Black & Blue is a large-scale dance party in Montréal held on the Sunday of Canadian Thanksgiving Weekend. The event marks the end of the week-long Black & Blue Festival, which is sponsored by the Bad Boy Club Montréal (BBCM), an organization that produces dance events and raises money for AIDS-related charities. In Circuit folklife (large-scale dance parties for Gay men and their allies held in major cities around the world), Black & Blue has been one of the most renowned events on the annual calendar.
The Black & Blue Festival began in 1991, at the height of the AIDS epidemic and at a moment when the city of Montréal was just beginning to recover from the severe economic recession of the 1980s. BBCM was started by a group of friends who wanted to gather for an unorthodox all-night dance party. Within a few years, the party had grown into a full week of events, inspiring BBCM to sponsor other parties throughout the year. Although the high cost of the tickets and the focus on electronic music meant that these parties initially catered to a mostly middle-class, White Gay male audience, their success soon attracted a more diverse crowd, including Straight men and women.
The event quickly became very popular amongst Montréalers and gave the city of Montréal international visibility with LGBTQ communities everywhere. Black & Blue helped establish the reputation of Montréal (and in some measure, of Québec and Canada) as Gay-friendly and safe. At the beginning of the new millennium, the main event attracted more than 20,000 people (and the whole festival about 75,000) from around the world.
City of Festivals
The festival structure of the event allows for inclusive programming over the course of a full week, which has led the BBCM to forge numerous partnerships with various commercial and community institutions. While the main parties, including the Jock, Leather, and Military Balls, cater more to various masculine clothes-coded erotic fantasies, other smaller venues host nights that are centered less around dress codes and more about attracting visitors looking for a more intimate setting.
Although these commercial dance parties constitute the main attraction of the Black & Blue Festival, many other activities are scheduled: art exhibitions, conferences on various topics related to the Gay community (health, tourism, etc.), brunches and cocktails, and sport events. The festival status of the Black & Blue has also helped the city of Montréal to position itself as a city of festivals. The municipal Office of Tourism has made the festival visible, announcing it long in advance on lampposts and other city advertisements, and positioning the Black & Blue alongside important festivals like the Montréal International Jazz Festival, the Francofolies, and the Montréal Highlights Festival.
While the smaller parties associated with Black & Blue are held in venues such as bars and concert halls, the main event has traveled from space to space. It typically alternates between the Olympic Stadium and the Convention Center. Not only do these venues attract visitors, but they also hold a mystique for the people of Montréal. This is especially true for the Olympic Stadium, a symbol of the financial failure of the 1976 Summer Olympics that took decades to pay off, only to be left largely unoccupied and unused.
With its iconic slanted tower and ribbed disc-shaped structure, the beautifully designed stadium has nonetheless been a source of pride for the city. Walking through the massive halls of the stadium in the middle of the night to dance with thousands of people is an added special effect to the evening.
Giant AIDS Ribbon
Black & Blue is famous for doing things in a grand manner, including the construction in 2006 of the front of a life-size jet airliner in the Olympic Stadium as the stage for shows that went on during the evening. One of the most memorable moments was in 2000, when over 25,000 red candles were lit on the center field of the Olympic Stadium. The candles formed the shape of a giant red AIDS ribbon, surrounded by thousands of glittering white candles that reflected on the roof of the stadium. All the participants went through the field of candles on their way to the dance floor, a walking meditation to remember those who had passed away, and the chance to have a very intimate experience before entering the main area of the party. As the night went by, people had access to the bleachers above the ribbon as a place to rest, listen to the solemn recorded music (featuring Dead Can Dance), and see the white candles burn out one by one, leaving the red ribbon to stand alone the next morning.
There are Circuit events with themes that encourage certain forms of dress, including Jock (athletic gear), Leather (chrome, denim, and black leather outfits associated with the Leather community), and Military (most often camouflage-colored outfits). Some events have been costume balls, such as Halloween’s In New Orleans and the Columbus Red Party, while others encourage specific colors such as the White Parties in Miami and Palm Springs, Blue Ball in Philadelphia, and Purple Party in Dallas. For Black & Blue, the colors in its name constitute the informal dress code for the main event. In addition, the organizers have made an effort to find a yearly theme that can also be worked into an attendee’s overall appearance.
The clothing worn by the people of Montréal for Black & Blue constitutes a folkway in itself. From basic to extravagant, revelers dress in danceable outfits chosen specifically for that one night a year.
The Bad Boy Club Montréal promotes harm reduction, a strategy that privileges education and assistance over criminalization with regards to recreational drugs, and coined the phrase “The Party Needs You” (in both English and French: “Pour que le party soit réussi, on a besoin de toi”), a reminder to participants that they behave responsibly and look out for each other. Information is made available about the effects of recreational drugs and possible complications that could result when partiers mix them with HIV medications. Posters with well-built men and drag queens using sex appeal and humor also carry the harm reduction message. In addition to having teams of medical volunteers for each event, there have also been BBCM-sanctioned forums in which health professionals have given presentations on topics dealing with the health and safety of participants.
Caroline Rousse of the BBCM described the group’s dedication to harm reduction (October 2007):
In the early days of the BBCM, the organizers realized that they should do some prevention… We sat down with the doctors who handled our infirmary at our events, as they do research on recreational drugs and their effects, in order to produce a prevention booklet. Together, we pinned down the various drugs that we should talk about and wrote the booklet. We also decided to work on the production of posters to be put up at our events. Not wanting to condemn or condone drug abuse, we wanted mostly to give our participants the information that they needed before they actually decide to take drugs. Our posters were humorous but gave out good information … something that works! … The booklet was also printed in order to be given out at the events to all of our participants… We did get requests from schools, other promoters and club owners to get some copies of our booklet… We even had requests from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to get our information, as they also organize symposiums on drugs and wanted to see the most updated information on recreational drugs. Our goal is mostly to make sure that people take their responsibilities seriously and that if they choose to take drugs, they at least know the dangers and know what not to mix, for instance. In a way, we feel that our government should definitely do more prevention… This information should be available in high schools and also should be given to parents. We feel that people only talk about drugs to condemn their use or to say how many dealers were arrested, but we should be more open to discuss the real picture: who takes drugs, why, how can we talk about it, etc.
Since 1995, a group of volunteer performers came together to put on shows for BBCM events, including Black & Blue. They formed the BBCM Dancers, who dedicate their performances to AIDS treatment and prevention. Before every performance, they offer this prayer:
Hommes et femmes
Séropositifs et séronegatifs
Gens de tous les métiers
Sommes unis à la mémoire de ceux qui sont disparus
Et pour le courage de ceux qui poursuivent le combat
Men and Women
Gay, straight, bi
Seropositive and seronegative
From all walks of life
Join together to remember those who are gone
And to offer support to those who continue the fight
Heitz, David. “Men Behaving Badly.” The Advocate, July 8, 1997, pp. 26-29.
Higgins R. Du poulailler au poste de police : pour une histoire gaie de Montréal. Sortie, no. 6, p. 7, 1983.
Weems, Mickey. The Fierce Tribe: Masculine Identity and Performance in the Circuit. Logan, UT: Utah State University, 2008.