The Village Comes Out: A Quick History
By Andrea Zanin
Montreal is renowned worldwide for being a gay-friendly place. With our vibrant cultural scene, scintillating nightlife and beautiful people, it’s no wonder! Not to mention that our cosmopolitan city is crowned with the biggest Gay Village in North America.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Montreal’s queer community has developed over the years through protests and politics, parties and parades. And as economic and social realities have shifted, so have the places we gather.
In the 1920s, gay people began to congregate in Montreal’s downtown establishments, centred around the corner of Stanley and St.-Catherine streets in the west. For decades, this area remained the epicentre of gay life—through the Second World War and into the late 1970s. “The Village was from Peel to Atwater ,” recounts George, a long-time bartender at Mystique (1424 Stanley), one of the last holdouts from times past. “Now people call that ‘the old Village.’” Lesbian venues could be found along St-Denis, and a few other gay spots were clustered on St.-Laurent, with one or two stragglers in the Centre-Sud area.
Popular myth has it that the mayor at the time, Jean Drapeau, instituted a mass purge of downtown gay establishments to “clean up” the city for the 1976 Olympics. But in fact, it wasn’t until 1984 that the gay bars moved east en masse to the Centre-Sud area, and then it was mainly for financial reasons, as business-minded bar owners realized that the downtown core was becoming more expensive.
It wasn’t all economics, though. Politically speaking, these were history-making times. In October 1977, Montreal ’s very own Stonewall took place in the form of a massive raid on Mystique and the now-defunct Truxx, during which 144 men were arrested. The next day over 2,000 people showed up to protest. Riding the energy of the demonstration, an anti-repression committee jumped into political action. By December 15, bill 88 was voted into law, making Quebec the second society in the world (after Denmark) to forbid discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. This set the stage for a strong community to develop and support its own.
In 1982, a strip bar called Les Deux R opened in Centre-Sud, followed by Normandie tavern in 1983. That same year, KOX bar moved from its digs on the corner of Montcalm and Dorchester (now René-Lévesque) to take up residence on St-Catherine and Panet. It was soon joined by another bar, Max; the two were close to Beaudry metro station, which made for an easy night out, and the area quickly became popular. People had already begun to refer to it as “le Nouveau village de l’est” (the New East Village), but the Village’s destiny was set when, in June 1984, Stanley Street standby Bud’s closed down after yet another police raid that scared away its remaining clientele. By 1985, there were barely any gay establishments left in the west end; some remained in the Red Light District, but the bulk of gay society was sipping drinks in what was now known as the Gay Village.
Thus a neighbourhood was born. In the twenty years that have passed since then, the Village has grown and changed while politics have raged on. Things haven’t always been pretty—police raids (one of which shut down KOX in 1994), the AIDS epidemic and more. But Montreal ’s gay community has achieved victories that would never have been thought possible… and at the end of the day, we sure know how to party.
The Village now stretches along St.-Catherine from Berri to de Lorimier, and on the north-south axis, from René-Lévesque to Sherbrooke. It’s a thriving part of town, replete with restaurants, bars, boutiques and cafés. The façade of Beaudry metro station was rebuilt in 1998-99 to feature a rainbow row of columns, and by the turn of the millennium, the municipal and provincial governments began to actively promote Montreal as a gay-friendly destination. Today, queer establishments and events are sprinkled throughout the city, from the university clusters in the west of downtown to the underground dyke nightlife in Mile End to the charming cafés of Verdun. But the burgeoning Village area remains the heart of gay Montreal.
And what’s become of the gay haunts of yesteryear? They’re the stuff of history books now, with one exception. The Mystique still serves a loyal clientele, tucked away in a corner of downtown. “But the Village is in the east now,” George says a little wistfully, “And it’s going to stay there, because they’ve made it beautiful.”
Main reference: “Sortir de l’ombre: histoire des communautés lesbienne et gai de Montréal.” Ed. Irène Demczuk and Frank W. Remiggi. Vlb éditeur, 1998.