Bigots need not apply

Nightclub scene gives LGBTQ community a place to feel at ease

Art Luney (left) and his partner Mario Agnello (far right) enjoy some dance fun with their customers at The Castle.

Art Luney (left) and his partner Mario Agnello (far right) enjoy some dance fun with their customers at The Castle.

Nightclub scene gives LGBTQ community a place to feel at ease

Afternoon sun beams through the windows at The Castle Video Bar and Nightclub as Art Luney leans back in a wicker chair, sighs wistfully and talks about hopes, wishes and dreams.

“You want to know why we need places like this?” he says, answering a question with a question. “Let me tell you a story.”

As it happens, Luney and his partner, Mario Agnello, were dining in a local mainstream eatery/watering hole not so long ago and they noticed a table of five or six older gentlemen.

“I guess they could tell Mario and I were a couple,” he relates, “so when one of them walked by he said, ‘You should come over and join our gay table.’ There was a male-female couple sitting nearby, probably middle-aged, and they overheard the conversation. The woman said, ‘Those fucking cocksuckers! They shouldn’t be allowed in here!’ And she made sure we heard it. Then they started whispering about us, making us uncomfortable. That’s why we need places like this.”

The Castle is the new kid on the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer block in Victoria, joining The Ledge and Paparazzi as the nightlife playgrounds of the LGBTQ community. They are havens. Safe spaces, where the queer-as-folk crowd can frolic without having to check their libidos at the door. This is where they can let it all hang out, figuratively speaking.

“I’m not a flaming fag, per se,” says Jon-Jon, a middle-aged gay man who splits his time between Paparazzi and The Castle. “I can go into any bar in town and not be bothered. But we should have a location where we have more piece of mind. Somewhere we can go without being ridiculed for showing affection to another man. Or a woman to a woman. You can be yourself in a gay bar.”

“Yourself” might be a butch dyke. Or a lipstick lesbian. Yourself might be a male construction worker adorned in a gorgeous lady’s evening gown, big hair and stilettos. Or a man who used to be a woman. Yourself might be a young gay male with a body slicker than a frog’s back. Or a gay man whose hairy body looks like the carpeting in a 1970’s shaggin’ wagon.

Go to the three venues on a Friday or Saturday night and, chances are, you’ll see it all, because that’s when the pretty people tend to surface for their after-dark romp.

Both The Castle and The Ledge prominently display the pride rainbow flag, so there can be no mistaking that they cater to the LGBTQ community.

If you’re straight and wander in by accident, you’ll be welcomed and embraced, but you’ll have to play nice. That is to say, don’t be shocked or offended and start tossing left hooks if a man hits on you, big boy. And don’t say something objectionable or inappropriate if you see half-naked boys locking lips or grinding groins on the dance floor with other half-naked boys, or women swapping spit with other women.

In short, bigots need not apply. This is gay turf, don’t you know?

“If anyone is making another customer uncomfortable,” says Terry Jacques, manager of The Ledge, “they’ll be quickly removed. I’ve never had to do that, but I wouldn’t waste a nano-second. That person is out.”

And that, Luney insists, works in all directions. That is to say, some gays prefer not to share their safe spaces with straights. And, the gay community also has a tendency to eat its own. There are gay men (usually of an older generation), for example, who don’t want women around. Some lesbians want nothing to do with men or lipstick lesbians. As for the transgendered and cross-dressers, they can be made to feel like curiosity pieces or comic relief. Not always, but too often.

“Anyone is welcome here,” says The Castle co-owner Luney. “There’s always the caveat, so long as they respect the civil rights of the other person. That includes straights towards non-straights and gays towards straights and transsexuals and bisexuals. We won’t tolerate verbal or physical abuse.”

Each of the venues brings its own brand of pizzaz to the party.

The Ledge, owned by Canson Koo and opened in February 2010, is very much a lounge-style nightclub that offers food service on the second level of the Bedford Regency Hotel on the edge of Bastion Square. And, no, contrary to local legend, it is not a lesbian lair. It, like the other two venues, celebrates the individual and is varied in terms of age, gender and sexual striping.

“Sometimes,” says Jacques, who once tended bar at Paparazzi and managed the Paisley Upstairs, “I just stand back and look at our customers and say, ‘This is exactly what I wanted when we opened this place. Diversity … everyone’s welcome.’ ”

The music at The Ledge is lively, yet not overbearing, so quiet conversation is doable. And with a jukebox, patrons can play the part of music maestro.

Paparazzi, long the flagship of the gay community at the corner of Broad and Johnson, is an unabashed reflection of one of its owners, the fashionista Attila Bassett. His club, co-owned by Terry Bex and managed by CEO Helina Kinnersley, is all about glitz and glam with strobe lights, disco balls, high-energy DJs, high-octane music, mirrored walls and a vast menu of lavish, extravagant shows featuring everything from drag queens to dance ensembles to fetish nights.

There is also eye candy at night in the form of a bevy of beefcake barmen who aren’t shy about baring their shaved chests.

The Castle, meanwhile, opened its doors upstairs at Paul’s Motor Inn on Sept. 1 and puts on the ritz with entertainment, including go-go dancers, drag shows, special-effects lighting, music videos and a bells-and-whistles sound system, all in a cabaret-style setting with tier-level seating.

There isn’t so much as a hint of flamboyance in the two likable, ever-present owners, Luney and Agnello.

Jokingly asked if he’s going to dress as peacockishly as Paparazzi’s Bassett at next year’s pride parade, Luney lets loose with a huge howl of laughter.

“Oh, God,” he says, “I’m not nearly as good looking as Attila. I wouldn’t even go there. If you wanted a fat, old queen, ya, I could do that.”

Some might suggest that Queen of The Castle Luney is a bit looney, thinking he can make a success of his business. After all, its predecessor in the same location — the Copper/Q Bar — closed its doors less than a year after opening, as did the Paisley Upstairs in Esquimalt a couple of years ago. Thus, history suggests that Victoria’s LGBTQ community won’t, or can’t, support three gay clubs.

“After reviewing dozens of business plans over the years,” says Luney, a lawyer, “I can smell a stinker a mile away, and this is just the opposite. The problem in Victoria is that since there’s been a lack of choice for so long, the potential audience has become moribund. That is, they’re not inspired to go out to a bar or to a nightclub because it’s always the same old, same old. We have the financial resources, together with a strong sense of what will make an LGBTQ bar work in Victoria. I think we can be influential in this community.”

So, he and Agnello are all-in, so much so that they’ve paid a year’s rent in advance and spent a “significant sum” in upgrades.

Their hope is to operate from a platform of co-operative communication with the other two clubs.

“Taking cheap shots at another establishment is upwards of desperation,” says Luney. “Quite frankly, I think a few more (gay venues) in Victoria would improve the situation for everybody. I’d like to get together and do more promotions as a unified mass. You can go for dinner at The Ledge, you can pop into Paparazzi, you can pop in here. Do a gay club crawl.”

Jacques is singing from the same sheet in the songbook.

“I’m all with that,” he says. “People can come here for a couple of drinks, play some pool and if they want to dance I can send them down to The Castle or Paparazzi. I already do that. There’s no reason why we can’t all work together.” M

(Editor’s Note: Paparazzi ownership declined a request to be interviewed for this article.)

Nightclubs:

The Castle Video Bar and NightclubUpstairs in Paul’s Motor Inn1900 Douglas St.Hours: Sunday-Tuesday: 2 p.m.-Midnight; Wednesday-Saturday: 2 p.m.-2 a.m.Capacity: 120Security: On weekendsCover Charge: For special events onlyWebsite: thecastlebar.ca

The LedgeSecond level of the Bedford Regency Hotel1140 Government St.Hours: Sunday: 2 p.m.-MidnightMonday-Wednesday: 4 p.m.-MidnightThursday-Saturday: 2 p.m.-1 a.m.Capacity: 30 liquor seating; 70 diningSecurity: NoCover Charge: Very rarelyWebsite: bedfordregency.com

Paparazzi Show/Nightclub642 Johnson St. (entrance on Broad)Hours: Sunday: 1 p.m.-MidnightMonday-Saturday: 1 p.m.-2 a.m.Capacity: 175 (approximate)Security: WeekendsCover charge: Tuesday-Wednesday, $3; Friday $6; Saturday $6-$10Website: paparazzinightclub.com

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