Is Church St dying? This season three bars on my favourite avenue have closed: The Barn, Slack Alice and Babylon. The Steps are long gone, and the Second Cup space is up for lease in September.
Of course, Toronto’s queerest corners can also boast a statue of Alexander Wood and a few bars like Papi’s Lounge, George’s Play, Lüb and Statlers, that have opened up over the past few years. But whatever the bar count, the feel of Church St has definitely changed. It is no longer as down, dirty and democratic as it used to be.
When I first came out in 1981, the primary places to meet other gay men were bars, bathhouses, parks and public toilets. Older guys like me have fond memories of Chaps. You didn’t go there to watch a show. This is because the men who went to Chaps were seriously committed to cruising; the management brooked no distractions. In the ’70s and ’80s fags even had sex in bars until a police crackdown in the mid-’90s.
You’re not permitted to have sex in a gay bar in Toronto these days. It’s interesting that Queer As Folk’s fictional Babylon has a back-room. It is perhaps to be expected that our first gay soap opera would perpetrate a blatant lie about the details of our lives. There are no back-rooms in Toronto and there are none in Pittsburgh where the series is set. (Take my word for it. I’ve been to Pittsburgh, and if one of the bars had a back-room, I would have found it.)
Hey, I’m not just pining for the good old days. Promiscuous sex is still rampant. But the Internet and circuit-type parties, which have higher cover charges and a narrower niche market, have replaced bars as favourite pickup spots for gay men.
On the one hand this may seem like merely a matter of style. But if gay men continue to rely on these more modern venues for getting sex, then our community, as we know it, will disappear.
What is the link between sexy queer bars and community? The key is visibility. The ’70s were all about being out and proud, about getting our queer faces and bodies visible and on the street. Queers didn’t want to hide in the shadows. The cops and the straights didn’t want us on Yonge St, so ultimately we took Church St instead. Nowadays, some middle-class homos are pleased that condos, fancy restaurants and expensive stores are crowding out the bars and baths.
But shopping isn’t queer – cocksucking is. And it is the visibility of our cocksucking, the fact that we have bars on a queer street where gay men suck cock that actually creates safe space where real diversity can flourish.
Sex is inherently democratic. It’s not about status, identity or race, though these elements may figure into it. It’s about what turns you on. When our bars were focussed on cruising, it opened up the opportunity for people of different cultures to meet. Places like The Chez and The Parkside were unabashedly working class and had a clientele that mixed all genders and social strata. The newer, cleaner Church St does not invite the actual differences of real life. Instead it parades before us the fake capitalist diversity of the marketplace.
You need a computer to have Internet sex, and you need money to go to a circuit party. Similarly, as Church gets pricier, those without money will no longer have public places to meet, other than parks and toilets.
Is it the fault of the gay white men with cash? When an older owner of an historic gay business dies, there is rarely a younger gay businessman eager to take his place. Recently my partner and I visited Key West. There were very few gay guesthouses remaining. The queer bed and breakfast where we stayed was slated for demolition. Two fags had bought the property. It never even occurred to them to open up a queer business – they were razing it to construct condos.
But you can’t blame the rich fags any more than you can blame the twinks and muscleheads who love circuit parties and hooking up via the Internet. Ultimately, it’s about something gay men and lesbians are obsessed with right now, something that likely will be with us for a long time: the longing to be respectable. Fear of AIDS and the attendant homophobia has driven our sex into secrecy again.
I predict that, five years from now, the Church St I used to love will be filled with condos and fancy restaurants. Toronto will have no gay street. The few queer bars that exist will be scattered all over town and cater to mostly upper-class men and women.
What we will have lost in sexual visibility and democracy, we’ll make up in respect-ability. And that, as they say, is a rough trade.