A post-secondary student is speaking out as others join them to raise awareness about the need for more LGBTQ+ safe spaces in Victoria.
While Cleo Philp says they haven’t suffered any traumatic experiences while enjoying the nightlife in B.C.’s capital, the same can’t be said for their friends.
“A lot of my queer friends have had unfortunate experiences of being harrassed by straight and non-queer people, and have generally had a bad time in the nightlife out here,” said Philp, a student at the University of Victoria.
“An unfortunate amount of stories…”
So, hearing stories like these, people strive for change or they create it.
“We are a community hub, we are a performance space, and we are a very unapologetically queer business,” said Socrates Diamant, who opened The Vicious Poodle pub on Johnson Street in 2020.
“We’re not LGBT-friendly, we’re an LGBTQ+ bar, and we’re straight-friendly.”
Diamant says for many, his business is a safe space where patrons don’t have to worry about being judged by others.
“I know a lot of people use that space to find partners, to develop a community and make friends,” Philp told CHEK News in an interview.
“Having a dedicated space where you can be yourself, where you can really self-actualize, is really important,” added Diamant. “A place where you can go and meet more people in the community, create community, is crucial.”
Just down the street, there’s a similar business.
“For me, being in the restaurant business was never really a priority. But developing a queer space specifically was a priority for our community,” said Rudy Tomazic, owner of Friends of Dorothy Lounge, which also opened in 2020.
“Just to be able to have a space identified for our community has always been important to me, and to be able to give back … Victoria, specifically, with the size of the city and the lack of visible queer spaces.”
‘A little betrayed’
But Friends of Dorothy and The Vicious Poodle are the only spots, along with Paparazzi, a well-known LGBTQ+ nightlife space in Victoria that’s had people abuzz about seeming to shift its focus to a broader audience.
There was a big discussion about it on Reddit.
“I think a lot of people, including myself, feel a little betrayed,” said Philp. “It’s quite disheartening to lose a space where your community is centred around.”
But Diamant says that unfortunately, business is business.
“Not only is Victoria an expensive place to live, it’s a very expensive place to do business. It feels like a bigger city because it’s vibrant, but the fact of the matter is we have a tough time filling the space,” said Diamant.
“We live in a capitalistic society. I get it, and it sucks,” added Ace Mann, Victoria Pride Society president.
“I think it’s so important to have these spaces, particularly because there are fewer and fewer spaces or spaces rebranding to get more money from a bigger group of people.”
In a statement, Paparazzi says that throughout its 16 years of business, it has continuously operated as an all-inclusive space.
“We have also provided, and will continue to provide, significant support to the local LGBT+ community…” it said, adding, “Our guests make up a cross section of Greater Victoria — we do not ask our guests to identify their gender or sexuality and have zero tolerance for any form of harassment, intimidation, or violence.”
Tomozic notes people can’t be denied entry because of their sexuality. He says that’s not even a question staff can ask patrons.
“Tell me how, as a business owner, whether it’s a nightclub or whether it’s a restaurant, I can stand in front and have somebody say, ‘Hey, welcome to the gay club. Can you prove to me you’re gay?’ For someone to say it’s only for the queer community, I think that’s very hard,” said Tomozic.
“As a business owner, from a business perspective, if somebody’s being respectful, they know what they’re coming into the space for, they’re an ally. This is what we fought for: for rights, to be equal and to be treated equally and safely.”
Diamant believes the market may have dictated what happened to Paparazzi.
“…rather than the other way around,” said Diamant. “I don’t think Paparazzi went after that market by changing what they were doing. I think that suddenly became their customer base, and by a matter of economic survival, they catered to it.”
‘Less and less gay’
Still, for Philp, the club isn’t what it used to be.
“When I came to Victoria, I knew that there was a gay bar down the street from my house,” said Philp. “That was something that was enticing to me, but it slowly became less and less gay as I stayed in Victoria.”
This, despite Statistics Canada finding in its first-ever census data on transgender and non-binary people in 2022 that Victoria, per capita, has the most gender diversity among Canadian large urban areas.
This is “incredible,” said Mann. “They’re calling it the queerest place in Canada.”
So there’s hope for more LGBTQ+ safe spaces because, as Philps adds, “People deserve to feel safe in their communities.”
And there’s still a ways to go on the road to acceptance, says Mann.
“Whether people are visibly queer, that can be really tough sometimes. There’s a lot here. There’s a lot of interesting intersectionalities and cliques,” said Mann. “And while I absolutely love this city and what it affords, it does come with a few things that I would love to work on.
“And we will work on it together.”
So Mann has big dreams for the future of LGBTQ+ safe spaces in Victoria.
“These spaces are so important. Queer culture grew from these types of spaces. Drag, other performers,” they added. “To have new spaces, a pipe dream of mine would be like an actual community centre that we can use for queer spaces and people. But to have these spaces and spaces for us is so important.”
Diamant is thanking the community for embracing his business as he, too, reflects on ongoing challenges.
“It’s definitely more accepting to be queer in the general world these days, but it’s still a difficult situation for people in my community,” added Diamant.
“While we are definitely much more comfortable and welcome in every space in town, we’re always a guest in those spaces.
“Sometimes it’s nice to be a host rather than a guest.”