5 min

Village no more

Does the queer community still need its own 'hood?

Credit: Illustration by Paul Dotey

As Toronto prepares to host WorldPride in 2014, Xtra takes a closer look at what makes a gay village. In the fourth of a five-part series, Matthew Hays asks if we still need designated gay neighbourhoods.

It was a moment that left me a bit taken aback. During a break from a journalism class I teach at Concordia University in Montreal, I was talking with one of my students. This young fellow is bright, handsome, ambitious, proudly queer and sexually active. “Do you live in the Village?” I queried, basically making small talk.

But this student stopped upon hearing the question and looked at me as if I had three heads. “Why would I want to live there?”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the growing chorus of existential soul-searching that is routinely heard when people discuss the idea of a gay village – that is, a neighbourhood that is specifically queer in a city. The stats have now become sadly familiar: with urban rents rising, gay-owned businesses and bookstores have been closing in Canada’s largest cities over the past decade, with chain stores and soulless condo skyscrapers taking their place. And since gays have gained far greater acceptance from the straight majority, queers have created new mini-hoods – Toronto’s Cabbagetown, Parkdale and Leslieville – or queer-friendly artsy areas, like Montreal’s Mile End. Add to that the emergence of the internet as the primary way to hook up sexually – the ascent of Generation Grindr – and some are declaring the very concept of the Village redundant and obsolete.

Which prompts the question: do we still need a Village?

Stan Persky, the prolific journalist, author and university instructor, who divides his time between Vancouver and Berlin, argues that yes, the relevance of gay districts has declined significantly over the past 20 years. And a big part of that, he suggests, is that being queer has become far more acceptable by the mainstream. “For some time, I’d say the years 1969 to 1994, from gay liberation years through to retrovirals, my identity as gay was constantly subject to some form of peril. It was supportive and nice to live in a neighbourhood where you felt reaffirmed daily by seeing other gays, being able to use gay institutions – bars, restaurants and bookstores – and generally living in an atmosphere of greater public safety. The need for that sort of support and mutual identification diminished enormously as the political struggle for the public acceptance of homosexuality succeeded.”

Persky points to a post-gay period, in which being “gay is now among one’s list of identifications without it requiring constant self-conceptualization or prioritizing, as discrimination against homosexuality has been legally overcome, for the most part, in Canadian politics. Public recognition of gay as simply one more part of the complicated human story has steadily increased.”

Persky also argues that Generation Grindr has made a trek to the Village that much more unnecessary. “Virtual gay has now replaced large sections of actual gay. It’s easier here in Berlin to go to the Gay Romeo website for a wide range of interpersonal connections than it is to go to the bars or opera or wherever your fancy takes you. The people you think you’re looking for are more likely to be online than in the non-virtual world.”

Jordan Arseneault is a Montreal writer and artist. Twenty-something and intensely politically engaged, he’s also someone I might have expected to live in the Village. Instead, he lives in Mile End, a neighbourhood he chose because “that’s where the anglo intellectuals are supposed to live.” But he argues the Village still has relevance, and his reasons for not living there are complicated.

“A lot of people still go to the Village to party and to hook up. I met up with a friend there the other day and he said, ‘I can’t kiss you; I’ve just had sex and I have sex all over me.’ That never happens in Mile End! I think some people leave the Village because if you do live there, your apartment will become the party-central drop-in centre, with people stopping in before or after they go clubbing all the time. I know people who’ve moved away from the Village for this very reason. It became social overload.”

Dennis O’Connor argues that, while there is obviously some truth to many of the decline-of-villages observations, “there will always be a need for a Village.”

O’Connor served as the first chair of the Church Wellesley Village BIA and worked as an activist advocating for maintaining the neighbourhood and reminding people of its distinct history. “I understand that technology has changed and that for people in an urban setting, the way the world is connected now, it’s not as necessary to be in bars. But are online hookups really that reliable? Don’t you want to meet someone before deciding to have sex with them?”

O’Connor also points out that “for people from outside the cities, when they come to town, they think of the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood as our home. It’s like a nationally recognized place. Countries have capital cities, and I tend to think of Church-Wellesley as the gay capital of Canada. It’s important to have a place to call ours.”

O’Connor adds, “I understand some bars are finding it hard these days, but I would urge them to hold on. I think they are going to come back. I think a lot of the internet hookup stuff is going to go the way of the 8-track tape. You have to remember that people have a natural need to congregate, to meet up together. I think having a space where people can meet up in an accepting neighbourhood is something that a lot of urban gays take for granted.”

Arshad Khan is a gay man who lives in Montreal, outside of the Village. “But not necessarily by choice,” he adds, saying he and his boyfriend would have happily located themselves in the Village but happened to find something elsewhere. “I think we still really need a gay village. Everyone needs a place where queers rule. There’s no such place in Mississauga, and you can see it’s dysfunctional as a result.”

O’Connor and Khan both agree that gay villages may well be saved by an influx of immigrants, both from outside Canada and from rural areas. “We’re far from a post-homophobic world,” Khan says. “People who think that are delusional. Queer refugees and immigrants often spend a lot of time in the Village – they seek them out for obvious reasons.”

People who have moved on to other neighbourhoods “need to realize that just because they don’t need gay villages anymore, that doesn’t mean newcomers don’t,” Khan says. “There’s still an important need for advocacy and outreach. I think where villages have often gone wrong is that they have become too corporate really early on. Our roots are not in vodka labels.”

O’Connor agrees: “Many young people don’t feel connected to our history. But think about it: think about the first time you met someone or where you attended your first gay-related event. That often happens in a village. Toronto’s Village is home to the gay archives, the AIDS Memorial and the Alexander Wood statue. This is our footprint on the urban landscape. Our memories are often rooted in a place. And we need to preserve those memories.”

Persky acknowledges that these landmarks are important but says their meaning inevitably shifts over time. “When you get off the urban rail at Underground Bahnhof in Berlin and come out of the station into the square, there’s a russet-coloured triangular chunk of marble attached to the station wall which commemorates homosexuals killed in concentration camps during the Nazi period.

“At various times, people would deposit bouquets of flowers at the foot of the memorial. When I first got to Berlin in the early ’90s, it mattered to me that that was the first thing you saw as you entered the city’s obviously gay district and headed to one of its bars, restaurants or shops. It was one of the sights to see, along with the plaque outside the building where Christopher Isherwood lived in the late ’20s.”

But now, Persky says, “gay neighbourhoods are not personally vital to me. The Pride parade is something I tend to avoid rather than attend. In Berlin, I don’t live in the gay district. In Vancouver, I have lived in the West End [the city’s traditional Village] for five years, although these days it looks more like a geriatric village or retirement community. The danger of being hit by an elder in an electric cart is greater than being hit by a muscle queen.”

Check out the first three parts of Xtra‘s five-part Village series:

The social media revolution

The gay village as ethnic enclave

The changing face of the gay village