By Noah Powers, Social Connectedness Fellow 2019
From North America’s first queer space to a World Pride 2023 Candidate city, Montreal has a long and deep-rooted history with queer visibility and activism, catalyzed by queer community spaces.
This past Pride Month in June marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Riots, a series of riots, protests, and marches, led by trans women of colour, that kickstarted the queer rights movement and the first Pride parades in New York City. As Fierté Montreal Pride kicks off on August 8th, many revellers fail to realize that as with Stonewall and the birth of Pride in New York, Montreal’s history of Pride is rooted in an expansive, and often violent, timeline explored in the first episode of my podcast, Queer Here, Queer There.
Queer spaces have historically acted as sites of community-building, activism, and protest. In Montreal, this history can be traced back to the late 19th century. The first recorded “gay establishment” in North America was Montrealer Moise Tellier’s ‘Apple and Cake Shop’ on Craig Street in Old Montreal (now St-Antoine Street). Our knowledge of this space comes from the June 8th, 1869 edition of the Montreal Star newspaper that reported on Mr. Tellier’s alleged assault on a police officer:
“Yesterday morning, an old man of 60 named Moise Tellier was brought before the Recorder charged with indecent assault on a Constable. Tellier lives at 477 Craig Street, the same premises occupied by James Butler of the Britannia Saloon, Dr. Perrault and several other respectable citizens. Tellier’s business is nominally to keep a small shop for apples, cakes and similar trifles. But the business is only a cloak for the commission of crimes that rival Sodom and Gomorrah. A house of prostitution were indeed decent compared to this den. It has been watched for sometime past by the police, and we regret, for the credit of our city and humanity, to say that several respectable citizens have been found frequenting it and evidently practising abominations.”
While this report certainly elucidates the way that homosexuality was viewed at the time, it is also an insightful account of the origins of queer spaces as the only way that queer people could meet others with similar experiences and identities, even if these spaces were as invisible and discreet as possible.
While authors have questioned whetherthis Shop actually constitutes a queer space, the first ‘real’ queer spaces in Montreal developed between 1920-60 in the first ‘Village’ downtown, around Stanley Street and Ste-Catherine Street West. This first Village became legitimized after World War Two when many queer soldiers returned home from overseas, realizing that they weren’t the only queer people in the world. During this post-War period, many gay-owned businesses started to pop up, but they remained marginal and discreet.
Going into the 70s, queer spaces began to establish themselves further east in the Red Light District of Montreal at St-Laurent and Ste-Catherine Street. Many bars in this area began to offer drag shows, and notably, Le Café Cleopatra was probably the first venue in Montreal to even offer a hint of acceptance towards trans people in Montreal.
Around this time, spaces for queer women began to open as well, such as the Pont De Paris Cabaret in the Red Light District and the BabyFace Disco, the first lesbian-only bar in Montreal. And later, in the 80s, the Plateau became the centre of spaces for queer women in the Plateau neighbourhood of Montreal with bars and clubs such as Labryis, Lilith, and L’Exit, but also lesbian bookstores, cafés, and community organisations.
Prior to the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Mayor Jean Drapeau convened a “public morality” program that was aimed at raiding and closing queer establishments, as well as “cleaning up” public meeting areas, such as his initiative to cut down thousands of trees in Mont Royal Park to prevent cruising. Throughout the 1970s, queer establishments were relentlessly raided, including the Aquarius Sauna, where, a few months after a raid, three men were killed when the sauna was firebombed. Two of the men were buried in anonymous graves as their bodies were never claimed or identified by their families.
The raids came to a tipping point in October of 1977, when the clubs Mystique and Truxx were raided and 146 men were arrested, in Montreal’s first Stonewall moment. After the raid, 2,000 people showed up the day after to protest, and activists used the momentum from this protest to successfully petition the Quebec National Assembly to pass Bill 88, which forbade discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. This bill made Quebec the second jurisdiction in the world, after Denmark, to forbid discrimation based on sexual orientation.
After this period of raids, ‘Le Village’ became more established, especially after the Great Gay Migration that saw queer people from all over North America move into cities en masse. Bars such as Les Deux R, the Normadie Tavern, K.O.X., and Max, all opened close to Beaudry Metro station in Montreal’s Centre-Sud neighbourhood. Many lesbian bars also moved into ‘Le Village’ including Tabou, Klytz, G-Spot, and Magnolia. And while the establishment of ‘Le Village’ helped queer venues gain some political legitimacy, police raids continued into the 90s.
This led to Montreal’s second Stonewall moment on July 15, 1990, when a group of SPVM police officers violently raided the “Sex Garage” party in Old Montreal. Four hundred gay, lesbian, and transgender attendees were intimidated, beaten, and arrested while trying to flee the raid. Queer activists were quick to mobilize, and large-scale protests occured on the same night and nights following, including a sit-in in front of Beaudry Metro station and a kiss-in in front of the SPVM Station 25. The intent of the kiss-in was to force the police to address the brutalisation of queer people, but resulted in further brutality as the police attemtped to break up the kiss-in, which was widely broadcast on television (CW: police brutality). After these events, the Human Rights Commission investigated and provided recommendations to prevent future brutality; and activists established the first Pride March in Montreal called Divers/Cité that later turned into Fierté Montreal Pride, with the 12th edition running this year from August 8th to 18th.
While Stonewall is now a National Monument and campaigns push for other queer spaces in NYC to be preserved, similar recognition has failed to take root in Canada. The only queer site I could find that is recognized as historically significant is at University College in Toronto, recognizing the history of sexual diversity activism and the University of Toronto’s Homophile Association. While Quebec’s National Assembly has recognized that ‘Le Village’ acts “as a place of refuge and emancipation for Quebec’s LGBT+ communities”, concrete and policy-based steps to preserve this neighbourhood and other significant queer spaces in Canada must be taken to enshrine queer history within Canadian culture and to protect these spaces from external pressures. The problematic nature of queer heritage preservation and memorialization is explore in the fourth episode of my podcast, Queer Here, Queer There.
It remains important to preserve queer spaces of the past while pushing for modern and visible queer spaces. Expansive queer community spaces proposed at a condominium development at Church and Wellesley in Toronto’s Gay Village considers this principle, recognizing that these spaces are historically important for community-building and organizing for queer communities across Canada. Through mobilizing the queer community and our allies, we can ensure that the changes occurring to queer spaces are resisted and that our community’s needs are seriously considered and put at the forefront of every decision.
Fierté Montreal Pride runs from August 8th to August 18th and includes programming, as well as a community day and parade, over the course of these two weeks. You can find the full schedule at their website.
You can also listen to all four episodes of my podcast, Queer Here, Queer There, through this link.
 Richard Burnett, “Looking back at Quebec queer life since the 17th century,” Daily Xtra, Last modified December 14, 2009, accessed June 18, 2019, https://www.dailyxtra.com/looking-back-at-quebec-queer-life-since-the-17th-century-30878.
 Andrea Zanin, “The Village Comes Out: A Quick History,” Go-Montreal, accessed June 18, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20080328224920/http://www.go-montreal.com/areas_village.htm.
 Burnett, “Looking back at Quebec Queer Life.”
 Donald William Hinrichs, Montreal’s gay village: the story of a unique urban neighbourhood through the sociological lens, (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2011).
 Meara Bernadette Kirwin, “All Lez’d Up and Nowhere To Go,” McGill Daily, last modified February 26, 2018, accessed June 18, 2019, https://www.mcgilldaily.com/2018/02/all-lezd-up-and-nowhere-to-go/.
 Tim Forster, “It Takes the Village,” Maisonneuve, last modified May 10, 2017, accessed June 18, 2019, https://maisonneuve.org/article/2017/05/10/it-takes-village/.
 Burnett, “Looking back at Quebec Queer Life.”
 Forster, “It Takes the Village.”
 Zanin, “The Village Comes Out: A Quick History.”
 Kirwin, “All Lez’d Up and Nowhere To Go.”
 Denise Benson, “Montreal’s Stonewall: How the Sex Garage Raid Mobilized a Generation of LGBT Activists,” Vice, last modified March 13, 2017, accessed June 18, 2019, https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/4x8pjq/montreal-sex-garage-raid-lgbtq-oral-history.
 Fierté Montreal, “History.”
 Ed Jackson, “Making places for Toronto’s queer history,” Spacing Toronto, last modified June 15, 2017, accessed June 18, 2019, http://spacing.ca/toronto/2017/06/15/making-places-torontos-queer-history/.
 The National Assembly of Quebec, Votes and Proceedings of the Assembly, May 14, 2019.