Personal reflections after another shooting in a queer bar. Colorado Springs, in 2022.
So much changes and also stays the same. Some queers have incredible reach and inclusion in mainstream media, increased positive representation & visibility and (geographically depending) legally protected human rights yet queer bars are still the most sacred & deeply needed community spaces especially in small towns.
I forgot until last week while I was chaperoning a group of Berkeley High School students on a field trip to the movies that at their age I was the bouncer for a dyke bar in my town.
It was 1993 and I was 18 years old. The drinking age in Québec is 18 so I could legally work at the only dyke bar, Le Clubhouse, which was a tiny room above Le Club, the only Hull gay bar. Ottawa and Hull are different cities in different provinces (Ontario and Québec) with distinct drinking ages (19 and 18) and bar closing times (1am and 3am). They are separated by a mere 10 minute drive across a bridge that spans the impressive and beautiful Ottawa River. Many gays back in the day would party in Ottawa until last call and then cross the bridge to keep the fun going.
As a queer teen I’d started my nightlife journey at the GO (Gays of Ottawa) community center which held all ages dance parties on weekends and it was the place to be if you were under the legal drinking age, occasionally 19-25 year olds would fraternize with us there. Perhaps they appreciated the sober space or maybe they enjoyed my crowd-pleasing DJ sets 😉.
Being a second generation queer, I grew up spending significant amounts of time in gay bars, a childhood filled with running in the halls at women’s dances which took place in community gymnasiums where my mom organized political protests and “Sisters Are Doing it For Themselves” was on high rotation in her DJ sets. Physical spaces for gay community were precious, often tucked away where no one else wanted to be. They were multi-purpose, used for nighttime bump & grinds but also providing safety for daytime activities like planning political activism and coming out support groups. These spaces also might sometimes include lending libraries for queer books, community message boards (pre-internet AND post) as well as the tools for creating gay media like Ottawa’s local gay paper, “GO Info”.
Between the GO center and the youth drop in a few blocks away I could, as a queer youth already living on their own at 17, get free food, a listening ear, and connection to an inter-generational community of “my people”. Dancing together in bars was the number one way to spend time with other queers – to make friends and ex-lovers. It was also the catalyst for burgeoning activism. Being together as a group gave us power to speak out, agitate for change. There was a mini-zeitgeist in those years about queer youth being out in high school. What would become a robust network of GSA groups was in its seed stage. Queer youth finding each other was such a huge part of my history.
Working the door at Le Clubhouse was mostly about collecting the cover charge and check IDs but also to dissuade men from coming upstairs unless they were accompanied by a woman. Very few men tried to come into our space – an occasional gay friend from the larger, rambunctious club downstairs might come up for a breather – but once in a while if a str8 man was “curious” I’d have to stop them at the top of the stairs and turn them away. If there was ever conflict about this policy our 5′ tall bartender & manager Berta would hop over the bar and dress down anyone until they were backing down the stairs apologetically. I was tall and big but completely useless in confrontations.
This was Canada in the 1990’s so there wasn’t fear of someone coming for us with automatic, high powered rifles. Canada tightened up a lot of gun rules after the 1989 Montréal Massacre with Bill C-17. The violence we feared then came from our bars being off the main drags, tucked away in dark corners, buildings with no walk-able options for after hours food or taxi pickups. The Coral Reef in Ottawa, with a Thursday night dyke party, had a dungeon-like entrance that was only accessible via a deserted underground parking lot. Gay-bashing was a very real and daily threat and I’m thankful I never personally experienced physical violence for being queer but it was an ever-present presence in my immediate circle of friends. After the tragedy that was the Oakland Ghost Ship fire in 2016 I realized that many places I spent time in during my youth would have been devastated had there been a fire since many locations did not have fire exits and were off the beaten path – easy targets.
These obfuscated, single-entrance spaces were second homes for queer youth back then just as they are now. Bartenders, coat-check attendants, DJs, bouncers — all held space for regulars and visitors alike. Creating a family through time spent together and also accepting each other’s flaws and fabulous-ness in equal parts. Once I drove with friends to Chicoutimi, QC to pick up our bandmate who had done a summer French immersion program and we set out to locate the gay bar in that 40,000 person town — it was behind their single block of str8 dance clubs, side by side with biker shop with a swastika on display in the window. The tiny bar was called “L’Eccentrique” which is French for “Eccentric”. When we entered we counted (by visual assumptions) 2 dykes, ~30 gay men, and a single drag queen running a bingo game. The patrons were happily engaged their night of gambling and while they glanced at the strange punks walking in they went back to what they were doing quickly, neither fearful nor freezing us out. If a queer person had moved to that town in 1995 chances are that L’Eccentrique could have become your regular haunt and connection to the handful of others like you.
My teens and early 20’s were full of weekends out with a ragtag groups of queers, driving groups of drunk kids home in the bed of my truck at 4am and going for breakfast at the 24hr diner in downtown Ottawa. My best friend and I would borrow her parent’s minivan and cruise the streets collecting our other teen friends then sprinting the 1.5hr drive up to the more impressive queer bars of Montréal. This opened up access to a new crew of francophone dykes in our 16-20 year old age range and paved the way for my move there when high school ended. At 22 I impulsively moved across the country to Victoria, BC (pop. 300K). The only gays I knew there were my moms at first. One night while working my job at Subway I served two young men who were wearing rainbow ring necklaces and I blurted out “YOU’RE GAY! WHERE ARE THE GAYS?!”. They shared with me that there were two bars in downtown, Rumours and BJs (gay bar names 😂). The first thing I did the next day was go to those locations to collect flyers and figure out which night I should show up to, flagging my Bearded Lady shirt to find other queer punks. Going to those bar nights eventually connected me to one person who introduced me to her friends and within a few months I was a regular in the queer social community of this sleepy town. We even created a softball team, the Big Gay Team.
This pattern repeats itself. When I moved to Toronto at 25, even with existing queer friends to socialize with, the larger community is accessed via the nightlife. Find the queer bar, find the queers, build your home. That time it was in a major city (by Canadian standards) of nearly 5 million people and the ‘mainstream’ queers had a ton of options in the Church & Wellesley neighbourhood downtown while the artists & weirdos were creating exciting gallery and bar scenes in Queen West. Bars can feel & function like a home, a launching point, a networking space. Queers gathering to celebrate, dance, and show our love for each other will never stop.
My heart aches for those in Colorado who had to run, hide, scream and watch their community be shot up that night or who got shot themselves. I have to send two kids to schools every day, as someone who now lives in the U.S., and knowing that this type of violence could happen at their schools since those are frequent targets. In a few years our oldest kid might be out with friends in a queer bar somewhere in this country, adding another risk vector to the equation. Intersectionality in the U.S. is layering on risks of death from other people’s hate and the ease with which the haters can access guns meant for war on foreign soil.
I hate that the folks who wish us dead are more likely to have guns to follow through with and they seem willing to use them regardless of potential legal consequences.
This shooting will be added to the litany of violent acts that queer communities endured as they pressed on. Many thanks to Richard M. Fierro for using his army training and bravery to take down the shooter in this particular incident. Standing ovation for the trans woman (name currently not known) who punctuated the take down with her heels on that hater. May we continue to have the capability to minimize the damage and stand up to attackers until they someday stop trying.