"People can feel at home here": queer-run businesses create safer spaces

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      Vancouver has a certain reputation for being friendly to LGBTQ2S+ people. From the Pride stickers in store windows to the annual Justin Trudeau–attended parade, the bars of Davie Street to the lesbian hang-out spots on the Drive, queer people and places are woven through the city.

      But LGBTQ2S+ friendly spaces are not the same as explicitly queer- and trans-run spaces: spots made by and for queer people to really thrive.

      “There aren’t really a ton of queer public spaces. I’ve always felt like I want there to be more,” said Cooper Marquis, a senior stylist at Big Joy Barber & Salon. “I think it’s really important for people to be able to be in public, in a place that feels like it’s for them, and not just accepting of them.”

      Big Joy is notable as Vancouver’s go-to queer hair salon, with a roster of stylists across the gender, sexuality, and hair-expertise spectrum. Marquis noted that they’ve had queer and trans youth coming for haircuts from as far away as Abbotsford.

      “You can tell that they are so happy, it almost feels like they’re coming somewhere they’ve heard about,” they said. “It feels really special to be able to give—especially youth, but everyone—a place where they’re seen.”

      Founder and senior stylist Shaunn Watt started the business in 2015, initially as a little studio he shared with other creatives, and gradually brought on other stylists as the operation expanded. He knew he wanted Big Joy to be welcoming to the queer and trans community from the very beginning.

      In Watt’s previous studios, he already had a lot of LGBTQ2S+ clients. “I wanted to lean more into that and more into creating and nurturing a space that felt good to me,” he said.

      Marquis joined in 2017, finding that Big Joy was one of the few salons in the city offering non-gendered hair services.

      “It seemed like a place where I naturally could be myself,” they said.

      Cuts are priced by length or service rendered—a practice that’s become more common, but was still rare six years ago.

      “It really did seem to me like one of the best places for me to be a trans non-binary hairdresser and not be misgendered every day, [or] have to fit into a sort of bubble that didn’t feel right,” Marquis said.

      While political progress in Vancouver and BC has broadly embraced LGBTQ2S+ people, that doesn’t mean the culture everywhere has changed in the same way.

      BC was the first province to allow queer couples to adopt and the second to legalize equal marriage, while Vancouver itself banned conversion therapy in 2018. Trans health care in the city is, relatively speaking, easier to access than in other parts of the country (or province), and the gender surgery program that opened in 2019 is the only one outside of Montreal’s decades-old private clinic.

      Even this progress is relatively modern, as tattoo artist James Lauder (known as @mrlauder) explained to the Straight in a phone interview. Lauder grew up in White Rock and started coming downtown “almost 30 years ago,” and they say there were both more queer businesses and more anti-LGBTQ2S+ violence at the time.

      “It was very common when I was a kid to be verbally harassed, for people to like, throw shit at you,” they said. “It was something that was kind of a given. So a lot of these bars and queer spaces that used to exist were kind of the only places, and maybe Davie as a street, where you felt like ‘I’m okay to walk around here alone’ or ‘I’m okay to go to these places.’ ”

      Lauder founded Homebody Tattoo as a queer tattoo collective in 2018, in part as a response to their experience in traditional tattoo studios when they were younger.

      “I was getting tattoos in my late 20s—this would have been in the ’90s—and it wasn’t really a thing that a lot of queer, gay, or trans people did,” they said.

      Lauder says tattoo studios then were predominantly male or more masculine spaces.

      “It was not [a] place I was definitely comfortable in,” they said. “It was definitely more like, ‘You’re here to get this thing. Just try to be as normal as possible. And maybe don’t talk too much, don’t say anything personal because you don’t know how this person might react.’ ”

      While Homebody’s clients vary by artist, Lauder said the clientele is overwhelmingly queer and trans. Getting services from another person in the LGBTQ2S+ community makes both parties feel like “they’ve been seen for who they are,” Lauder added.

      The importance of these little oases of authentic, open expression are becoming ever more important as anti-LGBTQ2S+ attitudes are given more platforms.

      The anti-LGBTQ2S+ agenda brewing in Canada may well be inspired by similar culture war sparring south of the border, but that doesn’t mean it’s an entirely American invention. While it’s hard to pinpoint a specific turning point, LGBTQ2S+ advocates say hate has been on the rise in Canada for years, with no meaningful action taken to stop it.

      Last year’s so-called Freedom Convoy was no doubt a factor, uniting various factions of the far-right into a more cohesive network. But right-wing hate has always existed in Canada, turning its ire on various targets: immigrants, COVID protections, and racial justice moments, to name just a few examples. Action4Canada (A4C), which some Convoy organizers had links to, has long protested sex ed curriculum and drag queen story events.

      When the anti-COVID vitriol died down, A4C and other anti-LGBTQ2S+ networks were in prime position to push these views onto a new group of people who were looking for ways to express dissatisfaction with the status quo. Pierre Poilievre’s position as federal Conservative leader also points to these anxieties. His dog-whistle of an “anti-woke” platform is slippery, as he wishes people a happy Pride while having voted against all legislation to expand LGBTQ2S+ rights since 2015 and repeating anti-queer talking points to justify New Brunswick’s bill that forcibly outs students to their parents.

      “Things are going in a really intense direction,” Marquis said. They said it made them feel “happy for Big Joy and also really protective”; that these queer-owned spaces are more important than ever for giving community members a place to be without worrying about how they will be perceived or how they act.

      “It feels really nice when people can feel at home here and feel seen and also see their community reflected back at them,” Watt added.

      Another benefit for queer people frequenting queer spaces is the way money re-circulates within the community. A hairdresser at Big Joy might go buy a shirt from Peau de Loup, or lunch from Elbo Jamaican Patties, or a book from Little Sister’s, or a drink at a gay bar, or a tattoo from a queer artist—or they might tip a drag king at a show, or support a mutual aid fundraiser for a community member.

      “As a community, I think we’re really good at supporting each other and paying things forward and looking out for each other,” Lauder said. “I think that’s what makes, you know, maybe not all of Vancouver, but big chunks of Vancouver pretty queer-friendly and safe—definitely better than they used to be.”

      Having queer-owned physical spaces remains important no matter the political situation—as sites of community, solidarity, and celebration, where people feel free to be themselves no matter what.