COVID-19 took its toll on restaurants and bars, a loss to Toronto. But the loss of The Beaver, a gathering place for gay people, was a real blow to that community as it lost yet another of the city’s queer spaces.
Closed in August 2020 after 14 years in operation on Queen Street West, The Beaver was host to drag shows, karaoke, potlucks and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” trivia nights.
For many queer Torontonians, the space wasn’t just a cramped bar, it was a community centre. After years of living on the financial edge, The Beaver succumbed to COVID lockdowns, the final straw for a cherished institution.
“There really is a 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 they.
Fortunately, queer pop-ups are working to fill the void.
Lykouris launched a monthly queer pop-up event in 2021 when they were at home craving a safe space for community. their event, Queer Wine Nighthas proven there’s a demand for what they have to offer.
“Around 15 people came to my first event,” said Lykouris. “A few months later, when I posted about it on Lex, a queer social media platform, right away almost 50 people DMed me.”
The turnout for Lykouris’s most recent Queer Wine Night packed Paradise Grapevine, the Bloor West bar that hosts their events. “It’s first come, first served, and a couple hundred people usually show up,” said Lykouris.
In April, the crowd spilled onto the patio and erupted into a late-night spontaneous dance party. The windows fogged 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, crowded public closeness the city hasn’t experienced in years.
Queer Wine Night is just one of a few queer pop-ups born out of the pandemic: a collective attempt at stopgap programming to help make up for the lack of dedicated queer spaces in the city.
Everybody flirts is a queer karaoke pop-up at Tammy’s Wine Bar in Parkdale on Sunday evenings. It’s run by best friends and former co-workers Kathleen Barrett and Paula Wilson.
“It was the dead of winter last year and it was really hard to get business going,” said Barrett, a server at Tammy’s. “Initially it was Paula’s idea to rent a sound system and a couple of microphones. What we do is very no frills. We play YouTube karaoke videos on Paula’s laptop and project them onto the wall.”
With this humble DIY setup, turnout for the event has grown each week. Barrett likens the energy at Everybody Flirts to that of a buzzy house party.
“It is completely unpretentious, a little unprofessional, very warm and welcoming, and just a really fun time.”
Disappearing queer nightlife isnt just a Toronto issue. Queer bars, especially lesbian-owned, are shuttering all over North America.
In 2020, Jägermeister launched a fundraising campaign, the near-extinction of lesbian bars in the United States. According to its research, of the 60,000 or so bars in business across the United States, only 21 were lesbian bars. In all of New York City, only three lesbian bars remain.
“Queer nightlife is a place for you to explore and expand who you are as a person,” said Lykouris. “If a seniors club was closed, where do seniors go to hang out? It’s not just a space. It’s a loss of identity and a loss of a way for people to connect.”
Connection is a major driver for Barrett as well. “Having queer spaces is extremely important, especially after the isolation we’ve all lived through over the last two years. You need to have spaces where you can meet people who are understanding, similar and accepting of you. Where you can feel safe and also have fun.”
The Village is the historic neighborhood home to many of Toronto’s gay bars. Both women hold similar views of it: the bar scene is dominated by gay white men, often frequented by bachelorette parties and a bit “outdated.” They find themselves craving a queer nightlife scene that looks like the kind Toronto’s most trendy bars and restaurants have to offer, just … “gayer.”
“The more gay people that are in a place, the better the atmosphere is going to be,” Barrett laughed.
If the turnouts they’re seeing are any indication, Lykouris and Barrett are not wrong about there being a demand for more queer nightlife. Or, as I overheard one enthusiastic attendee of Queer Wine Night gush to Lykouris, “Thank you, thank you so much for doing this. Queer Wine Night is incredible. We all really needed this.”