The rise and fall – and rise – of gay-friendly businesses
As some LGBTQ-positive businesses disappear, others are more popular than ever. What’s behind the shift?
Alberta Venture, October 2016
In May, the Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association (ARGRA) announced that its 23-year-old annual rodeo in Strathmore was cancelled, citing the economic malaise and undersized attendance last year. The rodeo was a refuge for members of Alberta’s rural LGBTQ community, long festooned in the heart of social conservatism. In the early days, competitors might assume pseudonyms or kindly ask photographers to not take their picture. Bruce Gros, the president of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), says, “You can’t help but notice the absence of something that you appreciated and enjoyed for years.”
Six years after the first Strathmore rodeo, a bar called Buddy’s Nite Club opened in downtown Edmonton that would become a fixture for Alberta’s gay community. But near the end of 2015, Buddy’s owner, Jim Brown, said it would be closing.
If it feels like the number of gay-positive businesses in Alberta is dropping, that’s because it is. In the decade before 2012, more than half of Calgary’s gay bars closed, leaving the city with just three. In Edmonton, today there’s only one.
This fits into a global pattern. Data is scarce, but studies from 2011 and 2012 show a 13 per cent global decrease in gay bars in the last seven years. Even hubs like Manhattan and San Francisco experienced a decades-long decline. “All across the world, we’re seeing a decrease in ‘gaybourhoods’ or ‘gay ghettoes,’ ” says Kristopher Wells, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta and faculty director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services. He says it’s the march of progress: “Young people, who maybe haven’t had those experiences of gay-identified neighbourhoods, are finding acceptance with their peers and they’re all going out to the same places,” he adds. Gros agrees, saying decreased attendance is “tied into this dynamic of the broadening of gay culture and the welcoming of gay people in a broader context.”
There’s another side of the coin, though – the surging popularity of Pride and gay-friendly tourism. In Edmonton, the number of Pride attendees more than doubled over the last five years and this year the city hosted the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics Championships (IGLAC). Marketers are taking note: the Edmonton Pride Festival has been working with Edmonton Tourism, Destination Hotel Marketing Group and Travel Alberta to pitch Alberta’s pride festivals to Saskatchewan, B.C. and the U.S. Jasper, where the tourism department said its mandate is to “create a safe destination for LGBTQ travellers,” is an example: The Chamber of Commerce raves about the economic spinoff from the four-day pride festival. Tourism Jasper wants to leverage its appeal toward the LGBTQ travel market, which it estimates at $8.6 billion per year.
So what explains these inverse trends? Wells says mainstream acceptance increases attendance at events like Pride and IGLAC while it inhibits the growth of businesses that were a refuge from mainstream society. Expect the shift to continue. Being an LGBTQ-positive business will become an even more important part of the “corporate social responsibility” curriculum. Wells says he’s seen this firsthand with Camp fYrefly, the LGBTQ leadership retreat he founded. More businesses and organizations are hosting fundraisers for the camp, and corporations that can’t offer financial support will donate items or lend resources. Even Gros says he’s encouraged by the changing societal dynamics, and that it’s actually part of a long-term growth trajectory for IGRA rodeos. What’s next? Perhaps, Wells suggests, Albertan corporations will put their dollars behind LGBTQ-positive legislation, as witnessed in the U.S. over North Carolina’s discriminatory bathroom law for transgender people.
Reprinted with permission from Alberta Venture.