It can be powerful if we allow it to be: Lesbianism invokes diverse histories, practices, and desires.
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It might seem strange to focus on bars as a site of lesbian identity formation and community building, especially considering that there are literally none in the city right now. However, looking back at the lesbian history of Montreal, it is clear that bars have been a critical component of lesbian culture for decades, intimately linked with the political, personal, and social projects of lesbians in all their transformations through history.
Podmore argues that while bars have been a controversial site of lesbian identity formation, they are anchors around which lesbian communities form. Conversations I had with folks about the current lesbian landscape confirm this idea: We also need places to make out, hook up, and dance the ways we want to. I hope this small historical review can give a bit of background to what lesbian space is, has been and could be in the future.
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A discussion of racial dynamics and the experiences of trans women are noticeably absent in the research I did on the history of lesbian space in Montreal, and I do not have the personal experience to speak to these realities. This is also part of the systemic whitewashing and trans erasure within queer and lesbian discourse and history in Quebec and Canada. This erasure does not mean that those histories do not exist.
I intend to pursue further research in these areas, and apologize for their absence here. In the s, the heart of lesbian social life in Montreal were the bars, pool halls, and cabarets of the Red Light District. These spaces, such as the cabaret Ponts de Paris, were mixed — mainly heterosexual spaces which mainly francophone, working class lesbians appropriated for their own use. Lesbians would claim sections of the space for themselves, either according to venue policies or wherever they could find it. They were often rough, harmful spaces for lesbians, who were under threat of voyeurism and violence from both police and heterosexual men.
Still, they were the first spaces of lesbian social visibility, and a critical space of empowerment and collective identity building for working class lesbians. While she does not mention racism towards her in these spaces, the absence of women of colour suggests that racism limited access to lesbian spaces, and points to the whiteness of lesbian bar culture at this time.
In , homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada and in the late s, BabyFace Disco, the first lesbians-only bar, opened in what is now the Simone de Beauvoir institute of Concordia University. Chamberland describes lesbian bars of this era as being unofficially segregated by class. In Quebec at the time, this also meant segregation by language, with anglophones dominating the upper class. Despite these differences, the increase in social space available to lesbians of all backgrounds meant that lesbians could now begin to cross these divides.
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This facilitated greater political engagement, as lesbians united to boycott lesbian bar Chez Madame Arthur to protest harassment by bar staff in , and to protest the police raid of nearby Chez Jilly in This group was active in the boycott of Chez Madame Arthur. Mixed gay and lesbian clubs also started opening during the s. I am not sure of the level of inclusion for trans lesbians in women-only bars at this time, which demonstrates the importance of these early mixed queer spaces.
These bars were women-owned, women-only, and closely linked with the second-wave lesbian feminism that was gaining popularity at the time. One tactic in protecting lesbian space was a high level of gender segregation, though I am not certain to what extent this resulted in trans exclusion and gender essentialism.
Podmore argues that this conscious development of a lesbian neighbourhood enabled a lesbian culture to thrive throughout the decade. There were lesbian magazines for sale in local grocery stores, and multiple bars within walking distance. The nineties again marked a period of great change for lesbians and queers in Montreal.
Of particular significance was the Sex Garage raid of One in a series of mixed queer parties — which were still rare at this point — the Sex Garage party was raided by police, who then beat and arrested many partygoers. In response, queers performed a sit-in in front of Beaudry metro station, and later a kiss-in in front of police station The kiss-in was intended to pressure police into discussing police brutality and dropping charges, but resulted in even greater brutality. The events united and politicized the queer community in the city.
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At the same time, the geography of queer territory was shifting in Montreal. Gay bars, pushed out of the downtown core, started settling into what is now the Gay Village. This area developed as the site of growing queer consciousness, commerce, and political organizing, and as the Plateau began to rapidly gentrify, lesbian bars started closing on St.
Denis and opening in the Village.
An article in the first issue of LSTW magazine lists over a dozen which opened during this decade, many with truly excellent names such as Tabou, Klytz, and G-Spot. Magnolia is remembered as one of the greats. However, most of these spaces were very short-lived, and the number declined steadily over time. Lesbian and mixed bars in the Village were more like nightclubs than sit-down spaces, encouraging a different kind of lesbian sociality.
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In , an article was published in the local queer Fugues magazine with a very similar question as the one this article poses — where have all the lesbian bars gone? The Village continued to represent a primarily gay male space, with Mile End increasingly becoming a queer residential and social space. That being said, the Village was home to le Drugstore, a vital lesbian party spot until Royal Phoenix, open from , was located in the Mile End and was a beloved queer bar despite its short lifespan.
Along with the history sketched above, there are two big trends over the past 20 years that have had an effect on the current lesbian social landscape: I recently had the opportunity to interview Florence Gagnon, the founder of Lez Spread the Word LSTW , a Montreal-based collective which produces and promotes lesbian culture and events across the country. Gagnon was inspired to start LSTW in , upon realizing that most of the lesbian culture she consumed was coming from the States. While there were a number of parties at the time, there was no lesbian media production or popular cultural icons from Quebec.
After a few successful years of online community building, they noticed that the party scene was beginning to run thin. After the kids have drifted off to sleep, take a long, hot soak in the gorgeous claw-foot bathtub to rejuvenate after a long day of sightseeing and shopping.
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This Francophone community in the heart of the city with an eclectic mix of old and new, is known as the real Montreal. Counting art galleries and gourmet shops, designer boutique and green parks and artists, yuppies and families within its bounds, the Plateau is bursting with character. Play in Parc la Fontaine, stroll St Laurent for boutiques and ethnic food, and wander up to Little Italy for the largest market in Canada.
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