The debate over 'de-gaying' Montreal's Village

A group of local merchants wants to drop the word "gay" from the Gay Village, arguing it will make the neighbourhood and its businesses more inclusive.

Merchants say it would broaden appeal to 2SLGBTQ+

An ethnographic study commissioned by the Village's merchants' association shows some people avoid the Montreal neighbourhood because they feel excluded or unsafe. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC)

When he first arrived in Montreal to study nursing, Kelly Zanth said the Gay Village's vibrant character moved him.

"I saw colours and flags and amazing gayness that inspired me," he said.

But the neighbourhood that introduced him to Montreal nightlife might take on a new identity.

A group of local merchants is campaigning to change the Gay Village's name to "Montreal's Village" or just "the Village," a common nickname for the neighbourhood just east of downtown.

In social media posts published Wednesday, the Montreal Village Business Development Corporation (SDC) cited the widespread use of the term 2SLGBTQ+ as one of the main reasons behind the push.

Lee-Anne Millaire Lafleur, a board member of the local business development group, says she wants the neighbourhood's name to reflect more members of marginalized communities. (Chloë Ranaldi/CBC)

Lee-Anne Millaire Lafleur, who is on the board of the SDC, said removing the word "gay" wouldn't erase the neighbourhood's historic relationship with the community.

"We're not discriminating against anyone that associates themselves with gay," she said. "It's for sure part of the community. We're just trying to include the rest of the people that don't feel that the word is associated with them."

An ethnographic study commissioned by the merchants' association in July 2020 showed that one of the main reasons people don't visit the neighbourhood is because they feel excluded and unsafe.

The report suggests businesses in the neighbourhood should strengthen relationships with LGBTQ+ residents and community groups to revitalize the village's identity.

"The word gay represented a lot of people that today may not still find themselves represented by that one term," Lafleur said.

The movement to 'de-gay'

Julie Podmore, a professor and chair of geosciences at John Abbott College, says she's skeptical about whether a name change will bring about inclusivity.

"There's a real tension between a desire to mainstream, to increase the number of commercial establishments and open it to everyone to make [the neighbourhood] viable, and that's been going on since the 1990s," Podmore said.

Kelly Zanth says changing the Gay Village's name may cause the neighbourhood to lose sight of the community it protected. (Chloë Ranaldi/CBC)

Removing references to the gay community, she says, may exacerbate the de-gaying of the neighbourhood, a growing problem found in districts across North America catering specifically to the gay community.

"Erasing the word gay makes it more accessible to all."

With most bars in the neighbourhood operated by — and tailored to — gay men, Podmore says a name-change alone isn't likely to drastically expand clientele.

"What makes a difference is what actually happens [in the Village] and the activities that are located there, how people feel if their presence is welcome or not."

Zanth worries a name change could signal a deeper shift.

"Having the Gay Village, we knew that it was the gay safe space," Zanth said. "That's what I think we're losing if we change the name."

with files from Chloë Ranaldi and CBC Montreal's Daybreak