our town?

published: outwords inc., issue #143, august 2007

tagline: same-sex marraige, the largest gay pride day ever, growing acceptance, and still no queer district in Winnipeg.

On June 10, more than 10,000 people turned out to march in the largest Pride parade in Manitoba’s history. In the mass of people that streamed down Portage Avenue, it was almost impossible to see where the parade began and where it came to an end. From the brightly coloured flags, to the wagons carrying children with rainbows painted on their faces, everything helped create a sense of comfort -- comfort in the knowledge that in this prairie town, if you’re queer, you don’t stand alone.

That was until June 11, when Pride week was over. After the flags were put back in the closet and the float rentals were returned, one could not help but nostalgically gaze down Memorial Boulevard and ask, “where did everyone go?”

In Canadian cities with gay urban villages it’s easy to identify the visible queer minority. In Toronto, the subway stop at Church and Wellesley brings one straight into the queer community at the end of a somewhat smoggy rainbow. In Montreal, it’s hard to miss the 10 blocks of queer clubs, restaurants, and businesses that line Rue St. Catherine. In Winnipeg, the closest one can come to feeling they are in a gay village is by walking through the doors of Starbucks at River and Osborne.

There is no debate over whether this city has a gay village. It doesn’t. Even in the area that has the highest population density of gay men in all of Manitoba, Osborne Village, the out-going president of LAMBDA, Tim Evans, admits “there is very little that stands out” as being gay or lesbian. A handful of Rainbow stickers does not a queer village make. But that is not to say the queer community here is any less evolved than it is in other major Canadian cities. It just tends to blend in a bit more.

Richard Borbridge is writing his master’s thesis on gaybourhoods and urban villages for the department of city planning at the University of Manitoba. His studies have taken him into the heart of Vancouver’s gay village on Davie Street to conduct research. Borbridge defines an urban village as an area where “all components of urban living are within walking distance.” He says “the idea of the village is that it is a self-contained unit, where you can have all your amenities … in a localized area such that you are building a community at the same time as living there.”

Borbridge says there several reasons why Winnipeg never developed its own queer urban village. “There are … fundamental questions of city form and culture … that makes it difficult to have an enclave of gay people [in Winnipeg],” he says. The majority of the city population lives in suburbs and many people share the mentality that downtown is for enjoying and not living. Borbridge reiterates a common response of Winnipeggers to living downtown when he says, “If you’ve got the option, why… live downtown when [you] can have a yard and it’s cheaper?”

There is also a perpetual gay drain that occurs in prairie towns such as ours. For some, wheat just doesn’t make the cut. Attracted by the job opportunities and excitement in cities that never sleep, “there is a greater tendency for those people who have the money to live where they want, to be moving elsewhere,” says Borbridge.

For queer individuals who decide to live in Winnipeg, it seems that finding a queer area of town is the least of their concerns, says realtor Chris Krawchenko. “I don’t think that people actually shop, and say ‘I want to be in a gay area,’ that’s not on their list.” There are other factors that affect their decision to buy a house. “They have their housing needs or requirements, and where they work probably factor in more,” he says.

The housing demands of queer couples have also changed. “The needs of the urban couple who have no children… are completely different [than those who have a family],” Krawchenko says. “I think this is the benefit of marriage. There are a lot more children of gay and lesbian parents.” The suburbs are also, for the most part, no longer forbidden territories for queer families to settle in. “At this point,” Krawchenko says, “I don’t know of any area [in the city] where I don’t know gay people living.”

There are still advantages to having a gay urban village in a city. From a business perspective, Evans says that “just as if you were to establish on a street corner three men’s clothing stores, all three would be successful because people flock to areas where there are the same types of business.” Mentally and physically it is also healthier to have a queer community that thrives on social support rather than a small bar or club scene, he says.

But as tolerance continues to grow for queers across Canada, the need for designating a specific area of town as queer continues to diminish. “It’s more a question of a cosmopolitan village, [that is] both multicultural and multi-class where anyone can feel comfortable” Borbridge says. “I would say the creation of a gay village for its own sake is sort of a step backwards because I feel there is an advantage to having everyone everywhere.”