Gio’s closes after a decade downtown

Community members reflect on the history of Winnipeg’s oldest gay bar

Gio’s Club and Bar, one of North America’s longest-operating LGBT*-community owned pubs, closed on Feb. 16. After 31 years of continuous operation, the Winnipeg institution was no longer viable at 155 Smith St. Kevin Legge

Shortly after 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 17, Gio’s Club and Bar closed its Smith Street doors for the last time amidst an outpouring of emotion from Winnipeg’s LGBT* community - a community that, for nearly a decade, found special refuge within its walls.

“I met some of my closest friends there, just sitting on the patio,” said Dayne Moyer, a former employee at the club and the LGBT* director for the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA).

“(What I’ll miss) I guess is that sense of community and knowing that everybody is just going to be there ... (not having) that is going to be tough.”
Gio’s facilitated a sense of community by remaining a nonprofit organization run by a volunteer-based board called the Oscar Wilde Memorial Society, established in 1980.

Any money given to the club went back into the bar or was donated to various LGBT* charities, including Gio’s Cares, an HIV/AIDS charity run by members of the board.

That community connection, however, was not enough to keep Gio’s afloat on Smith Street.

Over the past two years, the club has struggled financially as patrons flocked to the city’s two other downtown gay bars - Garry Street’s Club 200 and the recently opened Fame.

In 2011, Gio’s began a sustained fundraising effort to raise $60,000 from the community, which eventually went toward catching up on rent and paying off its sizable debt.

According to Barry Karlenzig, treasurer of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Society and current general manager of the club, Gio’s is still in debt and continues to struggle despite the fundraising efforts.

“Unfortunately, every time there has been a third gay bar in Winnipeg, one has suffered … when Fame opened (in 2010) we almost went down but we were able to cut expenses and justify everything,” he said.

Despite financial woes, Gio’s could have stayed open until its lease expired in December 2013, if not for plans by landlord Lount Corp. to demolish the 60-year-old building and replace it with condos.

According to Karlenzig, Lount Corp. took advantage of a clause in their lease allowing the landlord to evict Gio’s roughly one year ahead of schedule.

“It caught us off guard,” he said, adding the board is now searching for a much smaller location that will appeal to an older crowd who appreciates the history and importance of Gio’s.

“The group that’s 18 to 21, they’re going where all their friends are … They don’t realize that 10 years ago they couldn’t do that without being assaulted and 20 years ago they couldn’t even go out in public and announce they were gay without being beat up by the rest of the community.”

Throughout its over 30-year history, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Society has moved Gio’s several times.

It started in a building on Sherbrook Street before moving into a former Wicker furniture store at 616 Broadway in 1986 and then back to Sherbrook Street. In 2003, it moved to its 155 Smith St. location, which is a roughly 5,000 square foot space.

The board is now searching for a property between 2,700 and 3,000 square feet in the downtown, Osborne Village or Exchange District neighbourhoods, according to Karlenzig.

“With social acceptability and the online dating world and the online networking world, we don’t need something as large as it is now,” he said.

Unfortunately, every time there has been a third gay bar in Winnipeg, one has suffered.

Barry Karlenzig, treasurer, Oscar Wilde Memorial Society

For Karlene Ooto-Stubbs, a 21-year-old political science student at Montreal’s McGill University who grew up in Winnipeg, Gio’s has always been important to the Canadian gay rights movement, and the progress it’s made.

“For the generation older than us, Gio’s was all you had,” she said. “You need to have that sort of history in the LGBT* community sustained and you need to make people understand there were times when it wasn’t as easy to be out … and you need to pay respect to that.”

Chris Vogel, a retired 65-year-old provincial government employee, helped establish what was then called Giovanni’s Room with his partner Rich North in 1982.

“It was enormous,” he said of the club’s impact on the gay rights movement in Winnipeg. “It was open.”

Giovanni’s Room is a reference to a novel by gay African-American writer James Baldwin, Vogel said, whereby Giovanni keeps his room especially nice in order to escape rampant societal hatred toward homosexuals.

Indeed, when Giovanni’s Room began operating on Sherbrook Street over 30 years ago, it was the only openly gay bar in Winnipeg. And, through a unique funding model whereby club proceeds went toward an attached community resource centre, it provided a crucial refuge for Winnipeg’s oft-persecuted LGBT* community.

“The advantage of the clubroom was that it drew in a lot more people and it paid for itself and everything else,” Vogel said. “The ‘else’ was all the counselling, social service, educational, political, law reform stuff.”

The Oscar Wilde Memorial Society hopes to reopen Gio’s in a new space in late May, just in time for the Winnipeg Pride Festival.

Published in Volume 67, Number 20 of The Uniter (February 21, 2013)

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