No bar, no problem

After a natural ebb and flow of the local gay bar scene, Kingston’s LGBTQ community sees few consequences

The Plaza, located downtown, was once home to a discreet gay bar until the late 1980s.
The Plaza, located downtown, was once home to a discreet gay bar until the late 1980s.
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Around four years ago, Kingston’s last gay bar — Shay Foo Foo’s — shut its doors for good. Since then, LGBTQ community members are unsure if they even want one at all.

Throughout the late 1980s, an upper section of The Plaza, a bar near Princess and Montreal Streets that’s now a strip club, catered to Kingston’s LGBTQ population — then considered a taboo subsection of an otherwise conservative society.

The club, referred to as The Office, had its identity discretely tucked away behind The Plaza’s heterosexual façade: people came and went on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, mingled with others of similar sexual persuasion and were left unquestioned by staff and passersby.

Nearly 30 years later, with changing attitudes towards the LGBTQ community, it’s up in the air whether the safe haven of a gay bar should remain, according to some members.

Greater tolerance of gay culture, they argue, has dissolved solidarity in Kingston’s LGBTQ community, as they branch out and lose touch with the difficult reality of having once been a targeted minority.

Keith Bilow, who has been involved in Kingston’s LGBTQ scene since the early 1970s, said Kingston’s small-town atmosphere, coupled with a growing culture of acceptance toward alternative sexual lifestyles, has contributed to a divisive and apathetic LGBTQ community.

The result is an overwhelming lack of support for LGBTQ-related activities and events. More specifically, according to Bilow, people don’t know if reviving an LGBTQ bar scene is even worth it.

“[Now] you can dance anywhere in this town as a gay man, really,” Bilow, 61, said. “You can go to Stages Nightclub or the Grizzly Grill or you can go to Ale House.”

Any form of consistent LGBTQ-oriented club or bar needs to have two things, he said: a committed owner and a committed community. As time has revealed, he added, Kingston lacks both.

The Office rebranded as The Backdoor in late 1988, but closed down its operations the following year. Since then, multiple attempts to establish a regular hangout for the seemingly sexually alienated have fallen short: more publicly housed gay bars became repeated sites of gay-bashings and erratic ownership that eventually wrought financial misfortune, Bilow recalled.

General mismanagement, coupled with a growing dissidence between gay groups and lesbian groups and their own cliques within, led to a growing dissatisfaction with Kingston’s gay scene, he added.

Members boycotted certain events to avoid people, later boycotting establishments altogether — a petty social exchange that betrayed the concept of a unified, gay community founded on ideals of acceptance and liberation.

“You can’t cater to [the entire community],” he said. “You can’t think you can have a lesbian and a gay man enjoying the same thing. Never the two shall meet.”

Two gay bars — Wally’s near the Greek Islands on Bath Rd. and Club 477, located at 477 Princess St. — opened shop in the early 1990s, but dwindling interest took its toll. Club 477, a popular spot for gay men that decade, became repeatedly subject to heckling and hate-based assaults given its central location on Princess St., Bilow said. Bilow, a real-estate agent at the time, sold the property to its first owners, who turned the space into a gay bar.

Club 477 featured a cruising ramp, a walkway meant to scope out potential hook-up partners, which made the bar particularly popular among men, he added. Despite its popularity, a growing presence of homophobia eventually lead to its closure. Shay Foo Foo’s, which opened in 1999, had the same fate after its owners — a straight couple — split up and the venue later became a sports bar.

A bartender at Ben’s Pub, located near Clergy and Princess Streets, who has worked at the establishment for over 17 years, echoed Bilow’s sentiment. The bartender, 51, has been involved in Kingston’s LGBTQ scene since 1988. He requested to remain anonymous, given his ties to the community.

“[The community] wants segregation … amongst themselves and [it] doesn’t stick together,” he said. “They have little cliques and they boycott places and that’s why they always fail.”

The attitude doesn’t seem to extend beyond Kingston, he said. Compared to other Ontario cities, Kingston’s lack of gay establishments seems to suggest it’s culturally stagnate with a sinking LGBTQ community.

London, a city with roughly 450,000 people, has two gay bars. Sudbury, relatively similar to Kingston in size and population, also houses one.

“With Kingston as small as it is, it needs the community to stay together or there isn’t any support to keep a bar open,” he said.

“I am sad to see that they just don’t get the support from the community because it’s really hard to grow up in redneck situations and ... have nowhere to go.”

He believes Kingston still faces a fair share of gay-bashing, despite its reputation as being fairly tolerant, meaning a lack of gay venues could be a reflection of an underlying conservative climate in the city.

The hate letter sent to Kingston couple Susan Belyea and Karen Dubinsky this summer, calling for them to move out or face “deadly serious consequences,” is one example.

Brody Hatch, ArtSci ’14, was also subject to a homophobic incident at Alfie’s Nightclub three years ago, when club-goers taunted him after a male friend started showing affection towards him on the dance floor.

“Some guys assumed that we were together ... I was taunted and gay slurs were said towards me,” he said. “This [was] a bar that [was] heavily filled by Queen’s students — my peers — that are on campus every day when I go to class.”

“It’s upsetting not just towards me, but towards other openly gay students to know this is the reason why so many LGBT members of the student community are too afraid to really show their emotions.”

Despite this, the resistance to reviving a gay bar in the city may also rooted in a financial risk, according to William Fisher, a part-owner of the Mansion, a bar located downtown on Princess St.

Due to an increasing acceptance for LGBTQ patrons since the 90s, they’re more likely to frequent mainstream bars. “There’s gay clientele that come here and feel pretty comfortable, maybe there isn’t a need for such a specialized niche place,” he said.

“Over the years, there’s been a couple [gay bars] but just from gay friends that I’ve had it’s younger gay friends or clientele [that] tend to move to the bigger cities,” he added.

Kingston isn’t without it options, however.

Ben’s Pub hosts a “gay night” every Sunday. Revolutions Nightclub, which closed this summer, also featured LGBTQ-oriented events. The Toucan, located near Princess and Bagot Streets, is also LGBTQ-friendly, among others.

The current AMS executive campaigned with the idea of hosting a monthly LGBTQ night at Alfie’s Nightclub. Since the club’s recent rebranding as The Underground, however, it was decided not to implement the idea due to logistical and financial restrictions. Instead, a “Pride Night”, recently held at the establishment was specifically marketed so as to not exclude students who didn’t identify as “LGBTQ.” Justin Reekie, AMS hospitality and safety services director, said that marketing a bar or a particular event for the LGBTQ community runs the risk of excluding heterosexual individuals.

“We decided to call it [that] instead, the reason being that calling it an ‘LGBTQ night’ would mean it would be inaccessible to heterosexuals,” he said. “We want to celebrate every sexual orientation.”

He said reestablishing an LGBTQ-oriented bar in Kingston would have to be based on demand. Reekie, who identifies as a part of the LGBTQ community, said that he feels safe frequenting more mainstream establishments.

“I obviously can’t speak for the entire community because I wasn’t around when [more gay bars] were open,” he said, “but that being said, a lot of [LGBTQ] people already feel comfortable enough going to [mainstream] bars or clubs.” ­

— With files from Rachel Herscovici

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