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Month: February 2021

My History in Gay Bars, Part One

The first gay bar I went to was The Roost. I was only freshly out, visiting Edmonton from Lethbridge where I was going to University. I don’t remember much about that first visit. Had I known then how pivotal a role gay bars would play in my life, chances are I’d’ve paid more attention. As it was though, I was caught up in the other firsts of that night – the first time I’d met people off the Internet, the first threesome. The Roost, sandwiched in between those two things, barely made the radar.

Lethbridge had nothing close to a gay bar. The community there, small as it was, would take over local coffee shops on Thursday nights, after which a group of us would head to a straight club to drink and dance. Once a month, the gay organization would hang up some streamers and balloons in a community hall on the outskirts of town and we would all flock out there. These couldn’t compare to an actual gay bar of course. For one of those, we had to head north to Calgary, to Boystown or Detour, or further north, to Edmonton, to The Roost. (Less often were the weekends we would go to Vancouver, where we could do a circuit of bars like Odyssey, Celebrities, Numbers, Denman Station, although really, for a nineteen-year-old boy from smalltown Alberta, all of Davie Street seemed like a gay bar.)

I had been to a “gay place” before The Roost. When I was in grade eleven, my friend V had left her home in Sherwood Park and was living in youth emergency housing. There, she’d met some gay folk, and she was going to show me how okay she was with my recent coming out by introducing me to them. I bused into Edmonton to meet her at a coffee shop called Boyztown (not to be confused with the Calgary dance club of the same name; at the time, I had no idea any other spaces existed. This was 1994. There wasn’t an Internet for me to research things on). Boyztown Café, on the main floor of a building that would later have popular gay pub on the upper level, across the street from where another gay bar would later be, wasn’t everything I hoped. Or, I guess, the space was fine but the people V introduced me to weren’t what I’d hoped. I was seventeen. I wanted her to be introducing me to a gay boy who was cute, who thought I was cute, and we’d date and we’d fall in love. Instead, I met a motley assortment of people who I’m sure were all very nice but none of whom were attractive to me. I wonder what might have happened if I’d met someone else that night, or if I’d gone back to try again. Instead, I continued to fall in love with the straight boys who might be gay, as I came out more and more, then went back in, then came back out to stay.

By that point, me and my homophobic, misogynist, racist roommate with the beautiful body had dial-up Internet, which I could use to access the chat forum, #mIRC. There, I found the #gayalberta room, where I, as ‘oasis’ in honour of their song Wonderwall, met gay people not part of the twenty or so I saw weekly at gay coffee. On my next trip home to Edmonton, I made plans to meet one. I met up with C at Boyztown, then we picked up his boyfriend E and went to a movie. The movie was Fear with Marky Mark, who was at the height of his Calvin Klein fame. After that, C and E asked if I wanted to stop by The Roost before heading back to their place.

Like I said, I don’t remember much of anything about our short time at the Roost. It was a Tuesday. The crowd wasn’t huge, but the male stripper they had drew in a crowd at midnight.
The Friday after, I was out with my… IDK, straight ex boyfriend and his girlfriend. We went to Rebar, an alternative club on Whyte, but then I persuaded them to check out The Roost. Already, straight space, even as queer-friendly a straight space as Rebar, didn’t feel like home to me. I had finally found where my people are, and it was gay bars.

A few weeks later, I took advantage of a break in summer session to go back up to Edmonton, for more of the same: meeting new people off mIRC at Boyztown and then heading to The Roost, including one night in drag just for kicks.

That would become the pattern during school breaks, whether it was Thanksgiving or Reading Week, or whatever. I was navigating all the normal chaos of a kid coming out, but it all melted away in the gay bar. The dance floor was sacrosanct. Please check your boyfriend drama at the door. It helped that I didn’t live in Edmonton, for sure. I could fly into town, party and play (not in the PnP sense of the words), then go back home, leaving whatever fall out happened to get cleaned up by the locals before my next visit.

I would stay with my parents during these trips, although the bar nights usually involved “sleepovers at friends”, which was a more parental-friendly way of saying I was hooking up. My mom was doing her best to embrace the gay thing but had a rule against me bringing anyone home. We also lived out of town so bringing a guy the forty minutes back home wasn’t something I was super excited to do anyway.

It did happen once. Usually I was meeting locals but one June trip up, I met a boy who was also visiting, from Victoria and gods he was beautiful. Still, there was just nowhere to go. However, when I saw him there the next night as well, I knew this had to happen and brought him home, sneaking him downstairs. This wasn’t the first boy I’d had sleepover, but straight ex boyfriends don’t count (even though they may have the same name).
Years later, that beautiful one-night-stand would briefly date my ex before taking his own life.

Between that first time at The Roost in June of ’96 and the time I finished my degree in December of ’99, I really did fall in love, not with a person but with Edmonton in general and The Roost in particular. Jaunts to Calgary and the bars then always seemed to result in less friendships and more drama, and Vancouver, while over the rainbow wonderful, didn’t have the home base advantage. When I finished my degree and needed to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, the answer was simple: go home and be professionally gay.

At that point, I already had a few years of professional gayness in Lethbridge, volunteering with the gay group there. I figured that, more than the degree I’d just spent four years and forty thousand dollars to get, would be enough to get my foot in the door at a place like The Roost.
I moved home from Lethbridge in March of 1999 and my life, already really fucking gay, got gayer.

Wanna Dance?

I’m at that stage of lockdown where I’m meandering down side streets of nostalgia. Remember school slow dances? The boys are all on one side, the girls on another, until someone makes that first move, and suddenly everywhere is pairing off as chaperones make sure the couples are a balloon-width apart. These dances are rites of passage, but for queer people, they can be an exquisite kind of torture. Until, that is, that magic moment, when you’re out and suddenly that slow dance can be with – wait for it – another boy! 

​Take a walk with me, to visit the Ghosts of Slow Dances past.

Location: Fort Saskatchewan, sometime in 1986
I don’t even know how I warranted an invitation to the party really. I don’t remember us being

friends, and I don’t remember it being such a big party that the whole fourth grade was invited. But there I was, in the basement of Jen’s house, and kids were dancing, and I was one of them. Her name was Kalyn, certainly one of the prettiest girls in class. Thirty-five years later, she is still, and always, my Lady in Red.

Location: Fort Saskatchewan, Oct. 31, 1990
I’m head over heels for a red-headed girl named Tara. When we’re on lunch break, I steal lilacs from nearby trees to bring to her. At the Halloween dance, I’m gonna make my move: upgrade the lilacs to a rose, coupled with a teddy bear, and a song request guaranteed to sweep her off her feet.
It doesn’t go well. I’m left on the dance floor waiting, teddy bear still in hand. 
A year and a half later though, after she’s moved away and come back for a visit, I get that dance, to that same song. Thirty years after that, the only thing I’m waiting for is COVID to end so we can grab a coffee and catch up.

Location: Lethbridge, February 17, 1996
There were probably other slow dances. Surely there’d been something at grad, my grad or hers. But even though I may have danced with Jenn, I’m pretty sure I never spun around the dance floor at Chase with Jeff. 
See, I’m out now, well, out and then back in and then back out, and even though I dumped a girl named Kimberley just before Valentine’s, it’s AFTER Valentine’s now and I’m at the Croatian Hall on the outskirts of Lethbridge. Here, the gays and lesbians gather for their monthly “Homo-Hops”. 

It’s my first time in a big group of other queer people. I know no one. But even though I’m sitting there alone, nursing my drinks, I am happy to watch.
The last song of the night is announced, and a boy comes up to me and asks me to dance. I must’ve been terrified. Honestly, I don’t remember much about the dance – details got lost in the alcohol and the sweet juiceberry kisses that followed. 
But if I close my eyes, I can breathe in and smell him still, the first man to hold me in his arms as we danced.

Location: Buddys, February 14, 2003
There was a boyfriend or two, a husband, a mistress, and they all had slow dance moments, I’m sure. But zoom ahead with me, to a place downtown where the queers all came around, a hole in the wall where you could usually find me and Aaron in a cage, screaming along to Kylie and Shania. And one Friday night, eighteen Valentine’s ago, Arrowchaser ended the night with some Lonestar.

Location: Buddys, early 2006
This was my party and it was glorious. Except for when it wasn’t. Oh sure, there were nights you could find me ending the night on the dance floor with the boyfriend, perhaps to some James Blunt, but the boyfriend ended, and the glory faded, and all that really remained was the friendships. 
Including my best friend. After the bar closed, we would stay there for hours, playing games and laughing – and getting high as fuck of course. But before the bar closed, we could always rely on Arrowchaser for one slow song to end the night on.

Location: EVO, sometime in late 2021
I don’t know his name yet, and I don’t know the song, but it’s time for those dance floors to reopen, just so they can close with a song that lets people end the night floating. Not like SMG and Sean Patrick Flanery in Simply Irresistible, mind you, but close. There’s magic in that moment and I’m ready for some magic.