Out and About in Montréal

by Jeff Heilman

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

“As we look to expand our reach and influence year-round, our philosophy is to move away from doom and gloom, and focus more on humanity and positive stories taken from real life,” explained Setzer. “By opening up socially and ideologically to build more awareness and bring more people into the dis- cussion,” said Boudreau, “it’s about redefining what an LGBT film festival can achieve.”

That’s an apt metaphor for the changing face of getting “out and about” in Montréal. Not long ago, Saint Henri would have been considered a daring destination for development, LGBT or otherwise. Now, dramatically signaling the expanding frontiers, there’s even a gay club in Verdun, west of Saint Henri on the island of Montréal: Lounge Musique et Danse, featuring men in high heels in the weekend “Gogo’s Sharp Heels” dance show.

Back in the city proper, the Montréal party is still going strong. With Divers/Cité now retired after 22 years, its older sibling, Black & Blue, celebrates its 25th anniversary this October with the theme “Inspiration Metropolis.” Produced by LGBT community and AIDS support organization Bad Boy Club Montréal Foundation, the week-long program includes staples such as Bal en Cuir, the festival’s official leather event, and Bears & Friends. Scheduled for the Pierre-Charbonneau Amphitheatre in Olympic Park, the legendary all-night main party will feature Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, a “silent disco,” and other entertainment.

EVOO owners

EVOO owners

Also turning 25 this year is the summertime St-Ambroise Montréal Fringe Festival, one of the highlight events on Montréal’s powerhouse year-round festi- val calendar. Others include MUTEK, the internationally renowned showcase of electronic music, visuals, and digital art founded here in 2000, and LGBT-popular Picnic Elektronik, the DJ’d outdoor dance party held Sundays at Jean-Drapeau Parc. Situated on two islands in the St. Lawrence River, the park is also the stage for Montréal’s globally preeminent, month-long International Fireworks Competition, plus outdoor activities including lazing on Jean-Dore Beach and cycling on Montréal’s Formula 1 Grand Prix track.

Looking ahead, anticipation is building for Montréal’s 375th birthday cele- bration in 2017. Among $15 million in announced anniversary projects are a beach on the St. Lawrence River in Verdun, new café-terrasses at Place Jacques-Cartier, plus massive multimedia light shows and projections from Montréal-based special-effects wizards Moment Factory.

Also mark your calendars for what promises to be a command performance for the 375th anniversary: the inaugural Canada Pride parade and festival. Hosted by Fierté Montréal, the celebration, modeled after EuroPride and WorldPride, hopes to draw one million people.
Getting around the city is easy for visitors, whether it’s waking, riding a bicycle (BIXI Bikes, born here and they have rental stations everywhere), or taking the Metro, Montréal is a city-wide proposition with diverse attractions to spare.

With its façade of translucent multi-colored glass and “Lipstick Forest” of 52 pink concrete trees (also from Claude Cormier) worth the visit alone, Palais des Congrès, Montréal’s convention center, is hosting the world premiere of “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” through October 24, 2015.

The Olympic Park campus, from the 1976 (Bruce Jenner) Summer Games, is home to “Space for Life” venues includes Montréal’s Biodome, Planetarium, Insectarium, and Botanical Garden. Mont-Royal is always a treat, its grand esplanade offering stunning panoramic views of the city, plus meadows, hiking trails, and a pretty rural-style cemetery.

Rewarding, too, are end-to-end explorations of the Old Port. Highlights include sandy Clock Tower Beach; Notre Dame De Bon Secours Chapel, from 1771; the stacked cubes of architect Moshe Safdie’s singular Habitat 67 across the water; and on a barge anchored adjacent to the decaying granary towers, the Bota Bota spa.

Outdoor sculpture

Outdoor sculpture

Heritage re-use has transformed Old Montréal from ghost town into glam draw. Built as a textile headquarters in 1871, my hotel, the 30-room Gault, artfully updates Second Empire exteriors and original 19th century cast-iron pillars with industrial chic. Through high French windows, the views from my spa- cious and solidly comfortable fourth-floor corner apartment were pure Parisian, with a king bed and large tub among the luxuries.

Housed in a former bank, LHotel is a “boutique hotel-museum” featuring original works from the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in the lobby and guest rooms. Théâtre St-James is an event space updating the former Corinthian-columned Canadian Bank of Commerce building; the amazing PHI Centre transformed an 1861 building into a high-tech center for art; and the Old Montréal Stock Exchange Building houses the Centaur Theatre Company, long-time home of English-speaking theatre in Quebec.

And what about the Village? After exploring all the alternatives, I was intrigued to discover what was happening under that canopy of extra pink balls. According to one Village merchant interviewed by the Gazette, winter time business “gets worse every year.” Another voiced his belief that while the Village “will stay predominantly gay for some time, it needs to attract more people to live and work in the area and for entrepreneurs to invest in more than just clubs.”

Mindful of these words, I found the neighborhood in full swing. Legendary institutions Campus, the male peeler bar described by Bugs as “a favorite of locals and celebrities alike, if you enjoy cold beers and hot cocks!” and adjacent Cabaret Mado are still going strong, as visitors thronged Saint-Catherine and the outdoor patios. With its gorgeous minimalist décor, Stereo Bar still keeps its promise of “pure dance floor ecstasy,” while dining draws include vintage-style Comptoir 21 (also in Mile End and Verdun) for poutine and other comfort foods, and ever-popular Saloon for soaking up martinis and the outdoor scene. Reassuring, too, was the visible police presence, both on foot and bicycle.

“As in any big city, and in any other urban neighborhood in Montréal, one is always careful, but I feel safe in the Village day and night,” says Bugs. “In terms of revival and renaissance, the past few years have been a time of change and transition for the neighborhood, but like I said before, the Village remains the heartbeat of gay life in Montréal, and community spirit remains strong.”

Uplifting, too, was the Concert for World Peace, a brand-new program introduced at Montréal Pride in August. In his personal invitation to the event, Éric Pineault, president and founder of Fierté Montréal wrote: “When humankind can live in love, there will be no more suffering: this is my greatest wish for our world. Join us for this unique evening, and together, we can build a better world.”

With Montréal leading the way, that wish has more than a fighting chance of success.

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