A Life in The Bar, 1969-2000



Buddy's last ad
Good, yes -- if never again:
George Hislop's bar / community centre collapses to competition.

"The market dictates that there is simply no longer a market for Buddy's." Vagaries of "the market" would be even less kind to lesbian bars.

August through December

George Hislop's bar empire, modest as it was, got smaller this summer. In April at Buddy's the pool table had been taken out and more female staff hired in an effort, Xtra said, to try for a "homey, relaxed atmosphere" and "discourage the 'rough trade' kind of clientele." It didn't work.

By now there were lots of spots conducive to conversation -- but where you could dance, too. The bar for "everybody" was losing out to more specialized venues. As Rick Stenhouse, co- owner of Boots as well as Buddy's (where, in fact, there were eight of them) said, "The market dictates that there is simply no longer a market for Buddy's."

After more than nine years as a community institution, the place closed its doors on Saturday, August 29. It soon reopened them, catering to a student crowd from nearby Ryerson -- "purely an economic decision," it was said. Gay people were still welcome; few showed up. But that space would see gay life again.


Places catering to lesbians were even more prone to economic vagaries. In Xtra this July Gillian Rodgerson tracked many comings and goings: "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow."

Felines, on Richmond, mainly for women, had just changed its name to Finnegan's Roadhouse, seeking a more mixed crowd. Its owners said they couldn't keep their "exclusive, upscale" place afloat serving just "a professional lesbian clientele."

Earlier The Purple Onion on Parliament Street had given over its basement lounge three nights a week for a lesbian club called Lois Lane. It lasted four months.The Onion, though, would become The Rose, one of the city's longest lasting lesbian bars.

Rumors opened on Cumberland in Yorkville in October 1985, soon serving mostly women -- even if doing Dynasty Nights, that TV spectacle of bitchy glitz more often on in gay men's bars. It fell to the Yorkville curse, gone by June 1986. Score 100 had briefly thrived at 100 Bond Street, but now it was gone, too.

The sole winner was The Chez Moi on Hayden, so crowded that the doorman often turned women away, sometimes rudely, or shunted them downstairs to the smaller Chez Too, known to regulars as "The Dungeon."

For a while The Chez was the only place for lesbians, gay men sometimes with them, if rarely. That particular economics of scarcity could work in their favour: Craig Patterson, often there with Gillian, picked up not a few of the few men at The Chez.

The place would shut down in August 1989, so suddenly that even its manager didn't see it coming. Its owner had sold the building to a developer, for demolition. The Rose, open by then, became The (one) Lesbian Bar, at least for some time. But it, at least, survived. It's there to this day, if now as Pope Joan.


Just weeks after that garden party, Bill Lewis was gravely ill. He'd known he was unwell & he'd guessed why.

Billy knew AIDS, in his
work, & in life.

In mid September, parties behind, an old boyfriend refound, life took a swift turn.

September 14, 1987, for Jane (but not sent):

Doug Antoski, the lover of one of TBP's last staffers, Ian King, died of AIDS about three weeks ago. Danny Burke, a man I knew best as my sit up partner at the Y a few years ago, died days later, and I went to his funeral to find that a funeral had happened in the same place only two hours before for Terry David Depres, a man I knew only to see but always liked seeing.

On the evening I heard about Doug, at the ACT office, I also heard that both Michael Lynch and Bill Lewis were not well. At the funeral home visitation for Doug the next night I talked to Michael; he is feverish but still strong, as strong as he always is when needed, and Billy needed him because Billy was worse. They had that day been trying to get him into a hospital with a doctor they'd trust, most of whom were away.

Billy went into Toronto General on Thursday, August 28. I visited him on Friday (after Dan Burke's funeral). He was using an oxygen mask intermittently and threw up his meagre supper while I was there. I'm glad I was there: he was hooked up to an IV and couldn't have got out of bed to find anything to puke into.

The diagnosis, never mentioned directly, was clear from the drug, one used to treat pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, now perhaps the most common opportunistic infection associated with AIDS.

Less than two months after that party for Gerald, Bill Lewis was gravely ill. He'd known he was unwell and he'd guessed why. Bill knew AIDS. It was around him in life and every day at work: he headed a team at the University of Toronto recently granted $150,000 in federal money to do research on AIDS.

But he didn't want to face it, wanted to go on working -- as, in 1982, I had told him I would want to. Billy was a nervous little man, if a brave one. He had been one of Winnipeg's earliest gay activists, out with just 10 others in tiny Steinbach, Manitoba in July 1974, picketting a company that had refused to print Gays for Equality's Understanding Homosexuality.

At Toronto General a doctor said Bill was hyperventilating. "It's all right," he panted. "I hyperventilate normally." He got through scientific presentations by popping Valium beforehand.


I was back at the hospital six times, I think. On my third visit his room was empty but for an orderly masked and gowned and looking scared, scrubbing everything with Javex. "Get out!" he barked, panic in his voice.

At the nurses' station I discovered Bill had been moved to the Intensive Care Unit. I found Michael Lynch there; he said Bill was on a respirator, terrified.

Michael was due to pick up Bill's parents at the airport, in from Winnipeg. He asked if I could come back at 11:00 and if no one else was there stay the night. I went to The Barn, had a coffee, and went back. I didn't have to stay; Gerald was there by then. He'd be there the next three nights, all night. On my next trip a nurse turned me away: there had been too many visitors.

I got in the next two nights. We had to wear gowns; the more insistent nurses pushed masks and gloves on us, too. Michael refused to mask while Bill was conscious. But now, whether he was or not no one could tell: he'd been put on a paralytic drug to keep his body from fighting the respirator. Even if he knew we were there he couldn't tell us, not even with the blink of an eye.

Going in one night I found myself thinking: maybe he's dead; maybe I won't have to do this. Robert Trow later told me he'd felt the same way.

But, walking into that room -- its only sound the hiss of the respirator; its decor banks of monitors and an overhead rack full of IV bags, Billy wired and tubed to all of them; its one light bright but aimed at his feet to spare his eyes (they'd creep open and he couldn't close them) -- there, suddenly, I was no longer afraid.

I wrote in that letter of September 14th:

The nurse was in and out, and we talked when she was in. But in between, when he and I were alone, I said very little. I held his feet, the part of his right arm free of tubes, his shoulder; I rubbed the hair back on his head once. I said he was a wonder (a technological one, I felt at that moment, though I stopped at wonder).

And I said, sitting with my chin resting on my arm stretched across the chrome rail of the bed, sniffing the vaguely baby powder smell of the gown and falling into the rhythm of the respirator, that being with him made me feel calm.

It was the calmest I'd felt through the whole thing: no waiting for reports of his state; no concern for what I might do. I was simply there, with him. I am so glad I was.

I didn't cry there, though I almost did once: standing, holding him by the ankles, thinking of all of us together at TBP (was Gerald there? or maybe through the window at the nurses' station sipping a coffee as he arrived? I don't remember), and saying: here we are now, in this room.


Bill Lewis
A decline swift, shocking:
Bill Lewis, 1950-1987.
Photo: Lewis papers, CLGA.

If Bill had lived for a time with AIDS rather than dying of it so suddenly, if he'd had to figure his own death into the awful equation of this disease, would he have lost his resolve to resist panic?

None of us ever had a chance to find out. But I think not.

I was writing that letter all through this. It got so long I decided not to send it. I wrote Jane another on the 19th, telling her many of these details but beginning with the one most crucial by then: Billy had died two days before, at 4:00 in the morning. He was 37. His decline had been swift, shocking.

We had all rallied to him. Michael called Bill's friends; many gathered in a vigil on the lawn below his window. We met often in Michael's living room. It could feel like a collective meeting of old, even Robin Hardy there, in town from New York.

Michael Pearl was, too, he of those early gay lib days back in 1971, since then Bill's lover for a time. And a man named Sean, from England; Bill had met him in a bar in Amsterdam and they'd fallen in love. It was Sean who last gave up hope, holding onto visions of Bill recovering in his care.

Peggy Lewis, as small and nervous as her son, made her peace sooner. She had kept a notepad to record questions to ask when meeting with doctors. At one of those meetings they said they'd never seen anyone survive with lung damage as severe as Bill's. Michael saw her write on that pad: "Let him go."

In an earlier moment where a nurse challenged Michael's place in this, Peg had pointed to him and said: "This is the man in charge. Not me. Not my husband. Him."

After Billy died we met in his kitchen, planning his memorial and writing the program. I typeset it; we copied and folded it at ACT at 11:30 one night, Ed Jackson there, and Roger Spalding: "just like a subscription stuffing party," I told Jane, "the old routines a comfort."

The service was held September 19 at University College. Under Bill's name on the program we'd put: "Son, Lover, Friend, Teacher and Scientist." The many people there had known him variously in some of these roles, in others not. Four speakers in turn addressed each one; Michael Lynch did Lover and Friend.

I wrote Bill's obituary for Xtra. I recalled his 1982 article in The Body Politic, where he'd urged us as a community to resist panic in the face of AIDS.

If Bill Lewis had lived for a time with AIDS rather than dying of it so suddenly, if he had had to figure his own death into the awful equation of this disease, would he have changed his mind? Would his political resolve have crumbled in fear for his own life?

None of us ever had a chance to find out. But I think not.


City of the Dead
Yet oddly alive

Necropolis chapel
The Necropolis:
Its chapel, dating from 1872; the cemetery from 1850, final resting place of much local history. Across the street is Riverdale Farm, alive with goats, cows, kids. "The whole area," I once wrote Jane, "is amiably inhabited, by the living & the dead." In this 1999 shot, quite by chance: a wedding.

I don't like funerals coloured by the smarmy niceness of liberal religion. Still, I did like being there, with those men I knew only from The Barn. If there's holiness in life, surely that's where I find it, not in solemn chapels.

Bill's obit took most of a page in Xtra. On the rest of it was another, for a man whose funeral I'd been at two days before Billy died.

I didn't tell Jane about that, my letter of the 19th getting too long. But I'd meant to: the story was in that earlier draft I didn't send.

Yesterday was another funeral, this one for Andy Armstrong. I'd known Andy many years ago, and though we lost touch we were in contact again in the last few years at The Barn, where he was a bartender. He was always easy, even tempered, and handsome: he looked not much different at 37 than he had at 22.

He died last Friday. I didn't know until I read the obits in The Globe the next day, but I had been at The Barn on Friday night [for that coffee, soon back to Bill at Toronto General] and there was a candle lit on the top of one of the beer coolers, over the head of beanstalk Brent. I stood beside him at the funeral with Dean, The Barn's manager, a sweet bear; we call him Dean the Dream.

We were gathered at the door of the chapel in The Necropolis; the pews were full, the doors open to the breeze. That felt good. All the men around me were people I recognized from The Barn.

I didn't like the funeral and don't generally when they're coloured by the smarmy niceness of liberal religion. I'd be happier with a high Catholic Mass or a night at The Barn: either would have more to do with the mystery of life and death than did the banal translations of Christianity's deepest strengths (love passing all understanding) and most inane precepts (a personified God; the resurrection of the body) into "modern" language.

Liberal Christians have been a gift to the world as social workers but, like social workers, their language knows nothing of mystery, wonder, awe. These things are too scary for the modern world.

But still, I did like being on that porch with all those men I know almost not at all but as part of my life at The Barn. If there's holiness in life, surely that's where I find it, not in solemn chapels.

Michael Wade and I, late last Friday afternoon, stood for four beers in the pool room at Trax, watching Bert play. Bert I know only to say hello to, but I could watch him play for hours: a small, strong man who sits casually on his friends' laps, gets caressed and caresses back and smiles; a most unmacho player whose face never shows crossness with himself, the game, or his fellow players -- even in the rare instance when he blows a shot.

Michael, who knows well the uses to which I put bars and men like Bert in them, was not surprised -- though he laughed -- when I said, "Ah, an evening with another gay saint."


David and Paul
Years together, years more:
If much changed. David Newcome & Paul Pearce, likely mid '80s at Bill Lewis's; from his papers, CLGA.

Paul, who'd always said he wanted to die before David, now faced knowing he was almost sure to survive him, David likely gone in a year or two, or less.

It would turn out more years than that. Even blind, David would -- doggedly -- still be David.

In late October Barry and I had dinner with Paul Pearce and David Newcome. Barry talked more than I did, Paul spurring him on in his usual way.

Paul talked to me about Barry after that; friends often, perhaps rightfully, exercise the privilege of advising on one's affections. Barry asked me later what he'd said. "He likes you, but said you were a very serious boy." "Boy?!" he shot back. "I'll get him for that!" Barry was 27 but, certainly to me, no boy.

David liked Barry too, mostly for his lanky ease and tight jeans. "I bet he's got a big dick," he said. He was right: I'd found out the first night we were together, sitting up in bed, our legs tangled together, each of us with his eyes locked on the other's.

I reached into his briefs, found the head of his stiff cock, slid my hand down. And down. I must have looked surprised: he gave me a gleeful, wicked grin.

That was the last time David saw Barry. We'd be together again, but by then David could see nothing at all.

Paul called after that dinner, worried: David wanted to be tested for HIV. He called again to ask if I knew about neurological effects of AIDS: David said he was losing his sight. I suggested it might be cytomegalovirus, CMV. It often caused blindness in people with AIDS; there was a drug to treat it. But it usually struck very late on. This was too fast.

They went together for tests at Sunnybrook Hospital. Dr Anita Rachlis did think it was AIDS related, but not CMV. It turned out something much more rare: herpes zoster -- the same virus that causes chicken pox -- infecting David's retinas and optic nerves. It was untreatable and would progress.

Within weeks, David was totally blind. I wrote to Jane:

But of course he has AIDS, maybe not clinically if it's herpes; it would have been AIDS by definition if he'd had CMV [that's how AIDS was defined then: by a limited list of opportunistic infections that the immune system could no longer hold in check], showing how useless the term AIDS is becoming. In any case he is infected with HIV.

Paul, who has always said he wanted to die before David did, now faces the knowledge that he is almost sure to survive him, that David may well die in a year or two, or less.

As it turned out David would be with us, very much himself even if blind, for six years and three months more.


1987 City condom brochure
Meaningfully Serious Look:
Brochure from the City of Toronto's first safe sex campaign, 1987. The same look as its "Avoid AIDS" poster, if a different couple -- still straight.

Homosexuality was unmentionable, even in a context as ovbious as AIDS. For openly gay men the message was clear:
You do not exist.

Governments were taking AIDS seriously now: HIV was showing up in a few heterosexuals, mostly women. That got them off their butts and with a classic response to hot issues: they threw money at it.

Their pitch, however, was not well aimed. Earlier this year the City of Toronto had announced its AIDS Operational Plan, set to spend $11.5 million over two and a half years. In the July 31 issue of Xtra I had taken that plan apart.

Of its total budget, 68 percent was allotted to education efforts. And "the largest share of our resources," the plan said, should go to "the education of the general public." The campaign began with big bus shelter posters and a matching brochure. "Avoid AIDS," they read. "You can prevent it. Find out how."

Eyeing the viewer from amidst those words -- with a Meaningfully Serious Look -- was a couple, young and attractive: a man and a woman.

City fathers were happy to adopt a line the AIDS movement had long used to avoid being ignored altogether: "AIDS is not a gay disease." There were 258 diagnosed cases of AIDS in the city, 97 percent of them among gay men. Half were dead. Of the 1,800 others who had tested positive for HIV, 48 were women, few if any of the men heterosexual.

The city plan defined "drug users, prostitutes, homosexual and bisexual men, and individuals with multiple sex partners" -- the people most at risk -- as "special target groups." In fact, "hard to reach target groups," meaning that they didn't know how to find people like us and didn't know how to talk to us when they did.

They were counting on community groups like ACT to do that work. Wisely: we certainly knew how to do it better than they did.

But, of their total education budget just 25 percent was to support community based work. ACT itself would get seven percent. ACT was the only group dealing specifically with gay men -- but often with "the general public" too: more than half the calls to its Hotline were from heterosexuals.

Ninety seven percent of the cases: less than seven percent of the money. I called the piece "Low Budget Lives."

The idea that ACT should deal with the fags -- not a bad one if we'd had the resources, and if we could reach every man in the city, gay identified or not, who had sex with other men -- had a darker subtext. Public health types said they wanted to stop AIDS among heterosexuals "while there's still a chance."

Behind that one could hear: for gay men it's too late. A quarter of them in the city were estimated to be infected with HIV. As for the rest, well, ACT will save them. Or they'll die. I ended that piece:

The city's public health people are smart enough to know they can't do that job [educating the gay community]. They are not very smart if they think that a few token dollars will get the job done.

And they're very stupid indeed if they think we won't notice our lives being written off. Our lives count. And we're not going to let anybody forget it.


The city's promo saw "the general public" as solely heterosexual. Worse, it implied that even they never did anything more kinky than traditional fucking. But there is no such thing as a sexual practice distinct to homosexuality.

As homo pioneer Harry Hay once said: "Gay people are different from everybody else except in bed."

Harry Hay

Stuart Timmons: The Trouble with Harry Hay, Founder of the Modern Gay Movement. Alyson, 1990. A biography.

Will Roscoe, ed: Radical Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of its Founder, Harry Hay. Beacon Press, 1996. A collection of Hay's writings.

Among the pioneers of the Mattachine Society, Los Angeles, 1950, Harry Hay (b 1912), a former Communist, was later ousted by those eager to seek tolerance & "respectability" by pretending that gay people were the same as everybody else except in bed. He became a Radical Faerie critical of "the chimera of Gay civil rights ... become a Thunder Mug planted to geraniums in the middle class parlours of Gay Democratic Clubs."

Later I did a brief to the Board of Health, political overseers of the department. For credibility it was from Pink Triangle Press but the ideas were mine, the same ones in that article if, given the medium, more formally put.

Not that I hedged key points. One of the more liberal motives for aiming AIDS education at heterosexuals had been to emphasize that "AIDS is not a gay disease."

"In the public mind," I wrote, "AIDS is a gay disease. Ignoring this well entrenched connection fools no one. On the contrary, it reinforces the stigmatization of homosexuality by declaring it unmentionable, even in a context as obvious as AIDS." For those in the closet, it said: Homosexuality is still a secret.

For openly gay men, I said, "the message is direct, demeaning: you do not exist. The City can only confront the stigmatizing association of homosexuality with AIDS by acknowledging homosexuality and refusing to stigmatize it."

Governments had also bought into the gay movement's own false if strategically useful construction: that the world could be neatly divided between gay and straight. I did a round of Kinsey 101, citing his 1948 study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.

Only a small percentage of men he surveyed were exclusively gay, but more than a third had had sex with other men.

Many such men couldn't be reached in gay venues, only as part of "the general public." Yet the city's campaign assumed the "public" was exclusively heterosexual. Worse, even for heterosexuals, it implied they never did anything more kinky than missionary position fucking. I wrote:

There is no such thing as a sexual practice distinct to homosexuality.

Anything that two men or two women can do together sexually can also be done by a man and a woman together. This includes not only fellatio and cunnilingus, but also kissing; licking; rubbing; anal intercourse; oral- anal contact; mutual masturbation or other forms of manual manipulation, including fisting; practices involving urine, feces or saliva; bondage; sadomasochism or the use of sex toys.

These practices are listed here in such detail to call to mind how gay- identified some of them have become. This has nothing to do with who is able to engage in them. It has to do with the existence of a gay erotic culture that has allowed them to be openly acknowledged and discussed. But it is obvious that these practices are intrinsically no more homosexual than heterosexual. And all are of potential concern as likely or unlikely means of HIV transmission.

I relished tossing all those dirty if euphemistic terms in front of the Board of Health. Straight people knew perfectly well they did such things. But too many of them would rather die -- or let others die -- than admit it.

Pioneering gay activist Harry Hay once put it more succinctly: "Gay people are different from everybody else except in bed."

I'd later send that brief to the head of the Ontario Public Education Panel on AIDS. Talking with him on the phone I found he had misread one of its recommendations: that one of the city's planned quarterly campaigns be directed exclusively, and positively, to openly gay men. He took it to mean that a quarter of the entire budget should be devoted to us.

This man was a potential ally -- Kevin Orr was on that panel with him and said he was alright. I wrote him a letter, trying to be nice but not pulling my punches.

It would not have been unreasonable for us to have asked that half, three quarters of the money spent to stop AIDS be spent on reaching the people who represent more than 90% percent of the cases [in Ontario], more than 90% of those who are seropositive and, by far, the largest single group of uninfected people at high risk.

Yet even the mistaken assumption that we suggested expending a quarter of government efforts on them caused people to bristle.

I must make such arguments, however difficult it may be for some people to hear them. I must make them forcefully and without apology. Homosexuality does not make our lives worth less. We must insist on that.


I'd stand in The Barn, watching, writing safer sex promo in my head -- not exhortations, but acknowledgments of who my people are, what they know, the reality they face with what is, finally, a most unreasonable strength.

Kevin Orr left ACT in September, wanting to go on to other things, maybe back to school to study history.

At his going away party Joan Anderson said he'd founded AIDS education in Canada. Kevin said no: his whole community -- The Body Politic, Michael Lynch, Bill Lewis, Ed Jackson and I all part of it -- had made that possible.

That was just days before Billy died. Walking home from that party I cried, as I hadn't with Bill. I had told Michael Lynch that when I cried it was less from grief than from something else: a love for all of us and all we'd been privileged to do; a love for the strength of my people; a commitment to them; a hope for them.

I cried, oddly (well, perhaps not), out of joy. "It's not death that's too much with us right now," I wrote Jane. "It's life and its sheer wonder."

Life includes death, as our ancestors had always known. Only in the last century or so, even then only among the most privileged of us, have the dying and the dead been whisked out of sight to be handled by professionals.

When people who had HIV, even those who had it in their lives if not their bodies, said "Why me?" I often wanted to say (though I rarely did): Because you're human, just like anyone else. And this is human life.

December 6, 1987, to Jane:

I am feeling very impatient these days. But less so all the time with my own people. I stand in The Barn watching them, writing safer sex copy in my head, not exhortations but acknowledgments of who they are, what they know, the reality they face with what is, finally, a most unreasonable strength.

It was there, a while ago, that I thought to myself (constructed the phrases there, typing them later, drunk, into this machine): we live in world set up to ignore our reality; to acknowledge our existence when it chooses with tolerant dismissal or polemical vilification or direct violence -- none of it based on who we might really be, but on an image cast up in the minds of those who know us not at all but use us as a garbage dump for all their own worst fears.

In a world so set up, anyone defined as gay should end up mean, pinched, fearful and neurotic. Some have. The miracle is that any of us could have ended up otherwise -- strong, generous, whole and humane. Yet it's a perfectly ordinary miracle: so many of us are all those things.

A headbanger on the subway wearing a cap that says across the front "AIDS Kills Fags Dead" is not arrested for spreading hate literature. He is at best dismissed, ignored, not tampered with. For now I suppose that's for the best: let liberal straights know this is there, blatant and distasteful; let them confront their own more polite feelings in the form of this wholly unreconstructed cretin.

But I look for the day when he won't be able to spread a message like that so casually -- not because it's illegal (as we are no longer illegal), but because it will take a willingness to risk rejection, abuse, even assault -- just as we have always risked them.

That kid's bigotry (he was real, I saw him) is not hateful just because he has it, but because he can so blithely get away with it, fearing no consequences.

I am in a mood for consequences. Lucky for me (given the law), I have no power to inflict them. But impromptu lobotomies are a tempting fantasy -- and full of delicious irony too.

Well, I've ventured very far from love.


It was love I'd been on about to Jane. I hadn't lost it. If anything my passions had grown, both angry and loving.

Standing by the dance floor at The Barn, I marvelled at the men there even more than I had before, truly taking in their beauty as I basked, in this man, in that one, dancing.

Not simply for his grace, his movement, the rhythm of his breathing -- but for the wondrous fact that he could dance and move and breathe.

After my nights by Billy's cool steel bed, his body moved only by a machine, it was a gift I no longer took for granted.

Go on to 1988: Jan-Mar / Go back to Contents

This page:
December 1999 / Last revised: October 7, 2001
Rick Bébout © 2001 /