Sex Garage was the name of a risqué Gay loft party (underground after hours dance event) in Montréal. The name also became synonymous with Gay Liberation in Québec when, in 1990, the police raided Sex Garage and brutalized four hundred of its attendees on camera. The Sex Garage raid is considered by some to be Quebec’s Stonewall moment, an important turning point that led to civil unrest, gave greater visibility for the LGBTQ community, and generated a rallying point for Gay activists.
LGBTQ Activism before Sex Garage
Consensual sex between two adults of the same sex became legal in Canada in 1969. In 1977, Québec became the first jurisdiction in Canada to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (Canada’s federal government took twenty additional years to do the same). An October 1977 police raid on Truxx and Le Mystique, Gay bars on Stanley Street in Montréal (known as “the Truxx raid”), was one catalyst. Activist organizations and community coalitions successfully pursued an agenda focused on respect for human rights and the achievement of equality. There were also several high profile, openly-Gay politicians at the provincial and federal levels (notably André Boulerice and Réal Ménard) whose work contributed to these struggles.
In the 1980s and 1990s, AIDS was a focus for community organizing in Montréal, and well-known organizations such as AIDS Community Care Montréal (ACCM) and Action Séro Zéro (also known as RÉZO) were founded. But along with AIDS came violence against Gay people, a phenomenon that occurred worldwide. Police and skinhead violence towards LGBTQ people was a significant problem in Montréal in the early 1990s, and several key incidents spurred a new wave of activism. Between 1989 and 1993, thirteen Gay men were murdered in the city, most notably Gay activist Joe Rose, who was beaten to death on a city bus in April 1989. Many of the murders, including Rose’s, were linked to White supremacist gangs.
Sex Garage and LGBTQ Unity
At the time of the Sex Garage raid, Montréal was a city with strong separatist politics that not only alienated Straights from Gays, but French speakers from English speakers, Lesbians from Gay men, and Gay men from the Trans community. The Sex Garage parties, however, were egalitarian, underground, and illegal. Sex Garage glorified the most scandalous and outrageous participants by making them stars for the night. In “Montréal’s Sex Garage Raid: A Watershed Moment,” Richard Burnett quotes Paula Sypnowich, a Sex Garage attendee, who described the social environment that Sex Garage purposefully sought to undermine:
Gays and lesbians had segregated bars, and drag queens, butches and trannies weren’t welcome anywhere but their own respective clubhouses, when they had any. Lesbians insisted on maintaining women-only spaces and the pressure of how one was supposed to look as a lesbian was more restrictive than any aesthetic standards imposed on women in the straight world. Every time I wore a dress in a lesbian bar I was treated as a traitor. Gay-male establishments were even more exclusionary, barring women, drag queens and trannies. The original KOX [club] even had an image of Queen Elizabeth with a red bar across her face, by way of saying, ‘No queens.’ Neither was anything that hinted at the feminine permitted, like cologne or long hair. The cult of the masculine had become revulsion of the feminine… No wonder the most euphoric guests at Sex Garage were the butches, trannies and drag queens who, for once, were exalted rather than reviled.
The Raid, the Protests, and the Media
Tensions with police made news when authorities used excessive violence in shutting down Sex Garage the early-morning hours of July 15, 1990. Images that circulated around the globe showed 400 primarily Gay male, Lesbian, and Trans people being taunted, brutalized, and arrested while trying to leave the party.
Already suffering from skinhead attacks that would continue for yet another three years, the Gay community had had enough. Community members fought back, both the night of the raid and in massive protests held in the ensuing days. The day after the arrests, even more violence erupted as seventy riot police attacked 200 peaceful protesters, once again documented in the media. Police brutality in both instances galvanized community resolve and a sense of self-affirmation. Gay activists called for the police to find those who were murdering Gay men in the city rather than continually oppress the LGBTQ community.
Several of those involved went on to reinvent Montréal’s approach to Gay Pride when they founded the Divers/Cité festival in 1993. That same year, the Québec Human Rights Commission held public consultations on violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people, leading to the 1994 publication of a report entitled “De l’illégalité à l’égalité” (“From illegality to equality”). The report outlined numerous recommendations aimed at various government and social sectors, many of which were gradually implemented.
Sex Garage is considered Montreal’s equivalent of the Stonewall Uprising. Although prohibition of discrimination on the basis of homosexuality had been accomplished over a decade earlier in part as an outcome of the Truxx raid, it did not lead to the same public outcry as the Sex Garage raid. Burnett quotes activist Michael Hendricks:
The Truxx raid never changed the attitudes of Montréalers towards gays and lesbians and it certainly didn’t inject pride in the gay community. That’s why I believe Sex Garage was Montréal’s Stonewall. It created community and brought us together in a common front. It also brought English and French together. We founded a group called Lesbians and Gays against Violence [LGV] and kept parading around the city for another two months.
Similarities between Sex Garage (1990) and Stonewall (1969) include the underground nature of both Sex Garage and the Stonewall Inn as festive venues for social misfits, police violence against Gays that led to civil unrest, and a protest march that would become a massive public celebration. The differences, however, reveal a pattern similar to that which unfolded in Toronto with the infamous Bathhouse Raids in 1981 where four Gay men’s bathhouses were raided, vandalized, and customers handcuffed outside the establishments (many of them only wearing towels) in freezing weather while officers insulted them.
Toronto and Montréal’s riots occurred years after Stonewall, in conditions that were not as obviously homophobic as those in 1969 Greenwich Village. Gay identity in Toronto and in Montréal during their respective times of civil unrest (1982 and 1990) was not technically sufficient to get a bar closed or a person arrested, but unorthodox sexual expression, even if carried out in private among consenting adults, was considered sufficient cause. The brutality perpetrated against Gay people in both cases and, in Montréal, in the shadow of unknown murderers in the streets that police had yet to catch, was too much for both Straight and LGBTQ citizens in both cities. Any squeamishness on the part of the general public concerning bathhouses and underground sex-suggestive parties was eclipsed by the homophobia and violence displayed by the police.
Burnett, Richard. “Montréal’s Sex Garage Raid: A Watershed Moment.” http://www.xtra.ca/public/National/Montreals_Sex_Garage_raid_A_watershed_moment-7735.aspx, March 6, 2010.
Gouvernement du Québec. 2009. Ministère de la Justice. Quebec Policy against homophobia.
http://www.justice.gouv.qc.ca/english/publications/rapports/pdf/homophobie-a.pdf. March 28, 2010.
Higgins, Ross. 1983. Du poulailler au poste de police : pour une histoire gaie de Montréal. Sortie (Montréal) 6: 7.
Remiggi, F. W. 1998. Le Village gai de Montréal : entre le ghetto et l’espace identitaire. In Sortir de l’ombre : histoires des communautés lesbienne et gaie de Montréal, ed. F. W. Remiggi and I. Demczuk. Montréal : VLB éditeur.
Warner, Tom. 2002. Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada.
Toronto: University of Toronto, 2002.