In defence of segregated spaces

It seemed like another tempest in a teapot. Once again, those who feel entitled tried to penetrate a women’s (now women and trans) space and created a virtual Facebook army to which a real-life gathering of dykes responded. In the end dykes managed to protect our little space (with help from a lawyer) and a wonderful gathering at the Black Eagle ensued – the first ever of its kind. But it raised questions, whether legitimate or legal, about separate spaces that are so integral to the lives of gays and lesbians and those in between.

Queers have been enjoying separate space for decades. Discrete entrances have marked many gay bars, like Platform 9 3/4 in Harry Potter; you had to know where they were to find them. Remember the Quest? Nestled on Yonge St near Bloor, it was practically invisible! And yet gay men and their allies found it. The Cellar is no different today.

We need our separate space to find each other, like needles in a haystack, often invisible in the straight world. I can speak of women, who are often shorter and more softly spoken than men, who disappear in mixed spaces such as Pride. That’s only one reason we started the Dyke March. There are others. Without the presence of dominating men, or worse, sexually harassing men, women are able to relax and connect in their space, with guards down.

We’ve also enjoyed a degree of mixed space. I’ve been going to gay men’s bars since I was a teen. They were easier to find, more numerous and better supported by the wealthier gender. Eventually, I found lesbian bars and occasionally brought my fag friends. I danced many nights throughout the ’80s at The Barn, which was raw and dark and leather, with an aroma of poppers on the dancefloor.

In those days, like now at the Eagle, all washrooms were men’s rooms. At the Rose or the Chez, all were considered women’s. We used them indiscriminately – long before trans became an issue. The fags had the Barracks and other bathhouses to go to. The dykes gathered at political social groups, working hard to improve the status of all women, fighting for the right to abortion, pay equity, equal access to employment and more. We made our erotic connections there. And the desire to change social structures meant threesomes were politically correct!

Queer is the new term, used to encompass all. In recent years, the trend among butch women in the dyke scene has been to transition, lop off tits and take testosterone. As a result, the dyke community has been forced to deal with a whole new set of gender issues and adjust to them. Bois and trans men were at first denied access to our women-only spaces, until we figured out that those we were barring were us!


It doesn’t seem the men’s community has experienced the same significant number changing gender, though there are high-profile t-girls and drag queens competing for the stage. We created genderqueer! We are a diverse community, with many subgroups; the leather community is but one of them. Now we’ve even got liberal straight people calling themselves queer, because they feel comfortable among us. What has happened to the world?!

There have been so many improvements to gay life that we could not fathom decades ago, and gay marriage is, strangely, at the top of the list. It seems to have created a platform in which we really are considered equal. Many rights that we now enjoy have come from that gain. But while equal, we aren’t straight. We are different. And while some of us have assimilated, right down to the white picket fence, others have Leather Pride flags distinguishing their homes from the others on the block, and there are play spaces in our homes that make Fifty Shades of Grey seem beige.

Why is it that straight men expect access to every space? And what is it they hoped to gain? Could it be hot lesbian sex? And why do straight women think they should be allowed to bring their husbands? They have plenty of space of their own. Plenty of gay men have had the unpleasant experience of cruising and finding a hookup, then being pestered by unwelcome people who want to watch. Dykes have, too. We didn’t need our tiny gathering crashed by the pansexual community – a euphemism for straight.

Other men’s spaces exist. Rough House is a men’s play event that happens on Sunday afternoons. It’s taken years to slowly build from a social gathering to a place that actually has play. I commend the management for doing an excellent job of creating space. They have a clear invitation policy. It’s a gay men’s play space that welcomes the few leather dykes who feel we belong there. We are also the ones who’ve been going all along. We few women, who are familiar with primarily men’s spaces, know how to act, how to blend and enjoy that particular environment. The organization specifically does not welcome the pansexual community. It does not try to be all things to all people.

We have women and trans play parties that are private (by invitation only) that have been happening here in Toronto since 1999. Our parties have a very clear statement of what constitutes trans – living 24/7 as a woman, if born male. All those born female are welcome, regardless of their chosen gender. These parties are for women who play with women. Some might be predominantly straight, some bi, and some gold-star lesbian. Straight male crossdressers are not invited. There are plenty of other parties in Toronto for heterosexuals. And there are mixed genderqueer parties for queers.

Thankfully, it turned out that there are legal exceptions to the rules that allowed us a segregated women and trans space for our night at the Eagle, so the assaulting army backed down. And the bar was packed! I haven’t seen that many women at the Eagle since the Ms Black Eagle competitions. And never have I seen that many leather women and trans people have a space of our own in Toronto. And that space we fought for was the size of a living room.

That same weekend I went to the Leather Ball. It was a wonderful party, with the dancefloor comfortably filled with men and women and those in between, in full fetish gear. Men danced with men. Women danced with women. And we danced with each other. It’s hard to describe the feeling, the energy of a very queer space, but I will say that it nourishes my soul. And the attention I received was desired.

Pride now appears half straight, and something is lost. The Church St Fetish Fair turned into a family fair – then disappeared altogether. We need to protect our cherished spaces.

We have all taken the risks to go against societal norms to come out as who we are, queer, stereotype challengers, who have fought for our lives against our oppressors. The leather community is an even smaller minority, distinct among queers. When we come together, it’s a kind of magic. But we still need our separate spaces. Lesbians have house parties. Gays keep the bathhouses in business. That hasn’t changed.

What has changed is that trans men slip into Toronto bathhouses discreetly, and play. Inferno is welcoming trans men this year. Women are allowing trans men and trans women into their intimate space. We are developing, and we need our space to develop in. It would be nice to allow these minority communities to exist and not be swallowed up by mainstream. It’s our diversity that makes us interesting. In order to thrive, we need spaces in which to develop and explore that diversity, with a sense of affinity for those who are, like us, different.

Acceptance is a double-edged sword. Ironically, I prefer playing with a straight edge.

Nancy Irwin (she/her) is a rebel femme who occasionally fights for justice. A biker, world traveller, handy-dyke, play party organizer and switch who plays well with all genders. She makes a living in green spaces.

Keep Reading

Job discrimination against trans and non-binary people is alive and well

OPINION: A study reveals that we have a long way to go to reach workplace equality for trans and non-binary people

The new generation of gay Conservative sellouts

OPINION: Melissa Lantsman’s and Eric Duncan’s refusals to call out their party’s transphobia is a betrayal of the LGBTQ2S+ community

Over 300 anti-LGBTQ2S+ bills have been introduced this year. This doesn’t mean we should panic

OPINION: While it’s important to watch out for threats, not all threats are created equally. Some of these bills will die a natural death

Xtra’s top LGBTQ2S+ stories of the year

The best and brightest—even most bewildering—stories from a back catalogue brimming with insight