Is Montreal's Gay Village becoming less gay?

As the city celebrates Pride weekend, experts debate how to preserve the Gay Village's unique identity.

As the city celebrates Pride weekend, experts debate how to preserve the Village's unique identity

'It was more underground,' long-time Village business owner Daniel Lussier recalled. (submitted by Raphael Thibodeau)

When Daniel Lussier opened his first bar in Montreal's Gay Village, nearly 30 years ago, the east-end strip along Ste-Catherine Street featured mainly leather bars, massage parlours, nightclubs and sex shops.

"It was more underground, with a more specific clientele," said Lussier, who has opened several more Village businesses in the years since. 

By opening a business in the Village back then, he wanted to help make it a place where people of all stripes wanted to be.

And that's what happened. The Village now attracts a wide cross-section of visitors, regardless of their sexual orientation.

The Village's affiliation with the LGBTQ community remains unmistakable. It is a parade of colours thanks to a multitude of rainbow flags, not to mention the iconic rainbow balls, strung above Ste-Catherine Street one last time this summer. 

But as the Village has been embraced by mainstream culture, some are worried it is losing the identity that once made it unique.

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'[There is a] straightening of the Village,' said Noah Powers, a research fellow at the Samuel Center for Social Conectedness. (Gretel Kahn/CBC)

""[There is a] straightening of the Village where as queer people move out, straight people are moving in," said Noah Powers, a research fellow at the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, a non-profit organization that researches community issues.

"It's leading to the idea that the Village isn't actually gay or queer anymore."

Julie Podmore, a geography professor at Concordia University who specializes in LGBTQ spaces, calls it the "de-gayification" of the Village.

"Mainstreaming has been going on since the late 1990s," said Podmore, who also teaches at John Abbott College.

"[The Village] is not necessarily specific to the gay community anymore but one of the many sites where people will go as urban tourists."

While that's cause for concern for some, others welcome the change.

"People are opening to the gay community," said Lussier. "If there are gay friendly people coming, why not?"

The causes of change 

The roots of the Gay Village can be traced, in part, to mayor Jean Drapeau's efforts to "clean up" the city ahead Expo 67 and the 1976 Summer Olympics.

As police raids increased at the gay and lesbian bars that then clustered around Crescent Street, queer life gradually migrated east.

This $40-million condo complex is being erected on the site of a once iconic complex that included a hotel and chapel that performed gay weddings. (Le Bourbon)

"The Village represented an area where queer identities were more accepted," said Powers, who is researching the decline of queer spaces in Montreal and elsewhere in the world.

Thanks to years of activism, the LGBTQ community eventually won basic civil rights and widespread social acceptance.

That allowed the Village to become a hotspot for commercial activities in Montreal. Next to the bars and clubs that have historically catered to LGBTQ clients, there are now chain restaurants and upscale cafés.

"The increase in value of the land, [is] leading to the displacement of LGBT businesses and the mainstreaming of commerce," said Podmore. "Some people would call that the gentrification of the Village."

According to a 2016 study published by Montreal's public consultation office, the median income of Village residents rose by 70 per cent between 1991 and 2011. 

Once popular hangout spots have been razed and replaced with condos. The sprawling Bourbon complex, for example, housed restaurants, a hotel and, importantly, a chapel that performed gay weddings.

It was torn down last year. A $40-million condo complex is being built in its place.

But there are also non-economic reasons behind the "de-gayification" of the Village.

Hookup apps like Grindr make it easier to find partners, decreasing the importance of gay bars for meeting new people. (CBC)

Greater tolerance has meant many in the LGBTQ community now feel comfortable expressing their sexuality outside the confines of the Village. 

"I can live wherever I want and not have the fear of violence when leaving my house," said Powers. "People in the 1970s and 1980s didn't have that privilege."

Add to that the popularity of dating apps and social media. In the past, a venue in the Village was one of the few places where queer people could meet other queer people.

But with Grindr and Tinder, among other apps, meeting someone else no longer requires a physical space in a queer-friendly part of the city. 

How to keep the Gay Village gay

While these factors may help explain "de-gayification" of the Village, Lussier, a long-time resident, doesn't believe the process is irreversible.

"If the community wants the Village to be better, they have to start going there," said Lussier.

"It's the people that make it [gay]. It's not whatever opens there. If the people don't go, well, it's not going to be."

Podmore's research suggests there are also specific measures that the city, and the LGBTQ community, can take in order to preserve the character of the Village.

Unlike Toronto's The 519, Montreal's Gay Village doesn't have a comprehensive community centre that specifically caters to the LGBTQ community.

A crowd of people are seen from the back, some with multi-coloured Pride flags draped on their backs
Research suggests there are specific measures that the city, and the LGBTQ community, can take in order to preserve the unique character of the Village. (CBC)

A comprehensive community centre, said Podmore, would make the Village a beacon for those migrating from abroad, or rural Quebec, and who have been shunned by their home communities. 

"[Gay] villages represent a kind of hope for many people," she said.

There are also measures the city could take to help the Village counteract some of the negative aspects of gentrification, said Powers.

The City of London, he points out, provides financial support to LGBTQ venues at risk of closing because of high rent.

Montreal officials, for their part, are already taking steps to address the needs of the city's LGBTQ community, having launched a consultation process this spring. 

"Should we open a specific community centre, or invest more in some programs? The consultation will allow us to determine what are the relevant actions the city can take to meet current needs," a city spokesperson said.

'A pro-Village guy' 

The changes the Village has undergone over the last 30 years trigger mixed feelings within the LGBTQ community.

Lussier, for instance, is less suspicious than some of new real-estate development. 

"They're investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the community trying to make us a better place to go," he said.

'It just makes me proud to be able to invite people and show them my Village,' said Lussier. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

But throughout the community is widespread agreement that there is something special about the Village that needs to be preserved. 

"Historically, it was quite a revolutionary space.... [Villages] are really important as heritage sites." said Podmore.

For Powers, the Village provided visibility to queer people, which encouraged greater tolerance for the LGBTQ community as a whole.

And for Lussier, the place where he's worked and lived for decades is an important part of his identity.

"It just makes me proud to be able to invite people and show them my Village," said Lussier. "I'm a pro-Village guy, and I'll always be until the day I die."


Gretel Kahn is a researcher with CBC Montreal.