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Why are Vancouver officials scrutinizing queer arts group?

Matt Troy says city uncomfortable with sex; city points to rule violations

Matt Troy from the Art and Leisure Society says 12 officials from the City of Vancouver, its police and fire departments and BC Liquor Control summoned him to a meeting to question the artistic merit of his group’s events. Credit: Danny Gray Fox

The head of a local arts group says the sex-positive nature of his events has generated overzealous scrutiny from City of Vancouver officials and BC liquor inspectors.

Vancouver’s Indoor Arts & Culture pilot program is supposed to make it easier for smaller organizations, like the Art and Leisure Society, to host occasional arts and culture events for up to 250 people in unconventional spaces such as warehouses, galleries, factories and shops.

But Matt Troy, the executive director of the Art and Leisure Society, says that on March 5 he was called into an “extremely intimidating” meeting with a dozen officials from the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, the City of Vancouver, the Vancouver Police Department and Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.

Troy says officials questioned the sexual nature of his group’s Feb 28 event “Spank 2: The Electro-Sexual Adventure Returns” which was presented in collaboration with Sin City Fetish Night and featured a sex-permitted area, a cuddle area, and bondage and play gear.

According to Troy, one inspector said, “I witnessed a female being tied up and receiving digital penetration from a male.”

Another inspector, Troy says, said she was told to undress before entering an area of the event. “And I said to her, ‘Yeah, it’s a fetish-only area. We’re trying to keep those people comfortable.’ And she said, ‘well, you can’t be forcing people to undress.’ And I said ‘nobody’s forcing anybody — there’s a whole area in the event where you don’t need to be undressed. There’s one area that’s fetish and then there’s one area that’s not.’ So they seemed very confused about this type of sexual expression and artistic endeavour. I hope I was enlightening to them.”

Troy says officials questioned the artistic merit of his events. “I told them that I’m sitting in front of a dozen bureaucrats trying to explain what is artistic,” he says. “I have a degree in art and I believe what I do is artistic. You may just see a party but may not realize what’s behind it is dozens of artists who contributed their time, ideas and mental energies and ideas, creating a space outside of the normal, rigid definition you can allow in a typical liquor-serving establishment.”

Troy says Art and Leisure events take place in a Main Street space that displays new art installations each week, created by society members and featured artists who then interact with the art, with each other and with guests to create new forms of expression at events. He says he aspires to create an ever-shifting artistic space of experimental expression like Andy Warhol did in The Factory in New York in the 1960s and ’70s.

A city spokesperson says the meeting with Troy was prompted by “potentially serious” safety concerns in breach of civic bylaws and provincial liquor regulations.

“The event on Feb 28 exceeded the permitted occupant capacity by over 30 percent and the event organizer sold tickets at the door, which is in violation of the provincial liquor licence regulation, as the permit applied for was for a private event,” the spokesperson tells Daily Xtra. “The city and partner agencies will continue working with VALS to help them comply with regulations for any future events they organize.”

Troy says the city is “grasping at straws” and is more concerned with the sexual nature of his group’s events than overcapacity or ticket sales.

“Why would so many bureaucrats be summoned for an issue of overcapacity?” he asks. “As for selling tickets at the door — just about everyone who has a liquor licence does that. If they want to nitpick over such a small thing they could go into any club on a busy night and find they are over capacity, but they are not summoned to a meeting with 12 high-ranking officials.” 

A spokesperson for BC’s Liquor Control and Licensing Branch tells Daily Xtra that all licensed establishments, including special-occasion licenced events, are subject to rules that prohibit live or simulated sex acts and patron participation.

“Government has a mandate to consider the safety of patrons and staff, as well as the broader public interest when looking at Special Occasion Licence applications, to protect public safety,” the spokesperson writes in an email to Daily Xtra. “In the case of the Vancouver Art and Leisure Society, there were a number of inspections that led to the decision for public safety and city officials to meet with this group.”

Troy believes the inspections may have been triggered by complaints from “vested institutions” in the gay community.

“It’s actually the bars that refuse to innovate, relying on their monopoly, location [and] specific advantage and not really being forced to do great, innovative programming to bring more people in the fold, to make a space for artistic expression and artistic autonomy,” he claims.

Whoever filed the complaints, Troy says they resulted in excessive police presence at several recent Art and Leisure events. “Every time we have a licensed event they are showing,” he says, “and it’s become very discouraging to our community of artists to see the city taking such an aggressive stance to what we are doing.”

A spokesperson for the police says they are just doing their job and have an obligation to inspect complaints received.