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Queer Bars in Hamilton

February 23, 2024

From the late 1950s to mid 1990s, there was a thriving and growing number of gay bars both in Hamilton and around Canada. In Toronto, for example, there was Saint Charles Tavern where Halloween drag balls took place (Salerno 2015), and, on Dundas and Elizabeth Streets, there was a lesbian, “women-only” bar in the downstairs of The Continental House hotel (Romanska 2021). In Calgary, “Backlot” was opened in 1996 (and is still thriving) and, as described by CBC, is a “literal hole-in-the-wall” in the middle of Calgary’s Beltline neighbourhood (Easton 2023), and  in the 1970s, Club 70 was Edmonton’s first official gay bar situated in the basement of the Milla Pub (Connolly 2023). By the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, other kinds of meeting places were emerging for queer folks, like the lesbian-feminist bookstore/café, gay leather bars, and, eventually, commercialized, straight spaces or dance clubs. Emerging from what some saw as a “closeted” period for queer folks in pre-WWII North America, the bar was something electric, welcoming, or even life-changing.

In downtown Hamilton, according to Saira Peesker at CBC News, there were “several gay bars, including the Embassy and the Werx, until the mid-2000s. The Steel Lounge, an LGBTQ+ pub at Ferguson Avenue North and King William Street, opened in 2014 but closed after two years” (2021). One older example of these bars is Billie’s Place, which was closed by the 1990s, and was located on the corner of King William and John Street above the Windsor Hotel.

In a recent Points of Pride interview with Richard Douglass-Chin, Richard described Billie’s as “a magnet for queer people,” “a place to go, to meet, you know, to cruise people and meet people and dance” with “great music.” The night, probably a Friday or Saturday, would begin earlier in the day at the Windsor Hotel and then, eventually, the strobe lights and dancefloor would be calling from above. The Windsor was “a great place though, just to talk, like, people would go there and just shoot the breeze all day and drink their beer, and then at about, I don't know, 8:30, 9, you’d hear the music from upstairs starting: boom, boom, boom, boom. It was Billie's so, you’d know it was like, time to go upstairs.” For many, bars were often the first spaces where queer folks, often in secrecy, could explore their identities, meet their communities, and express themselves.

While bars like Billie’s were places of freedom and celebration, the relationships queer people built with and within bars were complex and challenging. As Richard mentioned, there was a kind of “loneliness”and the bars offered a kind of reprieve from that isolation where “you can meet some people, eventually, then you just kind of go wild.” While Billie’s was a space to meet, dance, and hook-up, it was also an establishment – an establishment that depended on customers and had incentive to encourage heavy drinking. In fact, some bars open to queer folks had policies which would insist on customers always having a drink in their hand in order to stay.

Take, for example, The Continental Hotel’s back-room beer parlour in Toronto. As historian El Chenier explains it, being in a bar could be both freeing and limiting. With this kind of bar visibility, queer folks, especially of folks of different intersectionalities of race and class, were faced with “being gay at all times” and thus some “generated strategies of survival” and “rules of discretion” (Chenier 108). There could also be blatant homophobia and classism by police and straight culture because of the working-class environment of these queer barrooms or pool halls.

Billie’s was such a place. As Richard Douglass-Chin tells us, there was a kind of excitement at Billie’s with “a big crowded dance floor” that was “so much fun” - but in a contested context like this, where queer bars grew to play such popular and important roles in the community, why are so few from the past still open today?

In the case of Billie’s, Adrian Humphreys reported in the Hamilton Spectator that Billie’s had received a“dozen phoned bomb threats” from a homophobic caller but “no bomb was found.” The caller threatened to blow up Billie’s and called the bar “a f****t bar.”  However, Humphreys further reported that “Shane Carr, 31, manager of Billie’s,” did not “think it was because of Billie’s reputation as a gay club” (1992). Carr said, “there is a lot of competition between clubs who would like to see us closed. This is a mixed club -- it attracts as many straight people as gays.'” (Humphreys 1992). At the time, queer bathhouse and bar police raids were common, and establishment owners worried about being shut down by homophobic communities.

Practically a year after this article, Humphreys reported that Billie’s was replaced by X Club, a “all-ages” club; in the same article, Billie’s was defined as “a defunct gay bar” (Humphreys 1993). Even with all its history, both complicated and exciting, Billie’s was memorialized as simply another inactive gay space. Humphrey’s description begs the question, how can we rethink our remembering of these types of places? As Richard Douglass-Chin reminds us, the bar was lively and thrilling and yet held troubles and hardships. So, then, how should we remember these spaces that are gone and yet essential to queer history in Hamilton?

Some spaces here in Hamilton are taking up this project. As Cara Nickerson reports for CBC News, “the Well, located at 161 Wellington St. N., will reveal a wall […] with over 30 musicians, artists, playwrights, drag performers, activists and LGBTQ community members who played important roles in changing legislation around gay rights” (2023). Furthermore, there are emerging spaces for queer folks within Hamilton, both within brick and mortar and beyond into more mobile or on-the-move spacings like Fruit Salad (Sarah Barnhart), Hamilton Queer Hangs (Addison Brash), and the Well (Peesker 2021). With these spaces popping up all over Hamilton, we can be both hopeful for newer and different spaces to find each other and can remember these bars, like Billie’s, for what they offered during their time.


Chauncey, George. “The Policed: Gay Men’s Strategies of Everyday Resistance in Times Square.” Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories, edited by Brett Beemyn, New York: Routledge, 1997,pp. 9-25.

Chenier, El (Elise). “Bars, Clubs, and Restaurants.” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History in America, vol. 1, edited by Marc Stein, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004, pp. 118-121.

Chenier, El (Elise). “Rethinking Class in Lesbian Bar Culture: Living ‘The Gay Life’ in Toronto, 1955-1965.” Left History, vol. 9, no. 2, 2004, pp. 85-118.

Connolly, Patrick. “’The town halls, the town squares, for all of us:’ The Evolution of Edmonton’s Gay Bars.” CBC News, Feb. 2 2023,

Easton, Rob. “Calgary LGBT community pushed to save one of 3 remaining gay bars.” CBC News, Feb. 16, 2023,

Humphreys, Adrian. “Bomb threat prompts evacuation of fire stations caller says he’ll blow up Billies.” The Hamilton Spectator, Ontario Canada, Final ed., sec. News, 9 Mar. 1992, p. A1/Front. NewsBank: Access World News,

Humphreys, Adrian. “Clubs for every age.” The Hamilton Spectator, Ontario, Canada, Final ed., sec. Ego, 11 Nov. 1993, p. 15. NewsBank: Access World News, https://infoweb.newsbank.come/apps/news.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky, and Madeline D. Davis. “‘I Could Hardly Wait to Get Back to that Bar:’ Lesbian Bar Culture in Buffalo in the 1930s and 1940s.” Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories, edited by Brett Beemyn, New York: Routledge, 1997,pp. 9-25. pp. 27-72.

Nickerson, Cara. “Hamilton bar to unveil wall honouring local and global LGBTQ icons.” CBC News, Aug. 4, 2023, Updated Aug. 6, 2023.

Peesker, Saira. “Big city, few LGBTQ spaces: New groups aim to fill a need for community in Hamilton.” CBC News, Aug. 17, 2021,

Romanska, Anastasiya. “This Toronto hotel bar was famous for accepting queer women during the mid-1900s.” blogTO, April. 17, 2021,

Salerno, Rob. “Former St Charles Tavern site to be redeveloped into condo.” Xtra Magazine, Mar. 2, 2015,

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