RM Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist based in Toronto.
What makes a gay village? The traditional answer is, simply, an area inside an urban centre where LGBTQ people and their businesses feel secure enough to live and work openly, without fear. Given that Canada is one of the safest countries in the world for queer people, you’d think gay villages across the country would be thriving, but the opposite is true. Many appear half vacant, even shabby and far from safe. Church Street, in Toronto, is down to two dance bars and one bath house and the neighbourhood’s alleys and corners are home to desperate people of all ages living rough.
What’s behind this transition? Urbanists, business owners and long-term residents tend to blame the trifecta of rapid gentrification, which afflicts all long-standing urban enclaves; the normalization of online dating and shopping, which negates the need to visit designated queer spaces; and the happy truth that Canadian cities are generally queer positive, and thus queer people no longer need the safety-in-numbers a gay village used to guarantee.
I’m in agreement with all of these theories and observations, to a point, but on this, the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day (an anniversary I wish we had no need to still mark), another factor is in play, and we need to start talking about how it is emptying out gay villages across Canada much in the same way AIDS did in the eighties and nineties: methamphetamine addiction. Meth is to the Gay Village today what crack cocaine was to racialized urban neighbourhoods in the nineties, and, just as that epidemic of addiction and its scourges was ignored because the people primarily affected were not considered important, meth is the bulldozer in the Village that many queer people would rather ignore than topple.
To wit, an article sponsored by a U.S. private rehab facility (grain of salt taken) argues that “Methamphetamine’s ability to produce not only euphoria and confidence, but sexual desire and enhanced sexual performance, has made it an integral part of the gay sex scene in many urban areas for years …” In other words, the high from meth could not fit into gay party culture any better had it been designed to do so.
Experts disagree about the numbers surrounding meth use in the LGBTQ community (and, yes, the drug does disproportionately appear in gay male circles, which studies tend to default to as a standard for the entire, diverse queer community), but according to studies cited by the Ontario HIV Treatment Network, the prevalence of meth use in gay male communities ranges “from 6-16 per cent compared to only 0.6 per cent in the general population." The numbers might be up for debate, but anecdotal evidence and lived experience don’t lie.
Gay men suffer from chronic insecurities – perceived failings fuelled by everything from ever present homophobia, external and internalized, to gay media and the hyperfit stars of gay pornography to the same insecurities everybody feels in a maddeningly precarious economy – but also live in a sexual culture that (delightfully so, I say) offers no end of adventures.
Meth makes you feel better about yourself, sexy and ready, as it not only induces a powerful sense of euphoria and confidence but also the feeling of limitless energy. Granted, there is much evidence to counter the idea that meth is a “sex drug,” as many users experience impotence and other performance issues. But in the popular imagination, meth is a party drug. Users of gay dating sites employ the code phrase PnP (Party, a.k.a. take drugs, usually meth, and Play, a.k.a. have sex) with an ease one would apply to, say, the promise of a smart cocktail. Gay men not into drugs may even feel pressure to do the first half of PnP in order to enjoy the second.
I personally know two men who have lost everything – their homes, jobs, partners and even pets – to meth addiction. Meth made them feel so good, so secure and confident in their bodies during sex that they continued to use it long after the warning signs of overuse appeared. In Toronto, I count three outlets for queer/gay male-centred meth-addiction counselling. That’s a lot given our numbers in contrast to the general population. In Montreal, I found four.
A walk through any Canadian gay village reveals stark signs of decline, by which I mean the marked absence of gay men. What’s a gay village without gay guys? The bars are fewer in number and rarely feel full. Queer-specific shops must also now tend to the needs of straight people, and I can’t walk by a Village coffee shop packed with young straight kids pecking at their laptops without remembering that that space used to be a piano bar, a leather bar, a dance bar, a place to meet and laugh and get frisky. The bathhouses, what few remain, smell like burning air fresheners, the residual tang of lit pipes packed with meth.
We talk about creating “safe spaces” rather a lot in queer circles. Everybody wants to be in one, everybody wants to create one, or so we are told by our betters. But what about our bodies? How do we make our bodies safe spaces? How do we gently nudge our priorities, now mostly taken up by intra-queer identity battles and language policing, to include caring for ourselves as bodies that need mending and, yes, love?
We’ve come so far, so very far, in our struggles for freedom and independence, but somewhere in that path to progress queers forgot how to create healthy communities, forgot that the foundation of a “safe space” is good health.
This World AIDS Day, please wear a red ribbon and remember those we lost in the epidemic – remember well, lest we repeat the mistakes made three decades ago.