Where has queer Toronto gone? It pops up in a bar near you

COVID-19 took its toll on restaurants and bars, a loss for Toronto. But the loss of The Beaver, a gay hangout, was a real blow to that community as it lost another of the city’s queer spaces.

Closed in August 2020 after operating on Queen Street West for 14 years, The Beaver has played host to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” drag shows, karaoke, potlucks and trivia nights.

For many queer Torontonians, the space wasn’t just a cramped bar, it was a community center. After living on the financial edge for years, The Beaver succumbed to COVID lockdowns, the last straw for a cherished institution.

“There is a real lack of queer spots, nights and events in Toronto, especially with The Beaver closing,” said Maria Lykouris, a server at Paradise Grapevine, who uses the pronoun she.

Fortunately, queer popups work to fill the void.

Lykouris launched a monthly queer pop-up event in 2021 as they searched their home for a safe space for the community. Their event, Queer Wine Night, has proven that what they have to offer is in demand.

“About 15 people came to my first event,” Lykouris said. “A few months later, when I posted about it on Lex, a queer social media platform, almost 50 people immediately DMed me.”

The turnout for Lykouris’ most recent Queer Wine Night full of Paradise Grapevine, the Bloor West bar where their events are held. “It’s first come, first served, and usually a few hundred people show up,” Lykouris said.

In April, the crowd poured onto the terrace and erupted into a late-night spontaneous dance. The windows misted up from the inside and someone used their finger to write “GAY” with a smiley face in the condensation. It’s the kind of bustling, friendly, busy public proximity that the city hasn’t experienced in years.

Queer Wine Night is just one of the few queer pop-ups to emerge from the pandemic: a collective effort at emergency programming to make up for the city’s lack of dedicated queer spaces.

Everybody Flirts is a queer karaoke pop-up at Tammy’s Wine Bar in Parkdale on Sunday nights. It is run by best friends and former colleagues Kathleen Barrett and Paula Wilson.

“Last year it was the middle of winter and it was really hard to get things going,” said Barrett, a server at Tammy’s. “Initially it was Paula’s idea to rent a sound system and a few microphones. What we do is no frills. We play YouTube karaoke videos on Paula’s laptop and project them on the wall.”

With this humble DIY setup, attendance for the event has grown every week. Barrett likens the energy of Everybody Flirts to that of a buzzing house party.

“It’s completely unpretentious, a little unprofessional, very warm and welcoming, and just a really good time.”

The disappearance of gay nightlife isn’t just a Toronto issue. Queer bars are closing all over North America, especially those run by lesbians.

In 2020, Jägermeister launched a fundraising campaign, recognizing the near-extinction of lesbian bars in the United States. According to her research, out of approximately 60,000 bars in the United States, only 21 were lesbian bars. There are only three lesbian bars in all of New York City.

“Gay nightlife is a place where you can discover and expand who you are as a person,” says Lykouris. “If a seniors club were closed, where would seniors go to hang out? It’s not just any space. It’s a loss of identity and a loss of a way for people to connect.”

Connection is also an important driver for Barrett. “Having queer spaces is extremely important, especially after the isolation we’ve all lived through for the past two years. You need spaces where you can meet people who understand you, who resemble you and who accept you. Where you can feel safe and have fun too.”

The Village is the historic district with many gay bars in Toronto. Both women have a similar opinion about it: the bar scene is dominated by gay white men, frequented by bachelor parties and a bit ‘outdated’. They crave a queer nightlife that looks like the kind of Toronto’s trendiest bars and restaurants, just… “gayer”.

“The more gays there are in a place, the better the atmosphere will be,” Barrett laughed.

If the turnout they’re seeing is any indication, Lykouris and Barrett are not wrong about the demand for more queer nightlife. Or, as I heard an enthusiastic participant from Queer Wine Night gushing to Lykouris: “Thank you, thank you so much for doing this. Queer Wine Night is incredible. We all really needed this.”

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