When you’re alone in foreign cities, it’s always a challenge finding your people, and one that’s hit or miss depending on where you end up. Especially for queer people, it’s much easier to feel isolated than the majority, but we’ve historically grown to know there’s always a safe space to meet with the like-minded somewhere. You just need to do some extra investigating, whether that be through apps or word of mouth, to find the go-to spots for local queers.
This past weekend, I traveled to Toronto, where I was invited to cover Bestival ’16 and immerse myself in the culture of what they’ve nicknamed, “Canada’s Downtown.” With a packed schedule of lunches, dinners, sight-seeing and sets from artists like Grimes, Tame Impala and The Cure, I was more interested in exploring how Toronto’s queer scene compared to some of the other major cities I’ve been to.
The journalist side of my brain was curious, as always, but the human side just wanted familial company.
I’d heard about a place called The Beaver and decided to head there after some day one, post-Bestival fun. Taking a cab alone, I drove past the city’s bustling bar scene down Queen Street and the sight outside was all too familiar—packs of straight locals, some couples in line for bars and others stumbling to grab late-night Poutine, the local drunk staple.
When the world is socially designed to treat you like an Other, finding safe spaces in the sea of heteronormative nightlife is key to mental survival. These are places you can either love yourself or learn to love yourself and celebrate the things that make you feel alienated in everyday life—a Northern Star in an unfamiliar environment.
The Beaver was perfect—a tiny, low-key bar divided into two areas: the front for ordering drinks and the back for dancing. While the DJ’s setup was small and makeshift, the spirits inside were far more lively—more genuine than anything I’ve experienced in NYC. No bottles, no hosts—just a pack of queer kids dancing and drinking together because they wanted to, not because they thought they should. This was a judgement-free zone, as Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” played through the speakers, followed by the Magician Remix of Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers.” (I remember those two, in particular, because of someone special I found to dance with).
There, I also met a transgender woman, who, in conversation with a non-binary individual, freely asked how they chose their name, Elliott, while we smoked cigarettes outside the bar. “Elliott Smith,” they responded, referring to the late musician in a comfortable exchange about gender identity and self-discovery. They’d just met minutes ago and yet The Beaver fostered a natural level of trust between the two—something straight environments in Toronto never could. This is the safety of queer spaces, and exactly the community I’d been searching for during my visit to Canada. The evening ended with a group of us going to a nearby apartment and bonding over vinyl and Oi! on their back deck. We started the night as strangers and ended as friends.
I felt lucky. I felt inspired. I felt safe.
Reflecting on this memory now, it’s horrifying to think about the events simultaneously unfolding at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, where a gunman took 49 LGBTQ lives and injured another 53 in their safe space. To an outsider, the weekend’s tragedy looks like mere bloodshed—a spark for political conversation that likely leads to ISIS or gun control debates —but for queers, this hate crime is a security breach, shattering the spaces we once thought we could trust. This week, we feel attacked; we feel lonely; we feel confused. Where can we go if our go-to safe spaces have the potential to host mass killings?
Proof of a single pulse that unites the global LGBTQ community, The Beaver is showing solidarity this week for the victimized Florida club by hanging its logo in their window. Safe queer spaces may be divided by different cities—even country borders—but their values and core purpose always remains the same.
“The Beaver is my local bar,” Toronto-based Rob Shostak told The Star, explaining his idea to pay tribute. “It is the local queer space on Queen West. I’ve been going there for 10 years ever since I moved here, and it’s a space where I feel at home. It’s a space where friends of mine gather […] In the end, every queer space is a Pulse. Someone feels like that is their safe space, and that was taken away from us with the attack. Or, more specifically, we became more aware of our spaces as a result of the attack.”
It’s true. Every queer space is a Pulse, but how safe are these spaces when they’re shared with bullets and bigotry? We deserve a real Northern Star—one we can look upon and follow to find our brothers and sisters without fear of erasure.
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