In recent years, Toronto’s male homosexual population has been coming out of the closet—and into the bars—in droves. Downtown watering holes attract crowds of gay men who want to meet others in an out-front homosexual milieu that includes dancing and a complex series of signals at which heterosexuals can only guess. But what about the other closet? Though sex between women has become a regular feature in men’s magazines such as Penthouse and Hustler (whose aim, of course, is to please men), little has been heard from lesbians. Women who find their pleasure in other women have always socialized with a low profile, either at house parties, in the relative security of male gay bars, or at the few back-alley lesbian bars—dives where fights are all too predictable.
In the fallout from the Sixties—unisex, the women’s movement, and more open attitudes toward sex—more women have been trying to come out of the closet and define themselves socially as healthy women who happen to prefer other women. Always, however, there has been the problem of where to go. Even women who could pass as “straight” were uncomfortable in regular bars. “I don’t like to pretend, and I don’t like being hassled by men,” says Judy, a pixyish 31-year-old bank executive who probably would get hassled by men. Like most women she feels that revealing her full name would jeopardize her job. “On the other hand, middle-classwomen don’t like Arborite ta-
bles and linoleum floors. The old girls’ bars knew they could provide a dive and women would keep coming because there was nowhere else to go.”
Now there is somewhere else to go. Slowly, young lesbians are discovering places in Toronto where middle-class women can relax and meet like-minded women. The newest and most posh meeting place is Studio II, a central Carlton Street club geared to the professional working woman. Open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night since March, the club has almost 4,000 members, 70% of them female.
“I can sum up the difference between this place and the other girls’ bars in one word,” says a 33-year-old saleswoman. “Class.” Resonating with an atmosphere of hard-edged disco hip, Studio II has plush carpeting, upholstered couches, leather chairs, Tiffany lamps, and wood and brick walls. A large dance floor with strobe lights dominates the upper floor while a series of small, interconnecting rooms offers quiet comers, and pinball machines and a pool table provide diversion. Downstairs, a 50seat theatre screens movies such as Taxi Driver and Day Of The Locust, paid for from the three-dollar entrance fee.
While more and more professional women are going to Studio II, they aren’t the only customers. “I like this place because it attracts a cross section of gay women,” says Charlene Sheard-Robertson, a 28-year-old student. “Here
you can see trendies, dykes, fashionable and bisexual women.” Joanne, a lively 21-year-old apprentice in cabinetmaking, likes Studio II because it is safe. “I don’t go to tough clubs. Here there are decent, professional people. It’s the gay club.” While Joanne has some objection to the gay men at the club—“men have plenty of their own clubs to go to”—many other women welcome them. A 35-yearold customer relations manager says she appreciates having a place to take her gay male friends. Other women, at ease in the business world, enjoy a balance of men and women.
According to co-owner David Wilson, 34, the feeling is mutual. “I like the girls here. I couldn’t have predicted it, but if they weren’t here I’d miss them,” he says, adding that “the girls” drink and tip more than men. “Maybe they get off on having a gay male wait on them.” He and his male partner gross about $8,000 per week, but the female clientele doesn’t seem to mind that men are raking in the profits. However, Jill, a soft-spoken nurse who only “came out” (acknowledged to herself and to other lesbians that she is gay) a year ago, feels offended at being asked at the door if she is gay. “You don’t get asked that at straight bars. It’s a fantastically personal question.” (Wilson explains that customers are questioned to weed out “voyeuristic straight men.”)
Many older, more traditional lesbians don’t feel at ease at Studio II. Some still prefer old-style places like the Cameo Club at King and Parliament streets. It offers a rough, affable milieu similar to that of a regular working-class bar. “The women here are hard-working people,” says Maureen, a 40-year-old truck driver. “I like it here because I know most of the people, and we respect each other. The other clubs get a teenybopper, transient, downtown crowd.” While many of the women at the Cameo Club look like muscled, male-emulating lesbians, Maureen insists this stereotype is changing. “Society is loosening up. I don’t like women who have to look like men.” Doris, a 45-yearold mother of five, recalls that “in the old days, if you looked butch, you’d get hassled just walking down the street. You had to be tough.” Now, she says, butch is an endangered species. “New Year’s Eve is the only time we old hutches put on a tuxedo and tie. It’s a reminder of the old days.”
While many lesbians, old and young, nod to the women’s movement for creating an atmosphere of change, most are reluctant to speak out as feminists. Says a 34year-old systems analyst: “I’m feminist in my thinking but I wouldn’t stand on a soapbox. Sure, gay women have a harder lot than gay men—the men have been raised to be assertive. Women have to first say ‘I am’ before they say i am gay.’ ” “Besides, first things first,” says a 34-year-old television producer. “Right now we’re happy to get out of the back alleys and onto a main street.” JACQUELINE SWARTZ
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