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Out and About in Montréal

by Jeff Heilman

Exploring the heart of one of the world's most popular LGBT tourism destinations.

Last summer, Montréal’s Gay Village offered its customary seasonal flourish with the return of “Le Projet de Boules Roses,” artist Claude Cromier’s annual stringing of “Pink Balls” above a kilometer-plus long stretch of Sainte-Catherine Street. Part of the annual May to September Aires Libres public art event, the installation featured 200,000 balls this year, up from 170,000.

With Sainte-Catherine Street closed to vehicular traffic between Saint- Hubert to Papineau, the enhanced pink canopy provided its usual ambassadorial welcome to the summer surge of gay tourists enjoying the Village’s clubs, outdoor patios, restaurants, bars, shops, and other establishments. According to Community Marketing Inc.’s 2014 LGBT Tourism & Hospitality Survey, Montréal is an equal favorite alongside Toronto and Vancouver for gay travelers from the US, with Canada heading the list of preferred international destinations.

All would seem swell in the heart of one of the world’s most popular LGBT tourism destinations, n’est-ce pas? Well, not completely. As publicized earlier this year by the Montréal Gazette, the Village has been experiencing off-season blues for some time.
In keeping with the general trend of these technological times, the Internet is reportedly to blame, as Montréal’s younger gay crowd steers toward mobile dating applications instead of hitting the Village’s bars and clubs. As I learned from renowned Montréal journalist Richard “Bugs” Burnett, however, there is more to the story.

Bugs chronicles Canadian and global LGBT life as a nationally syndicated columnist for the Gazette, Canadian LGBT publications Fugues and Xtra!, and his self-syndicated Three Dollar Bill blog. Also a pop culture radio personality, he has made his name calling out hypocrisy and homophobia, earning himself death threats along with high praise and the tag of “Canada’s bad boy syndicated gay columnist.”

Over coffee in the lobby of Hotel Gault, my boutique base in Old Montréal during my recent four-day visit, Bugs shared some eye-opening insight into recent developments on the Montréal LGBT scene.

“The Village has been dealing with a sustained crime wave, mostly from nearby itinerant drug-users, which has finally calmed down thanks to increased police patrols introduced last year,” he began. Another issue has been the shuttering en masse of the nightlife complexes that dominated the Village scene since the 80s. “All the huge clubs have gone, including Le Drugstore, Gotha Lounge, Parking Nightclub, and Java U,” continued Bugs. “Last year’s closing of the multi-level Bourbon, or ‘gay Disneyland’ as I called it, was the end of an era.”

The latest whammy was the folding this February of Divers/Cité, Montréal’s original Pride organization.

“In 1990, the police raided the queer Sex Garage loft party, following which they beat and arrested some 400 LGBT protestors,” said Bugs. “That was Montréal’s Stonewall, 25 years ago this summer, and it changed gay politics here forever.”

Starting with an unprecedented mass march through downtown, the ensuing movement led directly to the creation of the two gay festivals that would accelerate the evolution of the Village while putting Montréal on the global LGBT tourism map: Black & Blue in 1991 (more on that later) and Divers/Cité in 1993.

In its heyday, Divers/Cité was all the rage, with its signature Mascara drag ball, hosted by Montréal drag icon Mado Lamotte, attracting upwards of 25,000 revelers at its height. “The party kept rolling until 2006, when for rea- sons including declining attendance and revenues, Divers/Cité spun off from Pride and rebranded as a queer arts and cultural festival,” says Bugs. “That change in focus, format, and spirit is really when Divers/Cité died.”

Mile X Chef Gregory Paul

Mile X Chef Gregory Paul

Does all of this mean a flagging of Montréal’s rainbow-colored joie de vivre? Far from it.

Last month’s Pride celebration, with the rainbow flag’s third color of yel- low as its “light and energy” theme, may have been sponsored by Viagra, but it needed little help in the jubilance department. For younger revelers unaware of the Sex Garage incident and its milestone precedence in the evolution of LGBT Montréal, education was served by a rare exhibition of images from Canadian photographer Linda Dawn Hammond, who bravely documented the violence as the police removed their name badges and swung their batons.
Those sober notes aside, the exuberance of the 2015 edition of Montréal Pride (or Fierté Montréal, which took over in 2007) reaffirmed Montréal’s place as one of the hottest gay destinations on the planet. While the Village seeks reinvention, that appeal includes a wider field of social and cultural options than ever before.

“I think we will see new establishments breathe fresh air and bring renewed life to the Village, which remains the heart and soul of LGBT life in Montréal,” says Bugs, citing this spring’s relaunch of the former Club Apollon as Code. “That said, the gay community is spreading its wings to new locales around the city.”

As I would discover on my recent visit, those wings are reaching some unexpected corners.

From Bugs it was over to Carrie MacPherson, founding partner and edi- tor in chief of Zurbaines.com, an online resource for “Montréal women who want to know what’s hot in their city.” Also serving as social media coordinator for iconic Canadian luxury fashion retailer Holt Renfrew and freelancer editor and tour guide for Tourisme Montréal, she took me on a morning drive around the Mile End area and its fringes, all emerging LGBT draws.

“Montréal’s LGBT scene is no longer restricted solely to the Village,” she confirmed over cappuccino and St. Viateur bagels outside at Italian cafe Club Social. “You can find a growing number of LGBT-friendly spots in new queer-centric haunts such as here in the Mile End, along with Little Italy, Petite-Patrie, and Mile-Ex.”

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