I just spent the early afternoon running errands for this weekend’s Unholy Harvest (the women/trans BDSM weekend I’m organizing with Jacqueline St-Urbain)… and discovering all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies in the nation’s capital.
Ottawa’s a funny place. It’s such a government town; everywhere you go the streets are full of university students in jeans and t-shirts, and office workers in conservative suits. This is a place where sweatshirts with Canada flags on ’em are worn without irony, where everyone has the same haircut (shoulder-length and ponytailed for girls, short and gelled for guys), where there are manicured lawns and freshly paved roads and where every building looks like it was built in the last 20 years. There is a Subway on every street corner (I passed four of them in a 15-minute walk), next to the obligatory Starbucks or Second Cup (another four), and everyone, but everyone, is lily-white. (Okay, not everyone, but when I see people of colour so infrequently that it surprises me each time, I definitely do not feel like I am in the midst of great multicultural diversity.)
Ottawa does not feel like a place that has much of an underground – edgy, artsy, queerly intellectual, kinky. And while there are people here who fit that description, they are few and far between, and they stick out like sore thumbs.
A little anecdote to illustrate my point. Jacqueline and I have been trying to find a place to buy hankies – you know, the standard square of coloured fabric with a few paisleys and a simple black border that gay men have been using to flag their kinks for decades. We need them to identify our dungeon monitors for the weekend’s play parties. But in Ottawa, apparently there are no hankies to be found in the gay area of town (all two blocks of it). Should I suppose this is because there is no cruising scene? Or simply that the guys here don’t flag – perhaps the hankies clash with their Gap khakis or their business suits? Perhaps they only cruise one another in the bathrooms of government buildings over lunch hour, or over the backyard fence when their wives aren’t looking? It’s fascinating and rather puzzling. (Hankies, however, have been located: my ex, a military gal, pointed me in the direction of a military surplus / flag store that seems to carry them. Score. The added bonus is that somehow it feels more subversive to pick them up at a totally non-sexually-oriented establishment. Heh.)
Now the interesting piece is that the queer organizations here – and they do have queer organizations, you just have to look for them – have been incredibly supportive of Unholy Harvest, and they seem to be staffed with uber-friendly and helpful people for whom the idea of a dyke/trans BDSM gathering is just delightful. They might be buried in faceless office buildings, but the fine folks at Pink Triangle Services (which runs discussion groups for gay men, queers, trans folks and more – so that means such people must be here somewhere!) and at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO) have been wonderful, offering us space for our workshops as well as such necessities as condoms, lube and gloves.
So despite my general impression of Ottawa as being a town that’s so mainstream it hurts, there is a surprising lack of squick among the people who are on the city’s equivalent of the edge. Another anecdote to illustrate what I mean: I dropped by the ACO offices today to check out the workshop space they’re giving us for the weekend, and the friendly gal who’s taking care of us asked what the first workshop we were running was about. I told her it was a session on age play – which is one of those things that creeps some people out even within the kink scene. She immediately brightened and said, “Oh, we have a kiddie play room if you think that might be more appropriate!” and proceeded to steer me down the hall and show me around their babysitting space, full of kids’ toys and bright furniture, as though the idea of using it to teach a bunch of queer perverts about daddy/boi (etc.) role-play were the most normal thing in the world. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. Truly intriguing.
And of course, in the more commercial vein, Ottawa is home to Breathless, a permanent dungeon space, which Montreal seems hard-pressed to sustain – we seem to do just fine in terms of having massive fetish events and BDSM nights at clubs, but the much-beloved Fetish Cafe closed down several years ago and since then there has been no kink venue with a consistent presence. Ottawa is also home to the ever-wonderful Venus Envy, a queer/women-friendly sex toy shop of the variety I like best – quality merchandise, a large book section, cute and knowledgeable staff, workshops, and so forth – which is also the type of establishment that has had a difficult time flourishing in Montreal. Though we seem to have no trouble sustaining cheap and seedy sex shops on every second street corner (next to the huge churches, of course), selling toxic jelly toys and ill-fitting scratchy lingerie.
Anyway, so I don’t quite know what to make of this town. It seems to have a lot going for it in the realm of alternative communities, and yet it feels like so incredibly conservative on the surface that I’m hard pressed to feel at home here. I suppose that’s not really a big issue since I certainly don’t plan to live here; it’s just always amusing to tap into the queer and kinky pulse in different cities and figure out how to flow along with it for the time I’m here.
Of course, spending the weekend surrounded by 60 hot leatherdykes and trannies will surely help in the, ahem, “flow” department, so I’m not exactly worried.
And on that happy note, I have to go and meet up with Jacqueline to spend the evening stuffing registration bags with safer sex supplies, discount coupons and other goodies, plus prepping the prizes for tomorrow night’s kinky auction and door prize giveaway. I’m meeting her at her office here – and it always puts a smile on my face to walk through conservative parts of town carrying a large bag bulging with dildos. Off I go!