Exploring Gay Montreal
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Few cities in the world embrace their LGBT communities with as much gusto as Montreal. Home to one of North America's most famous gay neighborhoods -- simply known as the Gay Village, or Le Village Gai to the city's predominantly francophone population -- Montreal even marks it as such on its official tourism maps. Canada's second biggest city also hosts a slew of gay-popular annual events and festivals, and was the site of the first-ever World Outgames (a preeminent global LGBT sporting event) in 2006.
Montreal's long gay history dates all the way back to 1869, when one Moise Tellier ran a shop on what's now Saint Antoine Street selling apples and cakes -- but more legendarily was a place for gay gentlemen to rendezvous. A century later in the Stonewall era, most of Montreal's gay life was clustered at the city center along Saint Laurent Boulevard. The 1970s and '80s saw LGBT establishments move eastward en masse, creating today's Gay Village in the mile-or-so stretch of Saint Catherine Street (or Rue Sainte-Catherine) between Berri and Papineau Streets. Here, scores of bars, clubs, shops and restaurants catering to the city's large and diverse LGBT community have been thriving for decades.
While it's active year-round, summertime brings the Village to full life. During the neighborhood's Aires Libres art event from May to September, a 12-block stretch of Saint Catherine between Saint Hubert and Papineau is closed to traffic and transformed into a pedestrian-only zone. Just to ensure ultimate gaiety, some 200,000 little pink balls are strung directly above the street, creating an ever-present pink explosion overhead.
The Village prides itself on offering venues for every shade of the gay rainbow. At the top of Saint Catherine Street is Le Stud, perennially popular with the city's leather/Levi and bear (read: generally hairier and less image-conscious) crowds. At the bottom end of the Village are Circus and Stereo, both mixed gay/straight after-hours dance dens that rank on DJ Magazine's list of the Top 100 clubs in the world. Located along Saint Catherine Street are longtime Village favorites like Cabaret Mado, helmed by beloved local drag entertainer Mado; Sky, a sprawling 3-level complex that overflows on weekends, and during summer months sports its own rooftop terrace, pool and spa; and Stock Bar, one of Montreal's many popular male strip clubs, where -- as per the city's rather relaxed guidelines on such matters -- the performers disrobe completely.
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Like any neighborhood, the Village is constantly evolving -- but the recent sudden closures of 2 longtime Village mainstays (lesbian club Drugstore and gay megastore Priape) still stunned the local LGBT community. "It's unfortunate to see these closures, but I remain confident that the Village will continue strong," says Tanya Churchmuch, Montreal's assistant director of tourism. "The opening of Appollon nightclub in the former Station C complex is an excellent and popular addition to the neighborhood, and newer restaurants like Steak Frites and De Farine et d’Eau Fraîche are also doing very well."
Meanwhile, Montreal's spectrum of gay life continues to expand beyond the cozy confines of the Village, especially westward to the up-and-coming Mile End and adjacent Mile-Ex neighborhoods -- the latter formerly a desolate industrial area between Mile End and the Parc Extension district. Here a more alternative and self-identified "queer" scene has mingled with the area's already-established creative class. The blend makes for socializing that's anything but dull, at quirky establishments like Notre-Dame des Quilles, a dive bar with its own half-size bowling lanes; and Alexandraplatz, a hip German-like beer garden set in a working brewery complex. Mile End is also home to the always lively Royal Phoenix, now the city's main lesbian hangout -- which also attracts a wide variety of modern gays, and a fair number of straight folks, too.
With such an active gay scene citywide, it's no surprise that Montreal's LGBT community plays a big part in its famed annual festival line-up. The city hosts not 1 but 2 major week-long gay-specific events: the Divers/Cité arts and music festival at the end of July, and the massive Montreal Pride (Fierté Montréal) just a few weeks later in mid-August. In late August comes the naughtier Montreal Fetish Weekend, while October brings the world famous Black & Blue party, and the Image+Nation LGBT film festival happens at the end of November. Many of the city's most popular mainstream events and festivals also have strong gay presences, including the dance- and theater-focused Festival TransAmériques in May and June, the Piknic Electronik summer Sunday daytime dance parties at Parc Jean-Drapeau, the Just for Laughs comedy festival in July, and the Osheaga music festival in early August.
For the latest info on gay Montreal, check out the website of the long-running LGBT monthly magazine Fugues (in French only), and the dedicated LGBT section of Montreal's official tourism portal.