Historic Montréal LGBTQ milestones
Montréal is a choice LGBTQ tourism destination, but its citizens have fought hard for their city to become the queer mecca it is today. Here are some important milestones in Montréal’s LGBTQ history:
Montréal was just a tiny outpost of the French Empire when a gay military drummer with the French garrison was charged by the Order with committing “the worst of crimes” and sentenced to death.
The drummer’s life was spared after Jesuits in Québec City intervened on his behalf, and he was given a choice by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Québec: die or become the first executioner of New France.
The unidentified drummer took the executioner job.
The first recorded gay establishment in North America was Montrealer Moise Tellier’s “apples and cake shop” on Craig Street (now Saint-Antoine Street) near Saint-Laurent Boulevard, where men met up for amorous liaisons.
Gay men were first allowed to dance together in Montréal in the Tropical Room of The Downbeat Club (1422 Peel Street) on the night of August 27, 1958, to celebrate the 23rd birthday of legendary Montréal drag queen “La Monroe” – a.k.a. Armand Monroe.
Between 1968 and 1983, Montréal legend Denise Cassidy – better known as Babyface, her nickname inherited from her brief career as a pro wrestler – managed some of the city’s first lesbian bars: La Source, La Guillotine, Baby Face Disco, Chez Baby Face and Face de bébé (1486 René-Levesque Boulevard West), which closed in 1983.
Montréal was home to famed Lime-Light disco (1254 Stanley Street), where the Godfather of Montréal Disco, DJ Robert Ouimet – crowned best North American DJ by Rolling Stone magazine in 1976, then awarded Billboard magazine’s DJ of the Year Award in 1977 – was the house DJ from 1973 to 1981.
The last hold-out of Montréal’s fabled red-light district on Saint-Laurent Boulevard – known locally as “The Main” – is Café Cléopatra (1230 Saint-Laurent Boulevard), operating since 1976. The building itself has been a show bar since 1895.
In addition to the ground-floor strip club, the second-floor cabaret – historically a safe space for Montréal’s transgender community – still hosts drag performances, fetish parties and burlesque shows. Plus, Cleo’s vintage 1970s décor and disco lights are a mind-blowing time warp.
Montréal police raid downtown leather cruising bar Truxx and Le Mystique (1428 and 1424 Stanley Street) on October 22. Fifty machine gun-toting police officers arrest 146 men who were charged with being found in a common bawdy house. The next day, more than 2,000 gay men and their allies protest police harassment.
The subsequent public outrage forces Québec’s National Assembly to amend the Québec Human Rights Charter to include sexual orientation as a prohibited form of discrimination in a landmark vote on December 15, 1977.
Thus, Québec became the first jurisdiction in Canada to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The Truxx raid is often referred to as “Montréal’s Stonewall.”
Legendary Montréal gay activist John Banks – personal secretary of Marlene Dietrich for many years – forms La Brigade Rose. It organized Montreal’s first Pride march, which drew 52 marchers in June 1979.
Since the Rainbow Flag designed by Gilbert Baker for San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade in June 1978 had not yet become a symbol of the community, Banks sewed together two bedsheets, dyed them pink and cut them into a triangular flag. Banks and Montréal drag legend “La Monroe” (a.k.a. Armand Monroe) waved their “flag” at the head of the march.
Founded by Ross Higgins and Jacques Prince, the non-profit Quebec Gay Archives regularly present public lectures, museum and gallery exhibitions, as well as poster exhibits. Their permanent collection includes thousands of photos by famed Montréal physique photographer Allan B. Stone. In July 2013, the Archives moved from 4067 Saint-Laurent Boulevard to their current location at 1000 Atateken Street.
The building at 4067 Saint-Laurent Boulevard is a historic and important queer hub: in addition to housing the Québec Gay Archives, it was also home to the image+nation LGBTQ film festival and the Divers/Cité Pride Festival.
Montréal’s Gay Village gets its name from gay businessman Bernard Rousseau, who opened the “Cinéma du Village” porn theatre, today Le National concert venue (1220 Sainte-Catherine Street East).
The city’s queer bars moved east to the Village following a concentrated Montréal police crackdown on downtown LGBTQ establishments that began before the 1976 summer Olympic games and peaked with the police raid on Bud’s (1250 Stanley Street) in June 1984, when 75 officers charged 122 men with being found in a common bawdy house.
Canada’s first LGBTQ film festival, image+nation, is founded. Many of the early films and activist videos screened at Image + Nation dealt with resistance, liberation, AIDS and HIV. Image + Nation’s influence is significant, and current festival director Charlie Boudreau and programming director Katharine Setzer continue to program films created by and for queer people.
Montréal police raid the Sex Garage loft party (494 de la Gauchetière Street) in the early morning hours of July 15, 1990. More than 25 Montréal police officers take off their ID tags and beat 400 partygoers on the street. The raid ignited 36 hours of protests and clashes between Montréal’s LGBTQ community and the police force.
Sex Garage politicized a generation of LGBTQ activists who would change the Québec political landscape and establish the Divers/Cité Pride March and political-action groups to successfully fight for LGBTQ civil rights and improve queer life in Montréal.
Alongside the 1977 Truxx police raid, the game-changing Sex Garage police raid is widely considered to be Montréal’s Stonewall.
Montréal’s famed Black & Blue all-night circuit party was founded after the police raid on Sex Garage. Said Black & Blue founder Robert Vézina, “We thought Montréal needed a breath of fresh air.” The Black & Blue Main Event is held each year during the weekend of Canadian Thanksgiving and Columbus Day in the U.S.
Attendance peaked in 1999 when B&B drew 17,000 to Montréal’s Olympic Stadium. The following year was the famous “Candle and Ribbon” edition, where the centre field of the stadium was filled with 25,000 candles to create a giant AIDS ribbon as the spectacular entranceway to the event.
Inspired by Sex Garage, Montréal’s first bonafide Pride organization, Divers/Cité, was co-founded in 1993 by LGBTQ activists Suzanne Girard and Puelo Deir. Some 5,000 people attended Divers/Cité’s inaugural Pride march. Along with Black & Blue, Divers/Cité put Montréal on the international gay map.
Montréal hosts the inaugural World Outgames, drawing more than 10,000 LGBTQ athletes from around the world, from July 29 to August 5, 2006. K.d. Lang performed for 40,000 people at the opening ceremony at Olympic Stadium, where athletes Martina Navratilova and Mark Tewksbury read the Declaration of Montréal, urging the United Nations to enshrine the civil rights of LGBTQ people around the world.
Montréal Pride took over the parade from the now-defunct Divers/Cité, keeping festival dates in August. Montréal Pride has since become the largest Pride celebration in the francophone world.
Montréal Pride hosted the inaugural Fierté Canada Pride, the first pan-Canadian Pride celebrations, welcoming 96 Pride organizations from across Canada to Montréal as the city and nation celebrated their 375th and 150th anniversaries respectively. Canada Pride drew 2.7 million visitors.
On May 16, Québec’s National Assembly recognized Montréal’s Gay Village – more commonly called “Le Village” by locals – as the largest LGBTQ district in North America after the Castro in San Francisco and as an official place of refuge and emancipation.
Montréal Pride bids to host World Pride 2023.
Richard Burnett, blogger
Richard “Bugs” Burnett is a Canadian freelance writer, editor, journalist, blogger and columnist for alt-weeklies, mainstream and LGBTQ publications. Bugs also knows Montréal like a drag queen knows a cosmetics counter.