Thunder Bay’s premiere drag venue for LGBTQ2S+ residents faces closure

Thunder Bay, Ont., is home to scenic trails, waterfronts, and mountains—plus its own pastry, the Persian Roll. It’s also home to an accepting and inclusive LGBTQ2S+ community. The city’s LGBTQ2S+ residents have worked hard to make Thunder Bay safe for themselves, but COVID-19 is threatening a local haven for marginalized folks.

A 14-hour drive from Toronto, Thunder Bay is the largest city in northwestern Ontario, boasting a population of more than 100,000 residents and bringing in frequent visitors from nearby rural communities. While it may not have as many safe spaces for LGBTQ2S+ people as a city like Toronto, there is one place that sticks out—Black Pirates Pub (BPP).

BPP’s dark decor and skull-and-crossbones logo might give it the appearance of a less-than-welcoming establishment, but the opposite is true. Located in downtown Port Arthur, a brief walk north from the waterfront, the pub and music venue has been an inclusive and safe space for visitors since 2008. 

BPP is a small club, with four to five ship barrel tables for seating. The bar itself has a few stools that are usually moved out of the way so crowds can get their drinks quicker. The stage, standing immediately to the left of the entrance, is barely big enough for a three-piece band to play—but groups always make it work.  

The charm of BPP only continues with its staff. 

The bartender always remembers your order and will often know you by name after your second or third visit. The bar hosts less mainstream events, like drag shows, heavy metal performances, and punk rock shows. On any given night you can spot two men holding hands, a group of women enjoying cocktails, and a grisly-looking biker sitting at the bar. 

For the past few months, these diverse crowds have been forced to stay home. BPP has been closed since March 17, when Ontario announced the closures of all non-essential businesses. 

The bar’s owner, Onur Altinbilek, understands why his business cannot be open, but is devastated because of the pub’s importance to the LGBTQ2S+ community.

“[When I opened the bar] I wanted to be kind of edgy, [and] I wanted to be different,” Altinbilek said. “I want you to walk into [the] room and be different, be accepted, or not be judged,”

Part of what makes Altinbilek’s bar different is the staff’s low tolerance for sexism, racism, and homophobia. 

“I certainly don’t want [to run] a place where someone’s going to get in a fight because they look different or feel different,” he said.

An illustration of a drag queen, who is wearing a pink dress and holding a pride flag.

Knowing his bar was in trouble, Altinbilek looked for means to raise money any way he could, including selling a line of merchandise. On May 2, he reached out on his personal and business Facebook pages for support. 

“In effort [sic] to pay our rent and taxes, and ultimately survive through these tough times, I’ve decided to […] make a new t-shirt,” Altinbilek wrote in a Facebook post. “The pub opened 12 years ago today […] To have it close [because] of this sh—t would be a tragedy.”

Altinbilek said the t-shirt sales will cover BPP’s rent and expenses until August. Altinilek sold the shirts for $15, each featuring a varied version of the bar’s logo in different colours. One shirt read, “This is my Black Pirates Pub Quarantine Shirt,” emblazoned with a mask-wearing version of the pub’s logo. Those sold out quickly.

Altinbilek is optimistic that, with the low number of COVID-19 infections in Thunder Bay, he’ll be able to reopen soon. At the same time, he’s also being realistic—he said that he’s already come to terms with the potential of BPP closing.

”If this business is done, it doesn’t mean that my role in the music community, my role in the metal community, [or my role in] the drag community is done,” Altinbileck said. “Who knows what other opportunities will be there.”

Everyone who attends BPP knows what it feels like to stick out, but at the bar, they fit in.

Jason Veltri, the chair of the Thunder Pride Association, an LGBTQ2S+ advocacy group in Thunder Bay, said he couldn’t imagine the city’s LGBTQ2S+ community without BPP. He said that BPP’s closure would be “detrimental.”

“It would completely change what we are and where we go,” said Veltri. “Black Pirates Pub is the one location that we throw drag performances at and have queer nights at. If it was to go […] we would have no space.”

The temporary closure of BPP also put a pause on Pride celebrations in Thunder Bay. BPP is the main stage for almost all of the city’s drag performances. Without their stage, many drag queens were left unsure of how to give back to their communities during Pride celebrations.

Thankfully, Thunder Pride was able to adapt.

Rather than hold the organization’s usual 10-14 day event calendar, all 30 days of June were dedicated to virtual, and some in-person, celebrations. From round table Zoom calls, to workshops, to drive-by drag performances, Pride was able to take place even with the loss of its hub.

An illustration of a drag queen, who is wearing a blue leotard and strutting.

Thunder Pride’s ability to have Pride, even without BPP, was important for many people, but one in particular.

According to Max Sovereign, one of the best communities in Thunder Bay is the LGBTQ2S+ community.

“I lived here when I was a child and then I moved away for many years to B.C., but I came back when I was starting high school,” said Sovereign. “It was a really good place for me to [dip] my toe in the water of [getting involved in the LGBTQ2S+ community].”

“I think having that safe space is not only important but […] kind of essential, especially in a place like Thunder Bay,” said Sovereign. “I’m honestly surprised we don’t have more places that are LGBTQ friendly […] Black Pirates has been [one of] our [only] gay friendly bars.”

Sovereign said without BPP and the LGBTQ2S+ community in Thunder Bay, he would not be as invested in the community as he is today.

“In high school, I was not the type of person that was a public advocate or cared about having my opinion shared,” he said. “I think it’s really funny now, coming full turn [and] seeing that the community in Thunder Bay has turned me into the public advocate that I am.”

Sovereign said the thought of BPP ever having to permanently close would be a worst-case scenario for members of the LGBTQ2S+ community in Thunder Bay—himself included. While attending school at Lakehead University, BPP was Sovereign’s go-to hangout spot. It quickly turned into his stage.

A photo of Max Sovereign, portraying his drag persona Sophia Sapphire. Sophia is dressed in a rainbow outfit with rainbow-coloured face paint on. She is wearing a blonde wig and leaning against a mirror.
Max Sovereign often performs at the Black Pirate Pub as Sophia Sapphire. Photo: Michel Dumont

Sovereign has been performing in drag under the name Sophia Sapphire for almost two years, predominantly at BPP.

A typical performance look for Sapphire consists of a full face of glam makeup and something she can move in. She wears platinum blonde wigs and paints her eyes big enough for the people in the back of the crowd to enjoy. Onstage, Sapphire can do tricks from splits to death drops while never missing a word of her lip-sync.

“Sophia is a character in and of herself,” said Sovereign “She is lovely,  she’s sweet, she’s b—tchy, she’s everything that I want to see in myself […] which is something that I like [experiencing] because I love living in a fantasy.” 

An illustration of a drag queen, who is wearing a red dress and posing.

BPP was able to provide that getaway for Sovereign and so many other members of the community. He said he doesn’t want to think about it shutting down.

“I don’t think anybody would expect Black Pirates to close, and I think that if it came down to that, the community would really stand together,” said Sovereign. “The fact that people are having those scares right now [is] sad.”

Sovereign, who works as a nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Thunder Bay, said performing at BPP gives him a chance to breathe.

“Working as a nurse, I get to see the harsh realities of everyday life: the disease, illness, and death,” Sovereign said.

Without BPP, Sovereign would no longer have a place to escape his day-to-day worries. He hopes the bar is able to stay open and continue providing such an important space for Thunder Bay’s LGBTQ2S+ community. 

“Drag is kind of like the polar opposite [of regular society], where you can just see the over-exaggerated fun and glamour of everyday life,” he said.

“It’s sad for Onur, it’s sad for us as individuals [who] get to go to that safe space, [and] it’s sad for performers […] The [drag] kings and queens really depend on this space.”

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