Where has queer Toronto gone? It appears in a bar near you

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on restaurants and bars, a loss for Toronto. But the loss of The Beaver, a gathering place for gay people, was a blow to this community as it lost another of the city’s queer spaces.

Closed in August 2020 after 14 years in business on Queen Street West, The Beaver has played host to drag shows, karaoke, potlucks and ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ trivial parties.

For many queer Torontonians, the space wasn’t just a cramped bar, it was a community hub. After years of living on the financial edge, The Beaver has succumbed to COVID lockdowns, the final straw for a cherished institution.

“There really is a lack of queer venues, parties and events in Toronto, especially with The Beaver closing,” said Maria Lykouris, a waitress at Paradise Grapevine who uses the pronoun they.

Luckily, queer pop-ups are working to fill the void.

Lykouris started a monthly queer pop-up event in 2021 while they were at home looking for a safe community space. their event, Queer Wine Nighthas proven that there is a demand for what they have to offer.

“About 15 people came to my first event,” Lykouris said. “A few months later, when I posted about it on Lex, a queer social media platform, right away almost 50 people DMed me.”

Attending Lykouris’ latest Queer Wine Night has packed Paradise Grapevine, the Bloor West bar that hosts their events. “It’s first come, first served, and a few hundred people usually show up,” Lykouris said.

In April, the crowd spilled onto the terrace and erupted in a spontaneous late-night dance party. The windows fogged up from inside and someone used their finger to write “GAY” with a smiley face in the condensation. It’s the kind of bustling, friendly, crowded public proximity the city hasn’t seen in years.

Queer Wine Night is just one of the few queer pop-ups born out of the pandemic: a collective attempt at interim programming to help fill the lack of dedicated queer spaces in the city.

Everybody’s flirting is a queer karaoke pop-up at Tammy’s Wine Bar in Parkdale on Sunday nights. It is run by best friends and former colleagues Kathleen Barrett and Paula Wilson.

“It was the dead of winter last year and it was really hard to get business done,” said Barrett, a server at Tammy’s. “Originally, it was Paula’s idea to rent a sound system and some microphones. What we do is very simple. We play YouTube karaoke videos on Paula’s laptop and project them on the wall. »

With this humble DIY setup, attendance at the event grew every week. Barrett compares the energy of Everybody Flirts to that of a lively house party.

“It’s completely unpretentious, a bit unprofessional, very warm and welcoming, and just a really fun time.”

The disappearance of queer nightlife isn’t just a problem in Toronto. Queer bars, especially those owned by lesbians, are closing across North America.

In 2020, Jägermeister launched a fundraising campaign, acknowledging the near extinction of lesbian bars in the United States. According to his research, of the approximately 60,000 bars in operation in the United States, only 21 were lesbian bars. In all of New York, there are only three lesbian bars left.

“Queer nightlife is a place where you can explore and develop who you are as a person,” Lykouris said. “If a senior club was closed, where will the seniors meet? It’s not just a space. It’s a loss of identity and a loss of a way for people to connect.

Connection is also a major driver for Barrett. “Having queer spaces is extremely important, especially after the isolation we have all experienced over the past two years. You need to have spaces where you can meet people who understand you, are like you, and accept you. Where you can feel safe and also have fun.”

The Village is the historic neighborhood that is home to many of Toronto’s gay bars. The two women have a similar take on it: the bar scene is dominated by gay white men, often frequented by bachelorette parties and a bit “outdated.” They find themselves craving a queer nightlife that resembles what Toronto’s hippest bars and restaurants have to offer, just… “more gay”.

“The more gay people there are in a place, the better the atmosphere will be,” laughed Barrett.

If the turnouts they see are any indication, Lykouris and Barrett are not mistaken that there is a demand for more queer nightlife. Or, as I overheard an enthusiastic Queer Wine Night attendee gushing at Lykouris, “Thank you, thank you so much for doing this. Queer Wine Night is amazing. We all really needed it.


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