Demand for lesbian-focused events strong in Edmonton

· The Pulse

An organizer of a recent sold-out lesbian dance party says the unexpectedly strong demand suggests the need for more safe spaces for the queer community, even as dedicated spaces have historically struggled both in Edmonton and globally.

The Edmonton Lesbian Event Network (ELEN) released early-bird tickets for its pop-up event at 2am on a Saturday. Organizers said they were surprised when the event sold out later that morning.

"It was really exciting," co-organizer Sylvie Masson told Taproot. "It's refreshing in a way to know that so many people want community."

After the first tickets sold out, ELEN started a waitlist. "(W)e heartily apologize that we had no idea the demand would be so quick and intense on this and were not quite prepared," it posted on Facebook. New tickets opened up. Those, too, were quickly bought up.

In the end, about 100 people came to the March 9 event at Rhubarb Café and Cocktails, Masson said. "I'm delighted that there was so much interest, but I wish it wasn't such a rare occurrence for us to have these events," she said. "I would like it to be a normative thing, where you could just go out and have these safe spaces."

Masson said ELEN aims to be inclusive. The group tends to brand its events as "sapphic" rather than "lesbian," as the former word is more welcoming to queer people of all genders. "We allow trans folks on any side to come to our events because we find that there's not a lot of space for trans folks and I find a lot of spaces don't make room for that," she said.

"Our goal is always community, that's important — making those connections and providing a safe space to people."

Part of the ticket sales went to Skipping Stone and EGALE Canada's trans-affirming legal fund. EGALE describes policies proposed by the United Conservative Party in January regarding transgender health care, sexual education, and women's sports as unprecedented. "They go against every expert opinion, including medical professionals. If implemented, the policies would force medical and education professionals to take actions that they know will cause harm and suffering to the youth in their care," EGALE writes. The group says the legal fund will help it "bring legal action to challenge these assaults on our rights."

Masson said it can be difficult to be queer in Alberta right now. "Just existing at times, just being yourself and being open about your sexuality is taking a stand," she said. "Being here and being queer, myself, is an example of resistance."

Several dozen people gather at a social event.

The Edmonton Lesbian Event Network said it is already looking for a larger venue after the success of its pop-up bar at Rhubarb Café and Cocktails. (Submitted)

Historically, the 2SLGBTQ+ community has had to carve out its own safe nightlife spaces to protect the community from violence, but also to connect to other queer people. Edmonton currently has one official gay bar, Evolution Wonderlounge, but the city's queer nightlife history goes back at least to the 1960s.

While there have been at least a dozen gay clubs in Edmonton, lesbian-owned or lesbian-focused bars have been less common. Cha Cha Club, the first lesbian-focused bar in Edmonton, opened in 1979.

The bar was short-lived and few remember what it was like or why it closed, said Rob Browatzke of the Edmonton Queer History Project. Browatzke has worked in Edmonton's gay clubs for two decades and is now an owner of Evolution.

Browatzke explained that there was once a group called Womonspace, which was similar to ELEN in that it held coffee nights, socials, and Girl Crazy, a monthly dance party at a downtown warehouse. Womonspace was around until at least the mid-2010s.

Shakespear's opened downtown in 1996. "It kind of started off as more of a darts bar but was lesbian-owned and certainly soon transitioned into a lesbian bar with just a focus on darts," Browatzke said. After Shakespear's closed in 1998, Secrets Bar and Grill opened a few blocks away. "That was a great time," Browatzke said, sighing. "They had the best wings, they had good times."

Some gay bar owners openly discriminated against lesbians, Browatzke said. "In early-'80s Edmonton Journal articles, there are quotes from the (Boots N' Saddle) owner saying, 'We don't want lesbians here, they're rowdy and violent and disruptive." Some gay bars let men in for free but charged women cover, he added. There were often "ladies only" nights, but they would be held mid-week rather than on a lucrative Friday or Saturday night, Browatzke said.

Secrets changed owners and locations several times until it closed in 2012. Over the last decade, there have been a few more lesbian-owned bars that remained open only for a short time. "These things keep popping up and then just don't last for whatever reason," Browatzke said. "It seems like this is something that's not unique to Edmonton — lesbian-focused spaces all over the world are very much struggling. But you can make an argument just for queer space in general, where it does seem to be transitioning in a lot of ways to be more pop-up focused."

Several safe spaces for 2SLGBTQ+ people have closed across the country in recent years, including The Backlot in Calgary and Menz and Mollyz in Halifax. Data from the U.S. suggest the number of gay bars decreased by 37% between 2007 and 2019.

Travis Meyers, a Toronto-based 2SLGBTQ+ community advocate told Global News that while there are economic reasons for the closures, "there's also the issue of queer spaces being villainized or turned into targets by people who simply don't want them to exist."

After seeing the demand for the recent event, Masson said ELEN is looking for a larger venue for its next pop-up bar event, hopefully for next month. The group also hosts a monthly queer board game night at Pe Metawe Games and other events.