I was sitting on the Go bus heading to Toronto lazily killing time avoiding my writing and scrolling through Facebook on my phone, when I first saw the rumours. Of course I was not surprised by this, the signs had been there that this was coming. The massive, sprawling nightclub had been under construction for a long time.
What had once seemed a labyrinthine opulent palace had whittled down slowly, as area-after-area was closed off until the only remaining piece functioning as a bar was the dank and uninviting basement.
The Embassy was a place where all the queers and weirdos who happened to live outside of Toronto gathered to party, to cruise, and to live in a fantasy of being hot shit in a context where gay bashing was still a terrifyingly common occurrence on the streets of downtown Hamilton.
The Embassy was the stage on which many intricate and complicated dramas, coming-of-ages, stupidly bad decisions and incredible life-changing beginnings played out for so many of us. The Embassy was a place where outcasts of every stripe came together, without the inevitable siloing that occurs in cities large enough to maintain establishments catering to specific identities and lifestyles. The Embassy was a place where we were haughty and cruel Regina George wannabes for a few hours, before the lights came on and we took off the pretense to make sure everyone had a plan to get home safely.
My relationship with gay bars had always been complicated, and so my feelings at this news were doubly. These spaces were not without their issues of course, and I often left them feeling deflated and more like an outsider than I had at the beginning of my evening.
The early-naughts obsession with preppy sports wear, tanned flesh, smooth depilated bodies and frosted-tipped stalagmites of gell-hardened hair was never the thing of an awkward lanky man-child inexperienced in the world and all-together too fond of black eyeliner. I had a similar experience months earlier at another conference in Toronto. After a long day, I needed to take some time to get some work done quietly, and wanted a corner to hide in with a pint and pub grub, a place where I would not be disturbed and could focus on my writing and perhaps miraculously actually meet my deadlines.
I felt around for suggestions with my Toronto friends, where near the Ramada at Jarvis and Carleton could I find some peace and quiet? A suggestion was made of a nearby pub, an easy walk from the hotel.
I was at first happy to find the space, noting only that it was much larger than one would expect from such an establishment, with empty floor-space above us and beside that would clearly have been ideal for hosting large and rowdy events, and seemed an utter waste for the half-dozen patrons who apart from myself were crowded around the bar. My last experience at The Barn had not been a pleasant one, ending with harsh words, hurt feelings and me leaving in the throws of a retrospectively juvenile tantrum.
I was surprised by how unaccountably sad I felt at the loss of this space. This is a story that has played out across the world, even in cities one would presume had a greater capacity for nightclubs catering to queer folks. I often find myself feeling sad about it, even when they were spaces that held no specific significance to me. And yet, when I find myself talking to guys in places like hookup apps and chat sites many of whom are young enough to never know a world where our sex lives were not defined by shopping for faceless torsos on our smart phones , I spend at least as much time talking about feelings of isolation and loneliness as I do making referrals to anonymous HIV testing and PrEP-prescribing doctors.
The more I talk to guys online, the more I am convinced that nobody is thrilled with this new digital status quo, and everyone is wondering where their community has gone. A perfect storm of the gentrifying of urban cores and the mainstreaming of queerness have created a situation where it is nigh impossible for gay spaces to survive, let alone thrive. Our decades of respectability politics, our focus on getting married and assuring the heteros that we were really deep down no different than they were play a part in all this — with every step we take towards mainstream integration, it is a step away from the ostensible need for our own unique and safe spaces.
As our cities continue to gentrify and become the playgrounds for the wealthy, any space like a nightclub cannot survive without doing the briskest of business. Certainly no establishment catering to such a respectively marginal and small population can expect to make ends-meet. Adding to this, we were so thirsty for acceptance from the world-at-large that we seem to have forgotten that we are still, all of us, misfits and weirdos, that this is what gives us power and makes us a force to be reckoned with, and that spaces where we can be amongst our own people nourish and strengthen our souls.
It is not all bleak though. As our permanent spaces disappear, folks are banding together to find ways we can create spaces of our own. Well-connected members of the community have been increasingly hosting queer events in whatever spaces we can find.
If you know where to find them, there is something exciting happening many nights in any given month, whether its the underground bear party, the Oral Groove party for women and trans folks, a dance at a usually-straight establishment, social groups like coffee nights or games nights. It has taken some time for us to figure it out, but more and more queer people are realizing we need these places, where we can shake off the burden of the heteronormative society we live and be unapologetically ourselves.
And we are finally seeing folks responding to this need, and taking steps to make those spaces happen. I feel blessed to be in a position where I can be amongst those of us doing something. The first time myself and some friends decided to try our hand hosting a queer pub night, we admittedly did not expect much from it. We were having quiet drinks and complaining about how our spaces were gone, but it suddenly dawned on us that we were already taking space, the four of us, and that it was entirely possible to simply invite other queer people to join us.
The worst that could happen was that nobody came, and we would be stuck hanging out with each-other a very agreeable worst-case-scenario as we already did that all the time. We grossly underestimated just how much people needed the space. Our event packed the entire bar and ran the poor insufficiently scheduled bar staff ragged one of whom is a good friend of mine and to whom I thoroughly apologize and hope she made an absolute killing in tips. The band scheduled to play that night looked overwhelmed, clearly not prepared for a crowd of rowdy homos on a Thursday night.
Their door guy too seemed completely unable to comprehend what he was dealing with, on a shift that by all accounts should have been quiet how had his bar reached capacity before 9pm? It was hugely successful, and in the several pub nights we have run since we made them monthly due to their ongoing success , we have had line-ups at the door every time. It is a testament to queer resilience that we are finding ways to make space for ourselves in a city that seemed to have pushed those spaces out.
There are rumours of course that The Embassy is not closed forever. Many folks who are in the know claim that the intention is to reopen after renovations. But that clearly does not mean we need to accept the cold isolation that replacing these establishments with online hookups, dating and social media provides.
The last several months has shown me that we still need to take space for our communities. We must keep it up.
If you want something, make it happen. Throw a party, host a night. We need to make space for ourselves. This author does not have any more posts. April 21st, by James Dee 2.