Business is a drag: the closure of gay bars in Ottawa

Strobe lights flicker as a disco ball spins above the dance floor. The crowd’s applause welcomes the drag queens to the small stage at The Lookout Bar in Ottawa. A loud pop song thumps as people gather around, ready to capture every glorious moment. The queens grab their microphones and look like they were born for the spotlight.

“Are we all ready for some show? I said, are we all ready for some fucking show?” yells drag queen Savannah Balenciaga Couture as she walks onto the dance floor.

Couture is one of three queens performing at the ByWard Market gay bar’s weekly Saturday show and starts off the night wearing a teased lace front wig while  putting on polished lip-syncing routines.

Yet, despite the high glamour and adoring fans, the City of Ottawa’s drag scene is declining.

The Village Legacy Project reports that 59 gay bars have shut down in Ottawa alone over the course of its complicated relationship with the local queer community.

Within the last 10 years, drag venues such as the 30-year-old Centretown Pub and nearby EDGE Club and Lounge have shut their doors for good. In a city of nearly one million people, there are four gay bars that continue to have semi-regular drag nights: The Lookout Bar, Mercury Lounge, Swizzles, and T’s Pub.

Despite this sudden reduction in Ottawa gay bars, Bryan Quin, the youth co-ordinator for Ottawa’s Capital Pride, said representation in popular culture as well as the gentrification of drag are finally bringing it into the mainstream.

“Initially, drag queens were outcasts in society but [TV shows like] RuPaul’s Drag Race [have] been able to educate people, in a sense, and allow them to experience the fun of it all,” Quin said. “It has a power in social media and entertainment that highlights how drag culture can be appreciated and enjoyed by many people, all while government policies are getting more progressive.”

Starting in the 1950s, the Canadian government systematically outed and removed public servants from their jobs simply for being gay. This practice continued until the 1990s.

What many people may not know is that Carleton University played a role in this discriminatory program.

In 1962, Carleton professor F.R. Wake published a report about his work with the ‘fruit machine,’ a series of psychological tests meant to help determine someone’s sexual orientation through methods such as measuring their pupil dilation when shown homoerotic and neutral images.

The method was widely used by the RCMP throughout the Cold War, to fire and demote gay people working in the government, according to a 2016 article by the Charlatan.

On Nov. 28, 2017, an apology was issued by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the government’s discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community country-wide, however Carleton has yet to formally apologize for its role in this dark episode in Canadian history.

Although Ottawa still has work to do in repairing the relationship between the government and the LGBTQ+ population, Quin said the reparations made by the Canadian government mean a brighter future for Ottawa’s gay community.

In a city where drag shows once graced the stages of gay bars and clubs every night of the week, Jade London, a popular Ottawa queen, said drag is still essential to the city and its queer community.

London describes herself as a “high glamour, Barbie-Bratz doll.” She has made a name for herself performing in Ottawa for 12 years and got her start at the Centretown Pub, which closed last January. Raised in a strict Asian family, London said she owes a lot to drag for helping her find acceptance, and becoming the successful person she is today.

“Drag has made me come out to the world a little bit more. Drag saved me,” she said.

“Let’s be honest, it’s a dog-eat-dog world . . . but you need to be strong, especially on the inside. Drag made me stronger.”

Quin, who organizes drag-based events in the city, is fond of the power that drag has to bring people together.

However, decreasing venue space is putting the art form in danger, and has even posed the risk of losing queer spaces in the capital.

According to Quin, this can be attributed to the disconnect between the drag scene and LGBTQ+ groups in Ottawa.

“The queer community in Ottawa is divided. I think if you identify as a specific identity, you have your own group of people,” he said. “There are a couple events where people come together like Pride, but most times people hang with their own groups. It’s hard to run a business that only serves a small segment of the community.”

On the other hand, Quin said the increase of non-LGBTQ+ visitors to drag shows is creating another problematic dynamic in Ottawa gay bars, which he called “a double-edged sword.”

Quin explained that as more straight people visit gay bars, they become gentrified entertainment venues instead of inclusive and safe spaces.

“I think it’s good that they are open minded, but it limits the spaces that queer and trans people can go to,” Quin said.

Following drag’s uptick in popularity, local hotspots and night clubs like Babylon have also began to host one-night-only drag shows to try and accommodate the increasing demand. However, these spaces act as short term patch to the overall issue of fewer and fewer dedicated drag spaces.

According to London, one of the largest reasons for the lack of surviving gay bars is the fact that Ottawa is a student city.

“Kids come and go all the time, and the younger crowd may get reckless with their money sometimes. But it’s difficult to maintain a sturdy revenue,” London said. “We, as an industry end up getting the short end of the stick.”

However, some Carleton students like Tia Wong, a second-year global and international studies student, recommend drag shows as something everyone should experience.

“Going to a show is an experience that’s different from just watching [drag queens] on TV,” Wong said. “I got up and danced with them when they asked for people and stuff, so it’s more interactive.”

According to London, Ontario’s plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour  also has a negative impact on bar owners.

London travels to American cities like Miami to perform regularly and said she has noticed queer spaces are on a steady decline, similar to the downward trend in Ottawa.

However, Ottawa’s drag scene is resilient and refuses to fade away quietly. London said that supporting queens at local bars is essential to the continued existence of drag in Ottawa.

Although the capital’s queer community seems to be in a state of transition, not all hope is lost.

“Drag is endless,” London said. “At this point, we’re just fighting the world.”

Graphic by Manoj Thayalan