Queer Times and Spaces in Downtown Hamilton
From the Nest, Issue 15
by James Diemert
What do I feel when I think of queer spaces in Hamilton?
The first feeling is bittersweet nostalgia. As an “elder millenial'”, I’ve been witness to some significant shifts in culture and changes in the way we live and connect with each other. My cohort’s experience of queer spaces in the form of the traditional “gay bar” took place near the end of their heyday.
To many in my age group, and older, these spaces were once the centre of our communities. Although the list of significant cultural, economic, political and social changes that have defined my generations adulthood is exhaustingly long, I would argue that the decline of the gay bar is significant enough to earn a place on that list, and like many of these changes it did not happen in a vacuum, but is deeply intertwined with many of the other significant shifts that have occurred over the past several decades.
My own first experience with gay bars was The Embassy – the storied (and somewhat notorious) nightclub of Gore Park. To a recently turned 19-year-old queer kid who had grown up in the rural and suburban regions surrounding Hamilton, The Embassy seemed like a magical world where the rules were all opposite. Gay people were existing openly! It felt thrilling and taboo.
Homophobia is certainly not over, but it’s less widely acceptable than it once was. In the late 90s and early 2000s casual homophobia was constant, and the threat of violence was omnipresent. Finding a world where you could let your guard down and embrace your whole self took a weight off that is difficult to describe if you haven’t experienced it first hand. It would be hard to overstate how different things were even twenty years ago.
Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that this experience was not consistent for all queer people, which is one of the reasons I believe “traditional” gay bars have been on the decline for the past decade. While remembering them fondly, it is important that our memory is not so rose-tinted that we forget some of the ways they were problematic, particularly if we hope to build better spaces in the future.
Our communities have always needed to reckon with issues of power privilege and oppression and acknowledging this is an important piece of moving forward. Gay bars across North America have historically had issues prioritizing all the letters in the LGBTQ+ initialism equitably, skewing towards whiteness, cisness, promoting toxic cultures of idealized masculinity, and engaging in casual pervasive misogyny.
It was commonplace for these venues to police the gender identity and expression of patrons and refuse entrance or service to people whose bodies didn’t adhere to certain parameters. When there were no other options to connect with community, they served an extremely valuable purpose to many, but certainly not all.
So what happened? I sometimes hear arguments that social media and apps like Grindr killed the gay bar, and certainly the emergence of other options to find community certainly played a role, but screens can never truly replace community spaces, as queer people have been learning for the past decade (and as the rest of the world has been learning for the past couple of years).
Then there’s the matter of wider cultural acceptance and the changing dynamics of venues in general. A gay bar used to be the only kind of place a gay person could feel more or less fully safe, and so that’s where you went. But as our culture has shifted towards more acceptance and homophobia has become less acceptable, many spaces have become safer, broadening the list og possible places to go and things to do.
Something is lost though, when spaces are welcoming but do not centre queer people. There will always be a voice in the back of my head that I should remain on alert and not forget that I’m not in a place where it’s safe to assume most of the crowd are my people.
So what else do I think of when I think of queer spaces in Hamilton?
The second thing I feel is optimism and excitement. Many of our community spaces have closed, locally and globally, for many of the mentioned reasons as well as myriad other issues a single article cannot address.
But one thing that has become clear is that queer people in this city want and need dedicated community spaces. The availability of other means by which to connect with community has served to shine a light on the reasons why gay bars were not working for everyone, but as those spaces have disappeared, we have also learned that they cannot replace what we really need, which is queer spaces that do better.
It is a mark of community resilience that even without dedicated venues, queer spaces have been carved out into the landscape of Hamilton anyways.
I have been extremely proud to be a part of that effort, and to contribute to the work of friends and fellow community organizers who have worked tirelessly to bring events and dedicated queer nights to Hamilton’s nightlife.
We certainly have not always gotten it right, and there’s always more to learn and more growing to do, but the spirit and dedication of the architects of Hamilton’s queer communitiy spaces, one that points towards a more widely inclusive approach, is encouraging.
More traditional dedicated queer spaces also continue to evolve, and Hamilton even has a new gay bar that has finally opened in its downtown. These spaces too are learning from our past and by all accounts seem to be growing towards building a better future for LGBTQ+ community spaces.
It is unlikely that the gay bar will ever return to being a central hub of our community life, and that’s okay. In some ways, it is an indicator of progress, and the fact that it’s less required is ultimately a good, if bittersweet, thing to consider.
But I cannot imagine a world where queer people do not want to be surrounded by our own people, to have access to offline spaces where we can be comfortably and completely ourselves without fear of rejection, violence or discrimination.
The people who create these spaces must learn from our past to build better for our future, where all of our diverse communities can feel welcome, safe and centred, and I believe there is the will to do that in Hamilton.
James “Dee” Diemert is a longtime resident of Hamilton and a passionate community advocate and organizer; they were a founding member of the Queer Outta Hamilton collective and a researcher and report author on the Mapping the Void – Two-Spirit and LGBTQ+ Experiences in Hamilton Needs Assessment; they live in Ward 3