When Slack’s on Church Street closed its doors back in 2013, we said farewell to the last queer, women-dominant space in Toronto.
And no, you can’t cite Remington’s Ladies Night as a comparable substitute.
As someone who lives in what my best friend calls “the buckle of the fruit belt,” I immediately noticed a marked reduction in the number of women I’d see in the Village. There were fewer females on the street during the daytime hours, and weekend evenings were now strangely silent, bereft of the drunken lesbian break-ups that would frequently take place mere feet from our bedroom window.
While I don’t miss being woken at 2am with stentorian cries of “motherfucker,” I do feel a real absence of the vibrant, sexy and strong gals whose presence gives so much to any neighbourhood, queer or otherwise. So where did they all go? Where are lesbian and bisexual women hanging out these days?
Denise Benson — a legendary DJ in the Toronto music scene — has been hosting numerous women’s dance nights around the city since the late 1980s. From her famous Dyke Night at places like The Caribou and the Boom Boom Room, to her red-hot monthly Cherry Bomb at The Round in Kensington Market, Benson is an integral figure in the scene for the city’s gay and bi women.
“When I first moved to Toronto, there were more options,” Benson says. “There was Felines and The Chez and The Rose, so there’s definitely a gap now. As the scene has changed it’s become more monthlies and one-offs.
“There may not be a dedicated women’s bar, but there are small spaces that allow you to do niche nights for the music you love. There’s no shortage out there, you just have to look.”
Benson also points to the radical changes in Church Street demographics as property values and condo development continue their skyward climb away from the average queer’s reach. “People like to socialize where they live,” she says. “But we live all over the city now.”
With Cherry Bomb entering its eighth year of monthly hijinks, Benson and co-pilot DJ Cozmic Cat have been introducing even more social elements to the night to create a space where people can have actual conversations before things heat up.
“Both of us really work to put a focus on the fact that it’s a queer women’s night that is truly exclusive,” she says. “In January we started having games set up on the tables. There’s cards, Uno, checkers, dominos and even Twister on the dance floor.
“We set it up early evening from about 10 o’clock until it’s too crazy on the dance floor. That way they can come in with their groups of friends earlier in the evening, hang out, and then stay for the dancing.”
So it’s clear there are still lots of places to get hot and sweaty with your besties on the dancefloor, but what about gals looking for Ms Right? Is a monthly women’s dance the only game in town? Absolutely not, says Ashley Magalas, organizer of Girls’ Night Speed Dating for lesbian and bi women in Toronto.
“The good thing about these events is that you don’t know in a club who’s actually single,” Magalas points out. “We’ve really geared it towards singles looking to date long term. They’re not looking for a quick fling or a one night stand.”
When Magalas started out, the events she organized were largely targeted at straight folk. But with a more crowded hetero playing field, and a dearth of options for lesbian and bi singles craving attachment, she quickly switched gears.
“It can be really hard for women looking to meet other women,” she says. “Slacks has been closed for the past couple of years, so the two main regular places in the village are Crews and Tangos.
“The only problem with that is that they’re very lively. It’s packed and it’s hard to meet people who are down to earth and get to know them.”
Magalas runs her speed dating events twice a month, generally on weeknights to provide flexibility for women who can’t make it out on the weekend. Attendance has been high, and Magalas has been particularly gratified with the positive response to her event’s inclusive and relaxed tone.
“My intention is to make it as stress-free and as fun as possible,” she says. “Women will actually leave together in groups even though the event is over, and hang out with people they’ve met from the group. I tell people it’s a good way to also make friends and do some networking in the community. Even if you don’t have any romantic matches, you may discover some good friends.”
As a performer, promoter and former club owner, Maggie Cassella knows the Toronto scene inside and out. And for those of us wringing our hands at the seeming paucity of double-X chromosomes on Church Street, she offers little sympathy but much-needed perspective.
“Oh for fuck’s sake!” she says with a laugh. “Honestly, I feel like I’ve had this conversation for years. Look, it’s 2016 and there are enclaves everywhere now. I live in Scarborough for Christ’s sake. The scene is happening still, but it’s just happening differently.
“There’s individual girl parties and those dating parties, and meet-up groups are a huge thing. It’s more of a like-minded thing now, like groups for adventurous dykes, or for sports, or maybe you just want to go out to dinner and hang out.”
Cassella feels social media plays a larger role in organizing events these days, and has embraced the medium in promoting her own gigs as well as her monthly cabaret series at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. As far as a bar for lesbian and bisexual women in the Village, well, things don’t look quite as rosy.
“Who cares about Church Street,” she asks. “If it’s a good club, we’ll go anywhere. I wouldn’t even think of opening a club in the Village when there are so many other areas. There’s a huge number of lesbians in Riverdale and Leslieville. Also, women aren’t men. For some reason the boy circuit party lives on, but women don’t go out as much as guys do like that.”
So there you have it. Rest assured there is still plenty to do in the city for an enterprising lesbian or bisexual woman. And for those of us on the outside looking in, it might be a good idea to relax a little and have faith that our larger community is evolving in how it interacts along with the rest of the world.
“Here’s the point,” says Cassella. “Just like how you listen to music has changed and how you catch a cab has changed, the way people socialize has changed too. It’s just natural.”