken over and rebranded as Slack’s by Karen Halliday and partner Michele Hammerton. DJ Recklezz remembers late nights dancing to top 40, electro, reggaeton, dancehall and old school, and watching people dance on top of its infamous bar. Slack’s suddenly closed just before Pride in 2007, amid much controversy and sadness. “When Slacks closed it was disappointing for everyone, that was our spot,” Recklezz remembers. “We all thought it was going to reopen but it never did, so we had to find other venues and monthly parties to create to compensate.”
Recklezz is part of the new generation of lesbian promoters and DJs who fill the void of lesbian venues with regular parties. “I totally feel if someone opens up another spot geared to lesbians on Church Street it would be the new big thing that every lesbian would be at,” she says. “It’s missed, we feel that [lesbians] are not put as a priority on Church street anymore.”
Other notable short lived spots included Felines on Richmond Street, The Blue Jay at Pape and Gerrard, Cameo on Eastern Avenue, The Warehouse and Kit Kat Club.
(Check out our piece Where have all the Toronto lesbians gone?
Check out our list of current lesbian parties in Toronto)
(Editor’s note, April 12, 2016: An earlier version of this story stated that Slacks closed in 2007. It closed in June, 2013.)