Welcome to Montreal, one of the world’s choice queer destinations and, after Paris, the second-largest French-speaking city on the planet
.And make no mistake, Mun-treal, as only true anglophone Montrealers pronounce it, will embrace you in English or en Français, not to mention the dozens of other languages spoken in the almost 400-year-old island city.
Montreal was, for much of the 20th century, wide open to gambling, boozing and whoring, especially during prohibition, when the thirsty came to Montreal from all over the continent – along with gamblers, racketeers and entertainers. Later, when Canadian military recruits returned home from World War II knowing they weren’t the only dykes and fags out in the world, several bars opened up downtown that catered to gays and lesbians, notably the Down Beat, which saw the debut of legendary female impersonator Armand Monroe – better known as La Monroe – in its Tropical Room in 1957.
“I introduced a new policy: gay customers served by gay staff,” Monroe remembers. “And men were first allowed to dance together [in a Montreal club] on my birthday, Aug 27, in 1958.”
Gay bars remained segregated along gender lines after the Village moved east in the early 1980s. But all that changed the night of July 15, 1990, when Montreal police raided the infamous Sex Garage loft party in Old Montreal, a night now widely considered to be Montreal’s Stonewall. Four hundred partygoers – mostly gay men, lesbians and drag queens not welcome in the city’s gay bars – filed outside while other drag queens climbed out windows and crawled across treacherous century-old rooftops to avoid the cops. Police brutality that night and at a demonstration outside Precinct 25 the next day finally and irrevocably shocked three million Montrealers out of their complacency. Sex Garage also helped desegregate Montreal’s gay scene, and clubs then hired drag queens who became “overnight” superstars.
Today Montreal’s enormous and exciting gay scene rivals that of every other great gay mecca in the world. Over 450,000 gays and lesbians live in Greater Montreal and over one million gay and lesbian tourists visit the city every year. As my friend and PlanetOut.com columnist Rex Wockner noted, “Montreal men are a little foufier and quite a bit randier than elsewhere in North America. I think Montreal has more gay bathhouses per capita than any other city in the world. It also has a huge gay village that puts The Castro [in San Francisco] to shame – 15 blocks like that two-block stretch of Castro, crowded with people seven nights a week. Some of the bars are even well-lit. Imagine.”
Montrealers’ trademark joie de vivre, along with the BBCM’s world-renowned Black & Blue circuit party at Olympic Stadium and Divers/Cité’s one million-strong Gay Pride parade – clearly the most exciting cocktail parties the city has seen since Expo 67 – have made Montreal one of the world’s top gay destinations.
Vive le Québec gai!
Richard Burnett writes Canada’s national gay-issues column Three Dollar Bill.