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 three-storey 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 — many in Ottawa but not in 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.
Illustration by Michael George Haddad