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Shot through the heart

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“The heart of the community” forced to close down

Gio’s Club and Bar on Smith Street experienced a list of lasts as it made its way to the closing night on Feb. 16, including their last Pride launch, last women’s night, last karaoke, last Genderfest party, and other classic events for the LGBT* community. 

The Oscar Wilde Memorial Society, Inc. (OWMS), the non-profit organization behind Gio’s, explained that the bar was shutting down due to financial difficulties. 

Barry Karlenzig, treasurer of the OWMS, said the bar had been experiencing financial issues due to three main factors. The first being the social acceptance that Manitoba has grown to have of the LGBT* community. 

“Ten years ago, you had the fear of going to a straight bar and being bullied, whereas now it’s more socially acceptable,” said Karlenzig.

Neighbouring competition and the prevailing use of social media were also attributed to the hardship of Gio’s. When it comes to meeting people, there are more options now than when the bar thrived.

“We’re about the fourth or fifth gay bar that closed in Canada within the past six months and it’s all because of the same things,” said Karlenzig. The “heart of the community,” Gio’s closed on Feb. 16. Photo by BrentYoungThe “heart of the community,” Gio’s closed on Feb. 16. Photo by BrentYoung

The volunteer board of the OWMS believes they have done everything they could to reduce debt and increase attendance by cutting costs and making many memberrequested changes.

Following the bar’s closure, the property owner of 155 Smith Street plans on demolishing the 60-year-old building, where Gio’s spent the last decade of their 31 years in continuous operation. Gio’s will be replaced by condominiums or apartments. The OWMS stated the landlord’s future plans had no bearing on the closure, as he had been “magnificently patient” with the club’s problems throughout their tenure.

Jonathan Niemczak, president of Pride Winnipeg, is sad to see Gio’s leave the downtown area.

“It’s disappointing because that area there, with Fame and Club 200, has sort of become our own little LGBT* club district,” said Niemczak. “It was convenient for the community too, because you could hit up all three locations in one night.” Niemczak said he saw Gio’s as the LGBT* community’s central location, their city hall. 

Beyond being a great location, Gio’s lived up to its tagline as “the heart of the community.” The OWMS founded their own charitable organization in 1992, called Gio’s Cares. The organization works to improve life for those living with HIV/AIDS and promotes safe sex, prevention, and testing. Gio’s Cares also conducted food banks.

Kerry Dale wholeheartedly believes Gio’s was the “heart, soul, and home of our community.” Like many others, it was where he felt comfortable; it was where he discovered Satina Lorena, his drag counterpart who would earn the title of Entertainer of the Year in 2011 and compete to be Canada’s Next Drag Superstar in 2012.

“My first time going to Gio’s was when I was 19. It was a Diva’s Reunited show where they had gotten a bunch of past reigning Mr. and Ms. Gio’s to perform. It was my first drag show and my first experience in a gay bar, which was overwhelmingly positive,” said Dale. “Gio’s was where I got my first taste of drag and eventually it is where I met Lita and Symara, who would eventually become my drag mothers.” 

“Gio’s is where I felt my best, where I felt safe, happy and wanted.”

Niemczak has hope that a reinstated Gio’s can once again become all that it has been for the community, if a suitable location is found.

“Even though they are losing the building, it wasn’t so much the building that was the heart of the community - it was Gio’s, the organization,” said Niemczak.

At press time, the OWMS board announced it was on the lookout for a cozier venue in three areas: downtown, Osborne Village and the Exchange District. They plan on holding fundraisers to reduce debt in the meantime.

“If we find a smaller venue, that’s great. If we don’t, we have to close and not reopen,” said Karlenzig. “Then at least we know Manitoba has become more acceptable where we’ve done our role.”

What do you think about Gio’s leaving Smith Street? Tweet us at @OutWords and let us know!


-Graeme Coleman is OutWords’ entertainment editor and reporter