This piece originally appeared in the Windy City Times.
Pedestrians mingle through the streets, speaking a combination of English and French. Bars, clubs, restaurants and stores are numerous up and down the street, offering everything from bookstores to the gay leather clubs.
The scent of early autumn is in the air, and the weather is crisp but comfortable. This is the gay village, or Le Village, in Montreal.
Those who come here are quick to give reasons as why.
“It’s very different. Even though [ Le Village has ] such a large population, you still feel you’re in a tight-knit population,” said Jesse Corcoron, 24, a Montreal resident.
With offerings from both American and French cultures, the gay village in Montreal gives a unique experience and its history is just as unique as its culture.
The LGBT population in Montreal is between 400,000 and 500,000 people, according to gay journalist Richard Burnett. This thriving population has not always been the case though, Burnett explained.
“Gay life has been very underground in Montreal for the better part of the city’s history,” said Burnett. “The first executioner of Montreal was a gay man. He was caught having sex with another soldier and he was sentenced to death. His sentence would be commuted if he accepted the job of executioner of the colony, which he did. Gay life has improved radically since then.”
By the second half of the 20th century, a gay culture had established itself in downtown Montreal, though by the 1980s it had moved to its current location on St. Catherine Street, Burnett said.
“Right up until the mid ’70s, there were still regular police raids on gay clubs and establishments when the village was downtown. The belief is now that they were done systematically to force these clubs to move east so that they would not be in view of tourists coming to Montreal for the 1976 Olympics,” Burnett said.
“I moved here in 1964, and most of the gay pubs or clubs or that was much more past Center Town. Different clubs started opening [ on St. Catherine Street ] . It was not only in the clubs, but many people were moving into this area,” said Gilles Provost, 71, a retired director.
Montreal had what is considered its equivalent to the American Stonewall Riots in the summer of 1990, at the Sex Garage loft.
The Stonewall riots, which happened in San Francisco in 1969, caused the birth of the Gay Pride parades celebrated around the nation.
According to Burnett, Sex Garage forced the community to work together, breaking down walls between French and Canadian culture as well as gender lines, resulting in drag queens being fully accepted into the community.
” [ Sex Garage ] , directly or indirectly, created a lot of the politics that surrounded the village, created committees and conferences against violence. That one event, it totally politicized the community, English and French,” Burnett said.
The neighborhood has become a solid part of the Montreal community. The metro train even has a specific stop named “Le Village,” and the station house has rainbow pillars outside of it.
Alexa Larocque, 19, a student who has been coming to le village for years, commented, “There’s more people, there’s more activity, there’s more clubs and restaurants—and it’s getting expansion.”
According to Corcoron, French-Canadian culture plays a part in how people interact: “We have such a cultural undertone in how the French Canadian work, network, socialize within the gay community. They do keep their friends and their relationships closer to heart than I find in other gay communities which can be very distant, very career-oriented.”
Corcoron, who has been to gay neighborhoods in the United States, said the feel of the neighborhood is more laid-back and welcoming than gay neighborhoods in other areas.
“People are far more there to lend a helping hand, or support you, especially if you are one of the unfortunate people who are living in families that don’t necessarily support your sexual orientation,” Corcoron said.