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Why are there no lesbian bars in Montreal?

I was at a party a while ago which was exclusively populated, more or less intentionally, by queer women and non-binary folks. A side conversation caught one of those collective silences and the question broke through to the whole room — “Seriously, where do all the queer woman hang out? Like gay men have their bars, but where are the lesbians?” Everyone kind of laughed and echoed the question until someone answered, “We’re all in living rooms like these!” That also got a laugh, but a bit of a sad one.

There are no lesbian bars in Montreal. That is, there aren’t any right now. There certainly have been — Julia A. Podmore notes that  approximately thirty bars, cafés, and restaurants, four bookstores, and nine community offices existed for lesbians between 1973 and 1995. There are currently a few recurring lesbian parties each month, including L Nights put on by the L News, Où sont les femmes? from Lez Spread the Word (LSTW), and some more low-key events at NDQ such as Jeudi Velvet and LSD: Lesbian Speed Dating. The Montreal “golden age” of lesbian nightlife in the eighties and nineties feels very far away from our current social landscape. In a city with a solid track record for lesbian nightlife, and a large lesbian population, it’s worth asking — why are there no lesbian bars in Montreal? What is our social history? What kind of social spaces do we want and need right now? Drawing from interviews, articles, and a thick stack of comments on a post I made in a queer facebook group, I make the following calls to lesbian action: to claim lesbian space, host more chill parties, make more lesbian friends, find a butch mentor, read more queer history, and please someone open a lesbian bathhouse in Montreal.

In a city with a solid track record for lesbian nightlife, and a large lesbian population, it’s worth asking — why are there no lesbian bars in Montreal? What is our social history? What kind of social spaces do we want and need right now?

Intro to contemporary queer lesbianism

Before delving in, I should clarify what exactly I mean by “lesbian.” The traditional answer is “homosexual women,” but lesbian is and has been a contested identity category for decades. There is a certain strand of lesbian culture that flourished in the 1960s-80s which was, and continues to be, mostly white, cis-normative and sometimes blatantly transphobic, and which therefore left many queer women and trans and non-binary people out of its communities and political movements. As a result of this, and other changes in queer politics and theory, there has been a move away from the term in the past few decades, towards an embrace of queer identity as a whole. However, there seems to be a recent reclamation of lesbian identity that remembers the good and ditches the bad, considering and welcoming difference and fluidity within itself while maintaining some meaningful distinction from a broader category of queerness. These words also have different meaning in anglophone and francophone circles — Florence Gagnon from LSTW suggested to me that while ‘queer’ is a popular term in English,  francophone women and non binary folks still tend to identify as ‘lesbian.’

“Lesbian,” as used by myself and everyone I quote or whose work I cite here, refers to any woman or non-binary person who is interested in dating other women and non-binary people, regardless of who else they are interested in dating. In light of the transphobic views on the word lesbian that exist, I would like to state clearly that trans women are women, and that when I use the word woman throughout this article I am referring to trans women as well as cisgender women. Lesbian is a self-claimed identity which can be claimed along with a variety of others, and many people choose not to use it. To position my sexuality as the author, briefly — I am a queer woman who also identifies often as butch, bi, and lesbian.

Lesbianism is explained and felt differently by different lesbians — who might also identify as queer, bisexual, trans, non-binary, two-spirit, genderfluid, asexual, etc. — but it exists, persists, and motivates a common desire for lesbian-specific gatherings and spaces. “Dyke Drama,” a post by Estelle Davis on the Cosmic Wyrm Rat blog, was written in direct response to lesbophobia within the Montreal queer scene last year. I’ll quote her here, but you should just read the full piece: “Lesbianism is, as far as I understand, a catch-all term for diverse sets of social, political, and sexual practices of love amongst women. […] How the fuck did TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] make us forget about the Combahee River Collective? Or Audre Lorde? Or Gays and Lesbians support the Miners? Or Act UP? Or Julia Serano? Monique Wittig? Or the countless marginalized women organizing everyday for our lives?” Lesbianism invokes diverse histories, practices, and desires. It can be powerful if we allow it to be: a means of calling up radical solidarity among queer women and non-binary folks; a generative branch of queer thought, culture, history and politics.

Lesbianism invokes diverse histories, practices, and desires. It can be powerful if we allow it to be: a means of calling up radical solidarity among queer women and non-binary folks; a generative branch of queer thought, culture, history and politics.

A brief history of public lesbian space in Montreal

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. Julie Podmore and Line Chamberland are two scholars who have documented this history extensively, and I draw mainly on Podmore’s 2006 article “Gone ‘underground’? Lesbian visibility and the consolidation of queer space in Montréal” as well as my Skype interview with her, and Chamberland’s 1993 article “Remembering Lesbian Bars: Montreal, 1955-1975,” in the next few sections. 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: if we want lesbian solidarity and identity to exist, we need gathering places. 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.

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.

Fifties and sixties: Butch/femme lesbians and the early bar scene

In the 1950s, 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. As a result, many lesbians, particularly those disinterested in claiming butch/femme identities and those outside the working class, did not visit these spaces. Still, they were the first spaces of lesbian social visibility, and a critical space of empowerment and collective identity building for working class lesbians. In the 1992 documentary Forbidden Love by Lynne Fernie & Aerlyn Weissman, interviewee Nairobi recalls being one of the only black women (and indeed women of colour) in lesbian bars at this time, while there were many more black women in straight clubs. 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. Chamberland notes that this lesbian ‘bar scene’ continued to exist into the 1960s.

Photo of BabyFace Disco from Lez Spread the Word

Seventies: The lesbian underground

In 1969, homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada and in the late 1960s, BabyFace Disco, the first lesbians-only bar, opened in what is now the Simone de Beauvoir institute of Concordia University. Lesbian bars in this era established dress and etiquette codes, trying to make the places ‘respectable’ enough to avoid trouble with the police. 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. Furthermore, there was tension between younger, second-wave feminist lesbians and older butch/femme lesbians, even as they shared social space. Despite these differences, the increase in social space available to lesbians of all backgrounds meant that lesbians could now begin to cross these divides. This facilitated greater political engagement, as lesbians united to boycott lesbian bar Chez Madame Arthur to protest harassment by bar staff in 1974, and to protest the police raid of nearby Chez Jilly in 1976. However, as Gregorio Paulo explains in his unpublished dissertation on lesbian feminist organizing in the 1970s, organizations such as Montréal Gay Women were opposed to this ‘bar scene’ altogether, viewing it as a site of continued patriarchal oppression. This group was active in the boycott of Chez Madame Arthur.

Mixed gay and lesbian clubs also started opening during the 1970s. In an interview with Viviane Namaste, Michelle de Ville, a trans woman and “the first door bitch of Montréal,” described her exclusion from gay male clubs in the 1970s, but the freedom of the Lime Light Disco, and later The Glace; both spaces were open to all genders and to both people of colour and white people. 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.

Eighties: The “golden age” of lesbian bars

The 1980s were the “golden age” of lesbian bars in Montreal. 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. These bars, including Labyris, Lilith, and L’Exit were surrounded by lesbian bookstores, cafes, community organizations, and households in the Plateau Mont Royal. 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.

Conversations I had with folks about the current lesbian landscape confirm this idea: if we want lesbian solidarity and identity to exist, we need gathering places. We also need places to make out, hook up, and dance the ways we want to.

Nineties: Emergence of the queer scene

The nineties again marked a period of great change for lesbians and queers in Montreal. The AIDS/HIV crisis and ongoing police raids of queer spaces led previously segregated queer populations to come together in solidarity. Of particular significance was the Sex Garage raid of 1990. 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 25. The kiss-in was intended to pressure police into discussing police brutality and dropping charges, but resulted in even greater brutality. Later, an internal investigation of the police’s actions was launched and most charges were dropped. The events united and politicized the queer community in the city.

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. This period also saw a rise in popularity of ‘women’s nights’ in gay male and mixed queer spaces (including gay bathhouses), and sporadic parties for queer women in other venues.  Lesbian and mixed bars in the Village were more like nightclubs than sit-down spaces, encouraging a different kind of lesbian sociality.

The new millenium

In 1998, 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? Since the early 2000s there has been an explosion of queer party series, including Cruise Contrôle, Faggity Ass Fridays, No Pants No Problem, LIP, and Q-Team, and a few geared more toward lesbians, including POMPe and Meow Mix. 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 2014. Royal Phoenix, open from 2011-2014, was located in the Mile End and was a beloved queer bar despite its short lifespan. From what I’ve heard, its closure was due to run-of-the-mill managerial changes, rather than signifying a greater change in the queer social scene. The closure of both of these bars at the same time was a loss that still echoes through Montreal’s lesbian communities.

Photo from a queer gathering in 1995 from Lez Spread the Word

Where are the lesbians now?

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: first, the increasing acceptance of lesbians within straight social space, and second, the growth of online communication, media production, and dating apps as means of lesbian socializing. Other things have stayed the same — ‘lesbian’ is still a useful, powerful, and generative word for us to claim and mobilize around, and gentrification is still a problem. 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 2013, 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. LSTW decided to try to fill the gap, and started their Ou sont les femmes? event series, which is ongoing and consistently well-attended by a diverse age set. “Online media is important, but you need parties to keep any sense of community,” Florence says, “They’re my favourite part of what we do.” LSTW also uses their events to lend visibility to new collectives, artists and projects, such as next month’s party featuring “The Woman Power” collective.

While Montreal has no ‘official’ lesbian bars, Notre Dame des Quilles, popularly known as NDQ, is about as close as we get. An unassuming neighbourhood bar in Little Italy, its owners and staff have turned it into an “unofficial queer bar” which hosts a variety of DJ sets and events throughout the month. I spoke to Tasha, the bar’s manager, about Montreal’s “lesbian renaissance” and how NDQ fits into it. Regarding its unofficial queer status, Tasha explained that it comes down to the priorities and attitudes of the staff. They keep prices low, kick out anyone who’s harassing customers, prioritize queer artists and event hosts, and generally “make the bar the sort of place we’d want to go to.” They are also committed to the “queer women/lesbian renaissance,” and always looking (!!) for new event ideas, artists, and DJs. They host the weekly happy hour event Jeudi velvet, “a night celebrating gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer sisterhood,” open to all, which offers a relaxed alternative to the dance party set. They also host Lesbian Speed Dating nights, organized by Catherine Colas.

Colas spent years attending queer dance parties and organizing after-hours parties (not queer but queer-inclusive) before realizing that half the people present were straight, and no one was getting to know each other outside of aggressive sexual encounters. While these parties can be a good time, she wanted to foster a space for queers that was a little bit different. And as a recent transplant to Montreal, she remembers that “it’s hard to find queers when you move to the city… Our communities tend to be closed off and you have to look certain ways and go to certain places to be visible as a queer woman.” You have to register in advance to attend LSD, and its likely that no one is going to register that isn’t lesbian, so “you don’t have to exhaust yourself trying to figure out if people are straight or not.” Colas explained to me that she pays attention to who signs up, and actively prioritizes the participation of people of colour. “It’s important that everyone can find people that they identify with,” and this includes sharing racial, gendered, and linguistic identities. I asked if there were any events she knew of that were specifically for lesbian people of colour, and while she raved about the Vogue Balls, Cousins parties, and other queer events which celebrate and center queer people of colour, neither she nor any other interviewees knew of any geared toward lesbians. In the meantime, LSD is wildly successful as a place to both find dates and make new friendships. Colas says that it’s basically her lesbian event dream come true. She doesn’t take part in the dating but meets cool new local lesbians every time.

Colas spent years attending queer dance parties and organizing after-hours parties (not queer but queer-inclusive) before realizing that half the people present were straight, and no one was getting to know each other outside of aggressive sexual encounters. While these parties can be a good time, she wanted to foster a space for queers that was a little bit different.

Most of the queer and lesbian event series listed in this article were or are organized by individuals or by small, informal collectives. Laura Boo hosted POMPe monthly for 5 years, and now holds the parties just twice a year. She said that “throwing queer parties is not particularly profitable but it is very labour-intensive. And Montreal is always a bit of a hustle if you want to survive. Eventually my other hustles took more and more time and the parties had to take a back seat.” The work of organizing rotating events is very different from than the work of managing a bar or club, both much more fluid and much less stable.

Finding space for these events is another obstacle. Every organizer I spoke to emphasized that in creating a lesbian social space, prioritizing the safety of their guests is critical. This means, primarily, having the ability to kick people out if they’re harassing or harming other attendees. Ensuring the right to control access to the space often requires renting out the venue, and of course, this costs money. As a result, some lesbian events have cover fees for entry; the cover for LSTW events has been noted as a major barrier to access. Colas half-joked that “it’s fucked up that we need to pay to make connections with people. Like, people should pay us to come to their parties.” As Boo explained, with increasing gentrification, “bars are under so much pressure from new condo neighbors to be quiet, which in turn causes more police presence and city crackdown on liquor licenses. […] Venues get priced out of neighbourhoods the same way that residents do.” The lack of safe, accessible physical spaces available for lesbians and other queer people to occupy is a systemic problem, highlighting the continued economic precarity of queer people, both individually and collectively, in the city.

Visual for Lesbian Speed Dating by Samantha Garritano

Visibility and the glitchy gaydar

So gentrification pushed lesbian bars out of the Plateau and into the Village, and then gentrification pushed them out of the Village, and continues to limit their existence. It’s worth noting, however, that many bars which cater to gay men have remained open through this gentrification process. Podmore spoke to me about some of the common explanations for this. There’s the simple answer that men still collectively have more disposable income than women and non-binary people, and can keep their bars afloat more easily. There’s also the argument that many queer women and non-binary people are caring for children or taking on other responsibilities, and cannot go out as frequently. So, while queer culture becomes more accepted in the mainstream, the effects of gentrification still negatively impact queer women and non-binary people more than men, as they continue to struggle against patriarchal labour inequalities.

Others argue that maybe lesbians aren’t looking for bars as social spaces, and are rather seeking out some other type of gathering space. The LSTW collective nearly opened a lesbian bar in Montréal just a few years ago. Gagnon explained that the collective was concerned that with a specifically lesbian target clientele, there wouldn’t be enough demand to keep a bar open through long Montréal winters. In her experience as an organizer, “women just can’t go out every night of the week.” Podmore suggests that gay men have a collective sexual culture that keeps the bar scene relevant across boundaries of age, race, and class, while lesbians form community in more diverse and separate ways. Tasha from NDQ pointed out that “bars have never really been welcoming spaces for women,” suggesting that it’s no big surprise that lesbian bars aren’t so popular.

There are many stereotypes about the domesticity of lesbians, yet as made clear by the experiences of organisers, it is evident that lesbians do have a different relationship to public spaces than gay men. Perhaps women and non-binary folks have been socialised not to see the public as inherently theirs, as it is so often an unsafe space for them, irrespective of their sexuality.

In thinking about lesbian spaces it is worth considering the ways in which different spaces are set up to meet different goals. The events I’ve addressed so far in this piece are centred on meeting other lesbians, on forming connections. The lines between wanting to build community and wanting a place to express lesbian sexuality seem blurred. Can we not have it all? Part of the stereotype about the domesticity of lesbians is the idea that they are less likely to pursue casual encounters in an intentional and recurring manner, yet many of the lesbians I spoke to for this piece expressed frustration over the lack of a lesbian bathhouse or cruising space. Within gay male culture the practice of cruising, i.e. engaging with strangers in public spaces for casual sex, is widely established and actively promoted. Bathhouses have long existed as spaces for gay men to have casual encounters, yet how to arrange the same for lesbians? The same questions as event organising come up: who has the time and resources to organise such an event? How to ensure that such a space is safe? Would enough lesbians go?

Of course, other important spaces of lesbian community building exist outside of bars, parties, cafes, or hypothetical bathhouses. Podmore told me stories about women’s sports teams as lesbian spaces, which exist both formally and informally. Queer clubs at universities facilitate lesbian meetups. Intergenerational relationships form through archive work, networks such as Lesbians Who Tech, and artistic communities and events like the Massimadi Montréal Festival des filmes et des arts LGBTQ afro. I have certainly only scratched the surface of a wide variety of means through which people build lesbian relationships, friendships, communities and collective identities.  

So, there are no lesbian bars in Montreal. We exist in a different lesbian moment from the butch/femme era, the eighties’ golden age, and the queer activism of the nineties. Looking at this history, the fluidity of lesbian identity and space is apparent. The lack of bars is not necessarily a crisis, but we need to consider the effects of this lack of permanent, claimed, accessible social space. Podmore echoed the thoughts of many lonely lesbians with bad gaydar when she pointed out that lesbian spaces are critical in order for us to be “visible to each other.” As Colas argues, lesbians are not always “visible” by their appearance — not every lesbian wants to get an undercut and a septum piercing. The act of carving out and holding that space is also significant, and Colas is proud and a little protective of her role as host of LSD. “Years in the music community have me tired of white men, and women, taking over spaces that I have a right to.”

Lesbian social space exists within a shifting and messy network of queer spaces, women’s spaces, gay spaces, and straight spaces. Podmore and others I’ve spoken to have noted the ease with which lesbian space is appropriated by others. Fanie De La Fresne mentioned on Facebook that “it seems like queer/lesbian spaces are much more frequented by straight people than are the gay spaces (is it just me?), and tend to lose their lesbian and/or queer specificity more quickly.” There’s a careful balance between being inclusive and losing the specificity and safety of the space.
My conversations with Tasha, Colas, and Gagnon suggest that we can create lesbian space in a way which welcomes anyone who wants to claim, celebrate, embody, and support lesbianism, while requesting that those who do not claim this identity do their partying elsewhere. There is room for fluid difference, separate space, and multiple cultures within queer scenes and communities. Besides, it’s really very nice to be able to turn off your glitchy gaydar and assume that everyone around you is lesbian sometimes.

This article was edited at 18:33 on March 7th, 2018 for clarity.