November 7, 2013
Many of the social spaces we have to connect with each other have been created in response to some of the negativity that comes our way as gay men. Community and social spaces have opened that include coffee houses, community centres, sporting events, art galleries, bars/nightclubs and bathhouses. We find more of these spaces in larger cities, like Toronto or Ottawa – however, many areas or regions don’t have gay specific spaces. If we live in areas that don’t have these kinds of spaces we may feel isolated or lonely and find it hard to meet guys for friendship, connection or sex. That said, many of us enjoy living in these areas and have strong communities. Feeling lonely and isolated is not good for our mental and emotional well being. Some guys travel from smaller communities to larger cities for “gay weekends” and make the most of their visits and connect with guys there for sex and friendship. Although we’d like to believe that ‘things have become better’ over the years for gay guys, some of the places we live still have a long way to go. We all need to have comfortable places that we can call home. Having a sense of belonging and feeling good about the communities we live in can have a positive role in our overall health and well being.
Having communities where people know us can help us feel safe and surrounded. However, some of us like the privacy and anonymity of larger cities and some of the spaces we can access there. Sometimes, being in a place where nobody knows us feels like a fantasy where we can meet up with other guys for sex, sexual play and adventure. Some of the spaces created by us for gay communities are thought of as “safe spaces”. They were built to protect us from the hate, fear, and discrimination we can encounter. Sometimes the day to day reality of living in a “straight world” can be stressful. Feeling ‘different’ or unsafe in these places/home, etc can be very unhealthy. Nobody should have to experience this regardless of our backgrounds or identities.
Bathhouses are an example of the social spaces that are specific to our communities and hold a major historical place in our gay communities. Bathhouses were some of the first gay social spaces that came to be at a time when gay sex was illegal and there was a significant amount of stigma about being gay. Gay bathhouses first opened to create spaces where gay men could come together to have their social and sexual needs met. They were safe spaces we could go to avoid the hatred we experienced. Bathhouses played an important role in helping build our modern day gay community. When police raids on bathhouses happened in the 1970s and 1980s gay men and our supporters came together and fought back against these raids. In many ways, defending our right to have spaces we could connect for community and sex helped spark the activism that has led to many of our current rights and freedoms (Population Specific HIV/AIDS Status Report, Public Health Agency of Canada, 2013).
Having social spaces we are comfortable in is very important. For many of us, traditional gay spaces meet this need. For others, we may find that racism, transphobia, and HIV stigma make these spaces hard to feel good about. We still have work to do to make sure our “community” spaces are safe for all of us. Also, many gay spaces require money to take part in. If we don’t have money to spare, community can feel hard to be part of. While some our cities have community centres where we can volunteer or take part in free events this isn’t the case everywhere we go.
We can learn from our history of creating safe spaces for gay men and make sure that the spaces we continue to build are safe for all of us.
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