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My Life Among the Lesbians

Just finished an interview with Taproot Edmonton about the history of lesbian space here in Edmonton and it has me musing about my own lesbian history, especially with regards to my time in gay bars here (2024 marks my silver jubilee of Edmonton gay nightlife so the musings are gonna muse for sure!)
I never went to Club 70, Edmonton’s first gay bar. It’s very much before my time. It was a space for men and women both, but I don’t know that that was because of desire as much as necessity. The story goes, lesbians came early, filled the jukebox full of quarters for their country tunes, and by the time the gay men were done primping and preening and ready for something poppier, that juke box was booked solid, and so, Flashback was born.
My own gay history begins somewhat similar though. Like Edmonton in the days of Club 70, Lethbridge in the late 90s didn’t have a large enough out community to sustain gendered spaces or events. No, instead we all gathered together in a hall once a month for dances aka Homohops, and maybe just maybe, that’s my taste of what Club 70 was like: everyone dancing together, man with man, woman with woman, as God intended. (In 2024, this paragraph feels exceptionally binary.)

Monthly hall dances were a thing in Edmonton too. Womonspace started in 1982, and they were all about those hall parties right from the beginning. Small wonder. After Club 70 closed and became the short-lived lesbian-owned Cha Cha Palace, it became Boots n Saddle, and they were pretty public about not wanting lesbians there. Other bars at the time, like The Roost and Flashback, had up-and-down relationships with the lesbian community, often tossing them a Wednesday or Thursday for a women’s night. Womonspace ran events at places like Steppin’ Out and Option Room over the 80s and 90s, but they remained the go-to source for all things socially Sapphic.

By the time I moved back from Lethbridge and started my journey into Edmonton gay nightlife, Edmonton had its very own brick-and-mortar lesbian space, right out the alley door from Boots. Secrets was where we went for Wings and Bingo, early in the night before heading over to the Roost (this was back in the day when you went to bars to hook up, yes kids, pre-apps!) Secrets, under the ownership of Liz Gates, wasn’t Edmonton’s first lesbian bar, but it was certainly iconic. And like all Edmonton gay bars, yes, Twiggy worked there. (If you want to know some of the shenanigans that happened up and down the alley between Boots and Secrets, catch an Edmonton Queer History Project walking tour this summer!) Liz was very passionate about community-building; yes, the space was proudly lesbian, but never exclusive, and Liz tried to work with other bars in the city whenever she could. Even though this was also the time when one nightclub, on opening, was free for men but charged women a cover charge. (That was a short-lived move, for sure, but even years later, when managing that bar, I couldn’t get a woman bartender hired. Coat check was the best we could manage for her!)

But really, for the 2000s, my life was a gay boy among gay boys. That changed forever in 2010, when Boots abruptly shut down, and I got a phone call from Tracey and Deborah at Prism (Liz sold Secrets in 2003, it got re-branded and then re-located, and then sold to T&D in 2008). Working at Prism expanded the zoo of my life; no longer was it just chicken and bears, now, there were cougars too. And that whole assortment of folks soon relocated to Junction, in the former Boots space, a full circle moment for my life and for our community.

My life changed so much at Junction. Where past owners had enabled and abetted my drinking and drug use, Deb and Tracey gave me the tough life I needed to get sober. And sure, that sobriety came only after one Sunday Funday with the foogers (cougar + f*g) led to some poor making out choices, but it really did redirect my life. Sobriety didn’t always stop me from being a dick sadly, which didn’t always go over well with folks living their best dick-free lives, but I had my girlfriend, and my girlfriend’s girlfriend, and a dozen other strong and proud and beautiful women, and truly, those Junction days were underappreciated. Even Carla and her goddam hot chocolates.

When Junction closed and then a year later, EVO opened, the space we had wasn’t the space they wanted. Junction had been pub and eatery more than dance club, and EVO skewed young (and younger and younger all the time it feels). EVO did start things off working with Womonspace on a few events, but Womonspace was already starting to fizzle out by 2013 (but thirty years is an amazing run for a queer non profit volunteer driven social group)

With EVO, we have always tried to have events that were mostly all-gendered. That’s been a learning curve, for sure. Just even think of how much language around gender has evolved since 2013 though; we haven’t been the only ones learning! We had a short-lived series of Goddess parties, mostly with A-DJ in the booth, trying to give Edmonton’s women-loving-women folks a night more about them. In the greater community itself, lesbian-owned spaces like Mama’s and Pink Noiz came and went, and groups like Sapphic Speakeasy and ELEN came into being. We’ve loved working with ELEN the last couple years, and they really are carrying that Womonspace torch, especially in a city where so many pop-up events have been clearly male-focused. And shows like Sapphic Panic, plus 50% Sapphic DJs, keep the space lesbifriendly.

My own personal journey though, that’s a different story. My days behind the bar cracking Coors Lite for cougars are long done. I couldn’t even tell you the last time I had to decorate a Moosehead with a glowstick. That bartender interaction in a pub space let me build relationships with customers that doesn’t happen the same way now in the dark and booming space of a dance club. But when we lost Tina in 2018 or Deb in 2023, I got to see those people who worked their way into my life and my little gay boy heart.

And sure, there’s part of me that loves looking out on a dance floor of shirtless and sweaty gay male torsos, but mostly, I am happiest when I look around the club and see that it’s filled with all genders and races and ages, because that’s what our community is about, and that’s what I’ve always been about creating.

Rob Browatzke

2 Comments

  1. Moyra

    Great article Rob. I miss the old bar days. I don’t get to see any of the men from the Junction. I’m glad Evo is doing good! But you aren’t wrong, we liked to visit, eat, drink and smoke then home.
    I do miss you and didn’t get a chance to hug you at Deb’s gathering but I think of you often and always loved that you had Patron ready for me!!!

    PS Lane died July 2, 2021

    • Rob Browatzke

      Thanks for reaching out! Hopefully one day, and maybe sooner than we think, we’ll have a space for just that – visiting, eating, drinking, and Patron ready to go! I saw that Lane passed – one of the worst things about COVID was the way it took away the opportunity for people to come together in grief and celebration of lives well lived.

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