We’ll Have a Gay Old Time

Ottawa Magazine - - INDULGE -

A friend blew into town some months back with the idea that he’d like — you know, for the sake of fun and in­clu­sive­ness — to do an evening tour of Ot­tawa’s gay nightlife.

I had two re­sponses. First, that this re­quest, com­ing as it did from a straight friend, was com­pletely unan­tic­i­pated. And sec­ond, that life in my cave barely qual­i­fied me to lead the ex­pe­di­tion.

But the Cen­tre­town Pub on Som­er­set, a long-time main­stay of the city’s gay com­mu­nity, was only a five-minute walk from my apart­ment. And so off we went, my friend seem­ing to an­tic­i­pate an en­counter with glit­ter, feather boas, and the sort of trans­gres­sive fun that would dis­tin­guish his so­cial planet from some­thing in­fin­itely more spon­ta­neous, cre­ative, and wit-drenched. He’s not clue­less, my friend, but some­times he’s mis­in­formed. And so he proved this evening.

The CP, as it’s called, had no par­tic­u­lar vibe. Most of the roughly 40 peo­ple in the crowd ap­peared to be in their 30s or older, only two or three might have been in their 20s. That evening, there were a lot of jeans and hood­ies. A 30-some­thing blond fel­low was singing karaoke with, I thought, some real tal­ent and com­mit­ment, but few seemed to be re­ally lis­ten­ing. The room had a good feel, though — com­fort­able and wel­com­ing — but, in terms of tone, the bar felt like any other.

The bar­tender told me there was only one beer on tap that evening. I asked why. “Trou­ble with our sup­pli­ers,” he re­sponded.

This made sense. Only a cou­ple of weeks ear­lier, an ar­ti­cle in the Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen had men­tioned that the Cen­tre­town Pub — de­scribed as “the heart of the Cen­tre­town gay com­mu­nity for more than three decades” — had been put up for sale. Per­haps tellingly, the build­ing and the busi­ness it­self were of­fered sep­a­rately — the busi­ness for $399,000 and the build­ing, a three­storey brick beauty, for $849,000 (be­fore press time). Clearly there was no as­sump­tion that a buyer of the build­ing would have in­ter­est in the busi­ness. This is the kind of at­tri­tion that no longer shocks the gay com­mu­nity. As a smil­ing 30-some­thing sit­ting at the CP’s bar said: “We’ve lost over half the bars we had a decade ago. We just don’t need them as much — there’s so much more ac­cep­tance these days that peo­ple are at home in reg­u­lar bars.” And for so­cial en­coun­ters, he added, it’s no longer nec­es­sary to go out. Grindr and other such apps, as well as on­line sites, pro­vide gay men with com­puter-as­sisted dat­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

If the CP dis­ap­pears, there will then be only two gay bars in the down­town: Swiz­zles on Queen Street and the Look­out Bar in the ByWard Mar­ket.

“Things have re­ally changed and the bars have de­clined,” says Barry Deep­rose, a for­mer board mem­ber of Pink Tri­an­gle Ser­vices and a founder of the AIDS Com­mit­tee of Ot­tawa. “The cur­rent gen­er­a­tion is much more in­te­grated into the larger so­ci­ety. They don’t nec­es­sar­ily seek out bars that iso­late them.”

Never much in­ter­ested in the bar scene, Deep­rose, with over 22 years of ser­vice as a coun­sel­lor on Ot­tawa’s Gay­line, none­the­less learned a lot about the city’s nightlife.

“The gay bars would come and go, some last­ing a few years, oth­ers fly-by-night op­er­a­tions that seemed to dis­ap­pear al­most as soon as they opened,” he notes.

A num­ber of gay bars were in Gatineau, which — un­til 1996 — ben­e­fited from On­tario’s shorter drink­ing hours. “Across the river, the gay bars started to sprout up in the ’70s,” Deep­rose re­calls. “At the peak, there were prob­a­bly six or seven of them.”

Though there were al­ways gay bars in Ot­tawa it­self, the city’s nightlife never com­pared to Toronto and Mon­treal, where the noc­tur­nal en­tice­ments were more nu­mer­ous, Deep­rose says. “Things were a bit hid­den back then. Many bars were up a nar­row stair­case or in shad­ows, from well-grounded fears of clients be­ing iden­ti­fied.” Some of the more prom­i­nent Ot­tawa bars, Deep­rose adds, in­cluded Lip­stick, in the ByWard Mar­ket; Shades, the first gay-owned gay bar, just op­po­site what is now the Main Li­brary on Lau­rier; and Willy’s, on Wil­liam Street. One of the best-known gay drink­ing spots was the beer par­lour in the base­ment of the Lord El­gin Ho­tel, where RCMP agents in the ’60s con­ducted sur­veil­lance of cus­tomers.

In the 2009 book The Cana­dian War on Queers: Na­tional Se­cu­rity as Sex­ual Reg­u­la­tion, Gary Kins­man and Pa­trizia Gen­tile de­scribe how agents would sur­rep­ti­tiously hide be­hind open news­pa­pers while tak­ing pho­to­graphs. This was all part of a screen­ing pro­gram ini­ti­ated by the govern­ment in 1959 that was in­tended to weed out gay peo­ple from the civil ser­vice be­cause they were con­sid­ered vul­ner­a­ble to black­mail and sub­ver­sion. The book claims that the RCMP had com­piled a list of 9,000 names — most in Ot­tawa and most in ei­ther the civil ser­vice or the mil­i­tary — by the time ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was le­gal­ized in the Crim­i­nal Code re­forms of the late ’60s.

Gen­tile, who is also an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Car­leton Univer­sity and who spe­cial­izes in the his­tory of sex­u­al­ity, says the gay bar has lost much of its role and clien­tele but won’t be dis­ap­pear­ing any time soon. “Don’t think gay bars are re­dun­dant now,” she says. “They still have their gay clients but have also ex­panded to wel­come other al­ter­na­tive peo­ple — some who sim­ply don’t iden­tify com­pletely as straight or are trans­gen­dered, for ex­am­ple. There’s a broader group that, at least some of the time, will still want their safe space.”

The de­cline of the gay bar is no lo­cal phe­nom­e­non. Their num­bers are slowly re­ced­ing across North Amer­ica and Europe. In 2007, En­tre­pre­neur mag­a­zine listed gay bars, along with record stores and cam­era film man­u­fac­tur­ers, among busi­nesses fac­ing ex­tinc­tion.

As for my friend? He was clearly dis­ap­pointed in our evening. But he’d heard my dis­cus­sion with the pa­tron at the bar of the CP and, in re­sponse, told me, “Well, if gay peo­ple are ac­cepted and don’t need their own haunts, I guess that’s good.”

“Good, in­deed,” I replied. Charles En­man knows noth­ing of the ant-like pere­gri­na­tions of hoi pol­loi along the louche boule­vards of the city be­yond what he hap­pens to read, but he reads om­niv­o­rously

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