Canada’s LGBTQ2S+ safe spaces are disappearing at the worst possible time

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It’s known as the Cheers of Calgary’s gay community. The Backlot is a cozy spot within the historic Underwood building in the city’s downtown core.

There’s a fireplace on the main floor, enough space for just a handful of tables and the main bar. Upstairs there is a small stage where local musicians or drag performers often play. There’s also a courtyard in the back, a patio surrounded by the walls of the neighbouring buildings.

“We’re not surrounded by condos,” the bar’s owner Mark Campbell says. “So if we’re loud until late at night, we’re not bothering anyone around.”

For decades, The Backlot has been a safe space where members of Calgary’s LGBTQ2S+ community could gather. When Campbell took over ownership in the mid-90s, he remembers the city was a very different place.

“I remember when I first started working here, marching in the Gay Pride parades there was a lot of people protesting them,” Campbell recalls. “People would drive by and throw bottles, drag queens coming out of the bar would have to immediately jump into a cab.”

Today, he says, things have changed for the better. The annual Pride parade attracts hundreds of thousands of supporters and when drag performers leave the bar, they are often stopped and asked to pose for photos instead of being harassed.

At the same time, however, many of the city’s LGBTQ2S+ bars and clubs have disappeared.

“Boystown was next door (to The Backlot), Detour Arena on 17th,” says Backlot patron, David Khan. “They’re both gone now, so there’s not a lot of places left.”

The Backlot is currently among just three LGBTQ2+ bars or clubs still operating in Calgary but soon, it too may be forced to close.

“I got a termination of lease back on the first of November,” says Campbell. “It was devastating.”

The property owners are preparing to develop an 18-storey tower with 120 residential units and commercial space. Truman Homes is currently seeking a development permit for the space.

“They offered to try and find a space in the new complex that they’re building unfortunately that three to five years down the road,” Campbell said.

Calgary isn’t the only city losing its queer spaces.

Gary Kinsmen, professor emeritus at Laurentian University and the author of ‘The Regulation of Desire’ and ‘The Canadian War on Queers’ says it’s happening even in places with celebrated and historic gay villages like Church and Wellesley in Toronto.

“What you’re seeing is the process of gentrification, the development of real estate, and the development of condos in particular parts of cities,” Kinsmen said. “This is actually leading to a very serious erosion to some of of the LGBT communities and spaces and bars and baths that have been established in the past.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on many businesses as well, but economic issues aren’t the only challenge at play.

“There’s also the issue of queer spaces being villainized or turned into targets by people who simply don’t want them to exist,” said Travis Meyers, an LGBTQ2S+ community advocate with the group Friends of Hanlan’s.

“We have to look no further than Drag Queen Story Hour or places in the states where people have shown up outside of queer bars with guns to tell them that they shouldn’t be there.”

Hanlan’s Point Beach on Toronto Island is one of Canada’s oldest queer spaces. For more than 80 years, it’s been used as a gathering place for the LGBTQ2S+ community but its future as a safe place was recently under threat.

“The city had announced a plan for a new concert festival venue right alongside the space,” said Meyers. “Thousands of people would be arriving at the space – that could create opportunities for conflict, discrimination and even violence.”

Meyers points to recent examples across cities in Canada and the United States where drag events had to be either canceled or postponed because of protests or other concerns.

Last month in Calgary two events featuring drag performers were postponed after organizers learned that protests were planned at the event’s venue.

“We’re at a time where there is a new right-wing attack upon especially drag performances but also trans people, queer people, and queer youth in particular,” said Kinsmen. “So it’s really important for us right now to establish safe spaces for ourselves.”

“It really shows we have a long way to go,” says Kahn, who has organized a social media campaign to try and save The Backlot in Calgary. “Places like these are still really needed for community members to feel safe.”

Supporters of the Save The Backlot Bar campaign are urging people to submit comments to the City of Calgary’s development permit application team. The application will go to the Calgary Planning Commission this year.

Meanwhile, after listening to community concerns about the future of Hanlan’s Point Beach, the city of Toronto recently shelved its plan to pursue a concert venue near the queer space.

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