"Excuse me," says Joe Stewart to the man in the black shirt. For the past 20 minutes Stewart had watched the man hit on a group of frustrated women. "See all of us in the red t-shirts? We're gay."
Thirty queers gathered at the Split Crow last month to take part in the fifth monthly Guerilla GayFare. "It's a simple concept," says Stewart. "Gay people wanting to try different bars." After spending a year and a half in Taiwan teaching and modelling, Stewart moved to Halifax to do his master's in the fall. The Nova Scotia native went to Acadia for his undergrad and was familiar with the queer scene in Halifax. "I've been to the gay bars before but I've decided it's not for me," he says. "I like pub venues with east coast music which is not something the gay scene offers." Looking for alternative ways to meet gay people, he found the GGF site on Facebook and decided to show up to an event.
The first GGF group started in San Francisco in 2000 and was called Guerilla Queer Bar. Five friends who were fed up with the gay bar scene created a website; they posted a "straight" venue each month where the queer community could meet. Momentum picked up and groups starting popping up in the States and internationally in places such as London and Germany.
In 2007, the first Canadian group began in Ottawa, called Guerilla GayFare. Philana Dollin, 30, who was visiting the nation's capital, got inspired to start a Halifax chapter. "I'm not a bar-going girl," she says. "A lot of lesbians aren't comfortable with the gay bar scene and this looked like an alternative everyone could participate in."
She started a Facebook group with her partner Melinda Lively and friend Kim Speed. The day of each takeover, the last Friday of each month, the girls posted the venue to show up at and colour to wear. Benjie Nycum, one of the 289 members who joined, asked Dollin if he could help organize the events. "I had been to a takeover in San Francisco so I knew what this was about," says Nycum, 35, CEO of architecture firm William Nycum and Associates Limited. "It was at a dingy bar, in a dingy neighbourhood. There were eight people there who turned around to see 250 gay people walk in." While Dollin sees the movement as a fun alternative to the gay bar scene, Nycum sees it as something more complex.
"For me, the primary objective is to promote the idea that we don't all have to go to Reflections," he says. "People go because there's no other place to meet gay people." Though Halifax is known internationally as a gay-friendly travel destination, it has only three gay bars: Menz Bar, Blue Moon Café and Reflections Cabaret. Reflections has been around the longest, 12 years, and draws crowds of hundreds of gay and straight people each Friday and Saturday night. "They're pretty much the only game in town," says Travis Smith, 26, who works for the advertising company Extreme Group. "When I was 19, Reflections had an appeal. But being single and my age, I'm looking for stuff to do that's a little less mainstream."
The first takeover happened at Tribeca in February and attracted around 80 people through the night. "We were happy with the numbers," says Dollin. "But Tribeca's already very gay friendly and we wanted to explore bars gay people don't normally go to."
The second and third takeover, at Boomers Lounge and Mosaic were considerably more successful. At Boomers, a group of about 20 GGFers showed up right at 11pm wearing green. "It's a bar of cougars," says Jeff Myles, 30, a GGF organizer who joined the group with Nycum. "When we first arrived at the location people said, 'Are you joking?' Some older guys left but the women and bar staff loved it." Boomers bartender John Gillis welcomed the extra customers and their tips but admits to having no idea what was going on. "I remember a group of people and I think they were all gay," says Gillis of the roughly 80 GGF members who came throughout the night. "The way I look at it, if everyone's having a good time, gay or straight, then it's OK."
The GGF at Mosaic was the most successful to date, with about 120 people showing up throughout the night dressed in yellow. "It was packed full," says Myles, who works as a sales manager for a software engineering firm. "We really took over and had positive feedback from people and the venue." Head manager and bartender, Cooper Tardivel, welcomed the group, who turned the restaurant and bar into a dance party. "It helped us out a lot," he says. "Any time a group of people want to show up, hit the dance floor and spend a lot of money, we're happy."
Smith attended the fourth GGF at Hell's Kitchen, which was a fundraiser for Pride Week called Rockin' in the Gaybourhood. He had a good time, but admits to being disappointed with the takeover. "If it's a statement, I'm not sure what it is, or who it's directed at," he says. "Halifax is not aggressive. The attitude is more 'whatever' so change doesn't really happen."
Nycum says the tactical warfare terminology used on the website is an expression of gay culture rather than aggression. "'Takeover' is tongue-in-cheek and we keep it that way for the sake of queer culture."
Myles says the point of GGF is to provide an alternative to the gay night scene, not to aggravate the venue or its patrons. "This isn't a negative thing," he says. "Groups in the southern US want to make the point of saying 'we exist' so they bombard the place, but Halifax is very diverse and we don't have to do that here." Smith is less optimistic. "There's still a lot of bone-headed people in this city," he says. "It's good to pause and reflect that a straight person could go to Reflections no problem but gay people can't go to a straight bar without there being an event."
For Nycum, who is the publisher of Young Gay America magazine and treasurer for gay rights group Egale Canada, the politics of gay people taking over a straight space is no longer relevant. "It was more important 20 to 30 years ago," he says. "Today there's a recognition that we're free to do this without persecution." Nycum sees the political act to be in maintaining this right. "The Freedom of Association Act we have in Canada is a wonderful gift," he says. "This is one of the underlying fundamental expressions of GGF---to assemble and associate in peace. This group exists to say 'let's start acting like an international city with destinations for socializing that are hip and cool.'"
The latest event at the Split Crow started out slow. The takeover took place on a Thursday instead of the regular Friday night, causing about 15 GGF members with morning jobs to get discouraged by the line and leave early. But later in the night, 30 GGF members showed up in red.
"For half an hour or so we were the majority," says Stewart, who considers the night a victory for the gay community. "It's cool to look out on the dance floor and see everybody wearing the same colour. It proves we're not just people who hang out at gay bars."
Jon the guerillas and their GayFare Friday night by logging onto the Facebook group for their secret location and colour code.