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How the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting ‘vital’ LGBTQ2S+ safe spaces

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Q Nightclub and Lounge, a longstanding LGBTQ2S+ safe space in Regina, Sask., was planning to renovate and make the building fully wheelchair accessible.

But the lockdown changed those plans. The bar was forced to close for many months, said Cory Oxelgren, president of the Gay and Lesbian Community of Regina, and all paid staffers were laid off.

“From a more social point of view, it’s been hard on the community because a number of people rely on a place to go and meet and hang out with their friends in a safe place,” he said.

“That wasn’t available for quite a while.”

And the Q Nightclub and Lounge is far from the only one.

Bars and restaurants have been hit hard by the pandemic in Canada and around the world. Businesses that predominately serve the LGBTQ2S+ community — already few and far between — have struggled under the weight of COVID-19 restrictions.

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But for the LGBTQ2S+ community, these venues are more than just places to have a drink or a coffee. They’re considered safe spaces — an area where people can meet without fear of persecution for being themselves.

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Oxelgren acknowledges how hard it’s been for these spaces in Canada, but says, compared to others, they feel “fortunate” at the Q Nightclub and Lounge.

“We’re fortunate in the fact that we have a strong community and a number of volunteers that are willing to step up and make sure that the organization can make its way through the storm,” he said.

Earlier in the pandemic, Oxelgren said the bar started a GoFundMe campaign and was able to raise enough money to make it through Canada’s initial lengthy lockdown.

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He said thanks to the support from the community, the club is in a “safe position to be able to step up and start rolling when the doors reopen.

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COVID-19: Restrictions at restaurants, bars loosen as part of Saskatchewan’s Step 1 reopening roadmap

Many businesses, though, have not been so lucky.

Some, like The Beaver in Toronto, were forced to shut their doors for good as bills piled up after the pandemic hit.

Others, like Toronto drag bar Crews and Tangos, started GoFundMe campaigns to help tide them over until they are able to reopen their doors to the public. To date, the campaign has raised more than $23,400.

“We have faced tremendous challenges in the past to protect our beloved establishment,” the fundraising page reads.

“As an irreplaceable home of gay culture, talent, growth, friendship, and of course fun, we need you to stand with us yet again to help us through this difficult time.”

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As the pandemic has dragged on, more of these LGBTQ2S+ safe spaces have been forced to close and lay off their staff —  something experts say has long-term and possibly irreparable consequences.

Long-term consequences

Justin Khan of The 519 — an agency dedicated to advocating for LGBTQ2S+ Torontonians — said queer-owned and queer-friendly spaces are “more than just businesses.”

“These are safe and protective gathering spaces for queer and trans communities,” he said. “They’re also vital force for LGBTQ2S economic security.”

Khan, who serves as The 519’s public interest and legal initiatives director, said the impact of losing these “vital spaces” can’t “only be measured in dollars.”

“It’s about really losing the very fabric of who we are as a community,” he said.

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Ele Chenier, a professor at Simon Fraser University whose research focuses on the history of sexuality and gender, said the spaces are also “incredibly important” for both social and romantic opportunities.

The absence of these spaces can pose a “real mental health problem” for some, Chenier said.

“It could be quite serious,” they said. “Having support as a queer person could be, for some people, incredibly hard to come by.”

Chenier also runs a community of care and support for genderqueer and non-binary people called Gender Mentors. They said having access to these spaces can be especially important for people who are newly coming out or are transitioning and are “in dire need of this kind of company.”

Chenier said not being able to access this can be “really painful and difficult.”

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In the months Q Nightclub and Lounge was closed to the public, Oxelgren heard about that difficulty first hand.

He many members of the community reached out to him to express how much they missed the sense of community.

“When they opened up partially with restrictions and capacity, there was a number of people that came out the first day and said they can hardly wait until this is over so they can get back to normal and back to their lives and their routines and the socializing part,” he said.

Increase in hate crimes

Without these safe spaces, experts within the LGBTQ2S+ community fear it could lead to an increased risk of violence and discrimination.

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A report published by Statistics Canada found that police-reported hate crimes targeting sexual orientation rose 41 per cent in 2019 compared to the number of instances reported in 2018.

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The report said 88 per cent of these crimes specifically targeted the gay and lesbian community, “while the remainder comprised incidents targeting bisexual people (two per cent); people with other sexual orientations, such as asexual, pansexual or other non-heterosexual orientations (six per cent); and people whose sexual orientation was unknown (four per cent).”

More than half (53 per cent) of the reported crimes were violent.

More recent data out of Toronto shows there were 21 reported hate crime occurrences against members of the LGBTQ2S+ community in 2020.

Khan said he expects this trend to continue as venues that cater to this marginalized group are lost or stay shuttered.

“With safe spaces closing — gender-affirming and queer affirming places closing — the reality is that we are seeing an increase in homophobia and transphobia and there is increased violence,” he said.

Khan pointed to an incident at Hanlan’s Point Beach in Toronto, Ont., earlier this month wherein a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community was allegedly targeted and beaten in a homophobic attack. Over the years, Hanlan’s Point Beach has become known as a gay-friendly hangout spot.

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“The few spaces that still do exist, there’s now a fear and a hesitation to attend those spaces out of the fear for facing homophobia, transphobia, discrimination or even physical violence,” Khan said.

The road to recovery

As vaccination against COVID-19 increases and the country begins to slowly reopen, Oxelgren said people can help ensure safe spaces are able to rebound by making an effort to support them.

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“If people are thinking, ‘Where should I go and hang out?’ Well, maybe they should think about our club and come out and they can support us financially,” he said.

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“For the other places that don’t make money on sales like we do, maybe there’s a donation that they could provide to some of these other safe spaces.”

Chenier said the federal and provincial governments can also “play a massive role” in supporting “all kinds of marginalized people” as the country recovers from the pandemic.

“Government funding has always played a really critical role in keeping commercial space going like community centers (or) art spaces,” Chenier said, adding that queer communities have “really flourished” in these types of spaces.

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In a statement emailed to Global News, Alice Hansen, a spokesperson for the ministry of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade, acknowledged the pandemic has “disproportionately impacted underrepresented groups including those in the LGBTQ2 community, and has been incredibly challenging for small businesses.” She added that work will continue “across government to address systemic barriers and support LGBTQ2+ entrepreneurs and business owners.”

Chenier said, though, that while commercial spaces are important, they hope there will also be a resurgence in grassroots organizing post-pandemic, and hopes any new safe spaces that open are created “intentionally and consciously” with inclusivity in mind.

“Having an anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-fascist mindset or frame of reference,” they said. “Because we have to be very intentional about planning those kinds of spaces, otherwise they sort of reproduce the dominant norms that are out there.”

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