Three flags hang solemnly. For 11 years, they have colourfully declared to passing pedestrians that the narrow entrance over which they droop proudly welcomes a particularly niche clientele: leather fetishists, queers and the bear community.
This is the Calgary Eagle. It’s the city’s only leather bar, located in a mostly abandoned and soon-to-be gentrified cul-de-sac in the East Village. Along with the now vacated St. Louis Hotel, the Eagle has long served as one of the avenue’s main attractions, drawing in patrons for games of pool, cheap pints and kink parties. But by the time the snow is settled this coming winter, the trio of pride flags will be gone.
The owners of the Eagle received notice in May that their building had been sold, requiring them to vacate by the end of October. The news arrived only a month after the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) moved their office into the sandstone-detailed Hillier Block directly across the street from the Eagle, and only weeks after plans were announced for a spiffy, 14-storey hotel to be built a block north of the bar. The next decade will be a shinier era for Eighth Avenue S.E.
“How would you like the entrance of the Hilton looking on our back alley with our patio?” asks Johnathan Finlayson, one of the Eagle’s owners. “The village itself is changing. It’s being created for something different. Do we fit the mould of the change? The answer is no.”
But pricey condos and food trucks aren’t the only factors forcing the closure of the Eagle. Gay bars are becoming, as Eagle co-owner Ron Scheetz puts it, a “tad obsolete” — three Calgary bars will have closed their doors for the last time by Halloween, halving the already small pool that rung in the New Year. That’s a fast decline, even in a so-called post-gay society. Something’s amiss.
Safety in numbers
They had only met once. The chance encounter led to friendship on Facebook, which was the extent of their relationship for some three years. But it was at the closing party for Club Sapien — arguably the city’s most cherished gay bar during its brief existence — that they really met: they danced, they flirted. It was simple.
“I don’t know how I would have met her otherwise,” says Pam Rocker, a playwright and queer activist who’s now celebrating five months of dating the woman she met that night. “The thing is, if we were just in a normal club, I never would have thought she was gay, whereas in that environment there was a good chance. So I didn’t feel as sheepish or awkward about saying something. It wouldn’t have happened if I was in a straight club.”
Rocker’s experience on that February night encapsulates the reason why gay bars have served as hubs for the community over the decades: they’ve provided inclusion, community, sexiness, not to mention a dance floor to a community in desperate need of a safe space to call their own. When Rocker was first coming out, Sapien and Fab Bar — which both closed this year — gave her places to sing karaoke and meet a few people without wondering if her outfit or hair was “too gay.” Although many Calgarians won’t admit it, specific spaces for the LGBTQ community to do this are still sorely needed.
“It’s not a good place to be queer now,” says Juliet Burgess, the president of the Fairy Tales Presentation Society. “People keep saying it’s a good thing that these bars are closing down, because it means that we’re more accepted. The fact is that queer people are not. Try to tell a gay man to go to Cowboys and try to hit on somebody.”
Or try to tell a transgender women to go to Commonwealth and try to use the men’s washroom. Issues surrounding transgender people are still largely misunderstood, as evidenced by the recent political kerfuffle around the reinstatement of gender reassignment surgery (GRS) by the provincial government. The bars, although far from perfect, have historically been the most understanding communal spaces for trans individuals, often including features such as gender-neutral washrooms and weekly drag shows.
“It’s more about having a place where trans people feel safe, especially those who are first coming out,” says Brianne Langille, the president of the Trans Equality Society of Alberta (TESA). “They don’t know where to go to explore themselves in a social situation, and previously it’s always been to go to the gay bars because that’s where acceptance is more readily available.”
Perhaps the most successful way local bars have helped queers explore themselves has been through a variety of events, ranging from a weekly meeting of transgender women at Fab Bar to fundraisers at Club Sapien. In many cases, the venue — and sometimes even the food — was donated for free, ensuring that any money raised from events would go entirely to the intended organizations. But as James Demers of the Miscellaneous Youth Network, Fairy Tales and the Fake Mustache Drag King Troupe points out, “no business school would suggest opening a bar and then giving your services and space away for free, but that’s what we ask of businesses in the queer community.”
Mike Gray, an owner of Club Sapien before it closed, is quick to agree. Sapien generated a crowd during events but failed to cement a customer base that would come out “three nights a week, three weeks out of the month.” It wasn’t, however, exclusively a case of poor marketing — the death of three bars in eight months is proof of that. It was more complex. It was also more political.
A quick history
Just two decades ago, the streets of Calgary were a much scarier place to be queer, with harassment and beatings a common occurrence. At the time, gay bars were the “only safe place that we could be,” according to Mark Randall, co-ordinator of the HEAT program at AIDS Calgary. As a result, they were popular. In the 1960s, a bar in the basement of the Fairmont Palliser was “taken over” weekly by gay men on Friday nights. By 1986, there were 11 gay bars in the city. Hundreds of queers would flock to the bars, often travelling in from small towns on the periphery of the city. Sure, it wasn’t quite like being in The Castro or Le Village, but it was still something safe and fabulous.
“The bars were really essential in the community,” says Kevin Allen, an amateur queer historian, as well as the executive director of the Alberta Media Arts Alliance Society. “People hung out there a lot. Unlike straight bars, you had a lot more age mixing, so older people would come because it was the community spot. There were no chat rooms. People were gayer back then, in a way.”
But one by one, the bars faded away: Rooks, Boyztown, Detours, the Verge. This wasn’t an unusual phenomenon, globally speaking: three University of Minnesota researchers published an article in 2008 in AIDS Care noting that there were significant declines in gay bars over the previous decade in a dozen cities around the world. Similarly, Slate magazine calculated that the number of gay bars in San Francisco plummeted from 118 in 1973 to 33 in 2011. The usual suspects are consistent around the world: social networking and online dating replacing convergence at the bar, gentrification invading the downtrodden neighbourhoods that gay bars traditionally open in and the overall improvement of legal rights and social acceptance of queers.
Those theories apply to Calgary. Langille of TESA also says that young queers, free from family and mortgages, are spending their disposable income at straight establishments, as they no longer feel like they need the gay bars. But Calgary also features a local indifference about it. Demers describes it as a symptom of the “ATM effect” — people come to town for a job or a partner and end up vacating to the rainbowed pastures of Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal within a few years. That obviously impacts the longevity of niche businesses reliant on loyal customers.
“I don’t see a desire in Calgary’s gay community to do anything, except bitch about what isn’t out there,” says Randall of AIDS Calgary. “Yet, at the same time, when it was out there, they weren’t going out and supporting it. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, then you bitch — but it’s too late.”
But the queer community can’t be entirely blamed for the loss of the bars — some, like Rocker, Burgess and Demers, can be found at more-or-less every queer fundraiser in town, undoubtedly buying their share of drinks and food. There’s also some bad blood in the system. Twisted Element, the biggest gay club in town, has made quite the name for itself with its “hetero head tax,” where any straight-looking person will be charged cover while young gay men will generally be let in for free. R.J. Fafard, a co-owner of the club, has also become rather infamous for attacking other gay bars in interviews and via social networking — after Sapien opened, he was quoted in Xtra saying Sapien is “not a gay bar” and that Twisted was “still the only gay nightclub in Calgary.”
The aggressive strategy — which Demers describes as Fafard screaming at Gray for months on end — eventually took a toll on the well-loved bar. The former owner of Sapien says that he simply didn’t count on “the other competitor” hammering on them and trying to start a turf war. He chose not to engage in the politics at the time, which he now says that disengagement was “absolutely” a contributing factor in the closure of the bar, as he didn’t want to “force people to pick sides.” But the conflict, however one-sided, undoubtedly bruised the small community.
“That kind of shit doesn’t resonate with me as a person in the gay community,” says Randall. “In fact, it makes me not want to go out that much more. We’re fractured. Our gay community is so incredibly fractured, and we fight amongst ourselves and we back-bite and trash each other. It’s like, fuck off. Enough. If you want inclusion from the general community of straights, let’s get our own shit in order first and then start talking about our rights.”
But for that to happen, the queer community needs a physical space where it can congregate. In 2012, the options are rather limited.
The uncertain future
Small rainbow stickers distinguish the few dozen participants from the rest of the crowd. It’s safer that way: queers can flirt and dance together without worrying about attracting dirty looks or bigoted insults. The bartenders and security guards even wear the stickers sometimes, just to add to the sense of inclusion.
The Guerrilla Gay Bar wasn’t an idea born in Calgary — but it has certainly found a home here. A message is sent out to a secret Facebook group to notify the members of the location of the next straight-bar-takeover: since its inception in November, the group has partied at the HiFi Club, Commonwealth, and the Bamboo Tiki Room. The reason is obvious. There aren’t many gay bars left, so the group has taken it upon themselves to create their own “temporary spaces of resistance,” as Burgess puts it.
“It’s a little bit political,” says Sidney Cunningham, the founder of the local iteration of the movement. “We’re trying to remind people that we do exist. It would be awesome if it was completely safe for any queer person to just walk into a straight club, dance and have a great time, but that’s not how it is.”
The Guerrilla Gay Bar certainly isn’t the only option for local queers looking for something to mitigate the loss of safe social spaces. A glance at the events calendar on QueerCal — a Tumblr blog that Cunningham maintains — proves that there are enough niche events (ranging from queer yoga, to lesbian hockey, to bisexual social nights, to hiking trips for the LGBTQA community) to cause a queer extrovert to invest in a day planner or two.
“In the last five years, I’ve seen amazing growth in the queer community,” Burgess says, noting that representatives from all the LGBTQA organizations in Calgary now have to meet biannually to plan their schedules together so events don’t overlap on weekends. “It’s interesting to see that all the bars have closed down, and the queer community has grown to support each other better. I don’t know if it’s in spite of or because of that closure of space that we all started to reclaim our own space in different ways.”
But it’s tough to get away from the reality that there are still very few consistent physical spaces for queers in Calgary, which, despite their issues, is something the bars offered. Calgary Outlink, located in the Old Y Centre, serves as one of the remaining safe spaces, offering peer support and a library full of queer literature; within a few months, they’ll be opening a community resource room across the hall from their current office, which will contain computers, couches and queer art.
Britt Aberle, a support worker at Outlink, stresses that the cramped setup offers a place for queers to gather that is free of alcohol, drugs and costs — an important option for those who are under 18, recovering addicts or economically poor. Many activists express an interest in an LGBTQA community resource centre, similar to Toronto’s 519 Church Street — perhaps the concept of Outlink expanded to a central, wheelchair-accessible warehouse.
But as Demers notes, “opening a community hall that’s also a bar doesn’t have the appeal that a nightclub does.” Sometimes, people just want to dance, drink, party and dress up in leather.
Gone like smoke
Pots filled with decorative red and white flowers hang from the street-lamps. Below them, cars are snuggly parked, suggesting a bustling night on the avenue — but the only noise is the southbound C-Train rolling past the Centre of Hope and an excavator scooping another overflowing load of dirt into an idling dump-truck.
“Gee, what do they do when it’s full?” a 50-something moustached man asks as he deposits his smouldering cigarette into a new butt disposal canister. He returns inside the Eagle, the door held open just long enough for the sound of clacking pool balls to reach the street. Smoke spirals from the hole for 10 seconds before it peters out.
Just like the cigarette butt, the Eagle will soon be ousted from Eighth Avenue S.E., ensuring that a more polished version of the street will be prepared for prospective apartment owners. Residents might not even know the bar ever existed. But if the owners have their way, it will end up somewhere, somehow, even if it’s in an abandoned part of town that won’t be revitalized for another decade or so.