When Aaron Hewitt walked into Striker Sports Bar as a first-time customer, the first thing he noticed was that the washrooms were gender-neutral. The second was that he had just stumbled upon a place to watch sports without dealing with the hostility that he’s experienced in straight sports bars.
Hewitt played sports as a child, but he says his experiences were negative, a common issue for some LGBT people. “There was a lot of bullying from staff and from other students. It’s awful and it makes you sort of avoid sports altogether,” he says.
As he got older, he realized that he missed both playing and watching sports, and decided he would not let hatred stop him from enjoying what he loved. The next logical step would be finding people with similar interests, so when he heard about Striker, he was excited to visit a new space where he could enjoy watching sports.
Striker’s owners dub it as the first LGBT-specific sports bar in Toronto. It opened on Sept 2, 2016, after a sleek renovation. “We designed it and hand picked every single thing in that place from tiles to floors to the seats,” says co-owner Vince Silva. “We poured our heart and soul into this.”
Expenses don’t appear to have been spared. Striker has 15 TV screens, impressive lighting and a frost-rail — a chilled strip along the bartop meant to keep drinks cold. It also serves pub-style food.
Paulo Senra, the communications representative for Striker, says the opening of the bar is another natural addition to Toronto’s thriving LGBT sports culture. “Toronto is one of the biggest gay sports towns for amateur leagues,” he says.
But for sports fans like Hewitt, it’s also a welcome space to watch the game and relax without discrimination. Hewitt doesn’t go to straight sports bars. “If you were there with your partner, or even there with a bunch of friends and joking around, people might notice or make comments,” he says.
Wayne Belkosky, who plays in the Toronto Gay Hockey Association league, has similar feelings. Belkosky says that in straight sports bars, queer couples may be more likely to, “go into automatic, ‘public mode.’ You don’t necessarily think about it consciously, but maybe you’re less affectionate,” he says.
“In a place like Striker you could [be affectionate] and it would not attract attention.” He and his partner recently stopped by Striker for a bite.
Senra says Striker also has a “sports first” attitude. He says a lot of LGBT spaces that play sports on their TV screens don’t prioritize the game, which can affect business. “[They] won’t turn on the volume. That’s a massive deal,” Senra says. “That’s a huge part of watching a sports game, or else I’ll just watch it at home.”
He also points out the fact that Striker is meant to serve, “the smaller communities across the GTA, where they don’t have all the options that we do here in the city,” and why that’s important. “Growing up in Hamilton, for example, and not out until I was 25,” he says. “A place like this would have been a safe haven for me to come and explore my sexuality,” he says.
So will Striker replicate a straight sports bar’s vibe of being a male-dominated space? “I’ve seen a spectrum of people here, which I actually think that in itself, is very different from other bars that cater to sport across the city, because a majority of them are just straight men — unless there’s a massive sporting event,” Senra says.
Senra also says that Striker introduces a new way for sports organizations to build better business relationships with queer sports teams and sports fans. “[Striker] provides them with an opportunity to engage with our LGBT youth, our LGBT sports teams and actually converse in an environment that’s specifically dedicated to us.”
Considering the size of the Toronto’s LGBT community, Senra believes it’s the perfect time for a place like Striker to thrive. “Toronto’s gay community is mature enough and diverse enough to have something like this,” he says.