Mike Scaife has lived in Halifax’s north end for nine years, on a quiet, dead-end residential street with limited parking and lined with trees that give way to the mid-afternoon sun. His house is a pale colour, blending in with the neighbours’ two-storey homes, their yards scattered with children’s toys and fall-themed decorations.
The only indication that Halifax’s most-hyped underground queer bar is in Scaife’s backyard are the colours of the inclusive Pride flag (rainbow, plus the trans flag’s blue and pink pastel hues) painted on the wooden fence door, a porta-potty hidden behind a bush out front, and the occasional party-goer looking for directions on their phone as they strut down the sidewalk in sky-high heels, a new wig and a fit ready to drop jaws.
“Back in June, a friend actually came up with the name for the backyard ‘cause we always all hang out back here,” says Scaife, speaking with The Coast on a recent sunny afternoon. He’s sitting on a sofa made of wooden palettes next to his terrier, Hank. “At that point, it was just funny, let’s get a sign and call it the Queer Garden.”
But soon, Scaife and friends realized there was a true need for a place that 2SLGBTQ+ people could gather. “A couple weeks later, after a rough night working in food and beverage, I came home and thought about the name again,” Scaife says. “And it was just a passion project from there on.”
Justin Chevrette and Erin Delorey are co-operators of the Garden alongside Scaife. All three have experience in the service industry: Scaife was managing Upstreet BBQ Brewhouse, Delorey was general manager at Barrington Steakhouse, and Chevrette worked as a flight attendant. “From that night, it was three to four weeks, we had quit our jobs and opened,” Scaife says.
“I moved in next door the week that you were opening,” says Chevrette to Scaife, seated across from him on a weathered kitchen chair. “I had a broken hand and I offered my help to paint the fence and some chairs two days before they opened.”
What started out as a space for a bunch of queer-identifying friends to gather was now a business, ready to serve rainbow cocktails, chips with queso dip and BBQ skewers. But it may not have happened without COVID-19.
“It was kind of a time where the pandemic, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Scaife. “And people that moved here, especially the queer community, didn’t have the support structure to rely on and no means of creating that or connecting with the community.”
“I’m hesitant to say the word queer community here,” says Chevrette, who recently moved back to Halifax from Berlin. “Because I don’t feel the same way, and that’s really what we want to create here.”
But because the Queer Garden wasn’t a licensed bar (and still isn’t, which is why The Coast is keeping the exact location a mystery), the events themselves had to be kept secret. “We’re completely underground, we’re a speakeasy,” says Scaife. “There’s a little bit of worry, but I’ve lived here a long time. And the neighbourhood I’ve always talked to as I’m doing it, they’ve been supportive and a lot of them have come here.”
The first event took place in early July for Scaife’s birthday. “We thought, what better day to celebrate?” says Delorey, sitting across from her two business partners on another kitchen chair. “And everything had just kind of come together so quickly. We had a bunch of friends and neighbours over that day to launch the Garden with food and drinks, and the reception was so amazing”
That first night was a resounding success. “People really loved it,” says Chevrette. And he accomplished his goal of recreating Berlin’s queer scene. “All the weirdos were out, it looked exactly like what I wanted it to.”
Since historically queer-friendly bars like Menz & Mollyz and Reflections Cabaret no longer exist in Halifax, people flocked to the Queer Garden to make friends, test new outfits and dance their asses off.
“We were just all-in, right from the get-go,” says Scaife. “And there was really no stopping us.”
Every event at Queer Garden is reservation-only, and reservations are made through the venue’s website. After confirming there’s space (COVID restrictions of 50 people matter even at modern gay speakeasies) the attendees are given the exact address.
So far, there have been plenty of dance parties with full DJ sets, and reservations have ranged from groups of one to large packs of pals. “You go out and you’re just part of the party,” says Chevrette. “It doesn’t matter who you’re with, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re just part of the party.”
The Queer Garden is flying under the radar, and doesn’t want to cause neighbourhood drama, so after a few noise complaints has switched to a silent disco model. “We’ve responded to the reception of the neighbourhood,” says Scaife. “If you want to rock out, we have headphones, but we also have music for ambiance, just not very loud.“
There have also been Ru Paul’s Drag Race watching events, karaoke nights, trivia, brunches and afternoon BBQs. “We want to be a sort of catch-all without being everything to everyone,” says Scaife. “We want to do everything with love.”
There is alcohol served at the Garden—Delorey is the main bartender—but the operators say most people show up to make friends and expand their circle, not get wasted and hook up.
“We really just wanted a project where it was in real life and a spot that people felt safe to come to,” says Scaife. “And it was just about creating community and having a good time really.” Chevrette says he’s heard positive feedback from many guests who are glad there’s no pressure, and say their “experience in the community is not purely sexual”
The semi-secrecy has also allowed freedom of expression from community members who may not always feel safe elsewhere. “We’re secret for obvious reasons, but a lot of the feedback we got was like, Oh my god this adds a whole extra layer of security,’” says Chevrette. Adds Scaife, “A lot of people who are queer presenting—non-binary and trans people who look queer, who look different—you get to come and not look different, or just feel normal here.”
“A lot of people have come and tried out outfits, and I’m sure people have come dressed in the opposite clothing that they’d be normal comfortable dressing in,” says Scaife. “It gives people the confidence to go and wear that in their normal lives.”
After a successful summer, the Queer Garden is ready to come out publicly, and it’s on the hunt for a permanent home. A Kickstarter launch event held on Thanksgiving weekend was the turning point as the Queer Garden prepares to hibernate for the winter and shift into fundraising mode. The final event of this season will be a Halloween party on October 30.
“We came into it saying that we're not getting paid for our time, which is what we've stuck to,” says Scaife. “Basically we wanted all the money to go into like the Kickstarter to the permanent location, because that was our goal, right from the get-go.”
While there may be a few pop-ups at other local businesses over the winter—"we have had offers from other locations that have said we love what you’re doing,” says Delorey—the Garden hopes to reopen next spring in its own fully legal and fully licensed location.
“If people are willing to venture down a dead-end street into our backyard, I think people will follow us wherever we go,” says Scaife.
The goal is to find a space that’s downtown or in the north end that’s fully accessible, but also a bit off the beaten path. “We kind of want to keep the speakeasy-ish vibe, so we’re not totally mainstream,” says Scaife. “We want to protect the community and make sure it’s still a safe space for everybody, because we’ve had such fun and such luck with how we’re doing it here.“
The Queer Garden hopes to raise about $56,000 to go towards rent, renovations and equipment for a new, permanent space that Halifax’s queer community can call home.
“We’re still working, we’re doing touches on our business plan still,” says Scaife. “All that is relative to how the Kickstarter goes, but we are very optimistic.”