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Critics charge Montreal’s Divers/Cité Festival is abandoning its queer roots

Festival takes over city's Old Port for second year, but director says event is still very gay

In 2012, Montreal's Divers/Cité moved to the Old Port.

After Divers/Cité helped put Montreal on the international gay tourism map in the mid-1990s, is that city’s local gay community giving their famed queer arts and culture festival the finger?

If you believe the growing criticisms on social media, it is.

But the Divers/Cité crew – which organized Montreal’s Pride parade from 1993 to 2006 (when Fierté Montréal Pride took over running all Pride festivities, including the parade) – has long had a love/hate relationship with gay village merchants who always wanted a bigger slice of the pie.

After a 2005 CROP survey reported 76 percent of festival-goers don’t go to the parade and 25 percent of parade-goers don’t attend the rest of the festival, Divers/Cité decided to offload its expensive Pride parade. Critics then accused Divers/Cité of abandoning the queer community, charges that only got louder when the organization moved the festival from the gay village to the Jacques-Cartier Pier in the Old Port in 2012.

“But we knew our time in the gay village was coming to an end,” says Divers/Cité co-founder and director general Suzanne Girard. “The new bus entrance on Berri Street [of Montreal’s redesigned Voyageur bus terminal] is where our [big] stage was located. So we looked at two new sites: the Old Port and Olympic Stadium. The city refused us the Quartier des Spectacles [where the city’s jazz and other festivals are held] six years in a row. ‘We don’t want something like that here.’ Interpret that as you want. Personally, I think they freaked out over what they call ‘naked.’”

So, Girard says, Divers/Cité chose the Old Port. But while Girard says the Old Port – which is managed by the Old Port of Montreal Corporation, a subsidiary of Canada Lands Company, which reports directly to the Harper government – has welcomed Divers/Cité with open arms, the festival last summer had trouble drawing people to its live concerts.

So this year it scrapped all the live entertainment, except for Mado Lamotte’s hugely popular outdoor drag show Mascara: La Nuit des Dragues, which has anchored Divers/Cité for the past 16 years.

Instead, this year Divers/Cité will focus on outdoor superstar-DJ dance events, which have long been the festival’s bread and butter. Another big change this year: Divers/Cité will charge a $15 daily admission to its outdoor site.

But all of this, in addition to the absence of rainbow flags on the site, is fuelling charges that Divers/Cité is again abandoning its gay roots.

Girard is having none of it. “People associate the rainbow flag with gay pride, and while we are not a gay pride organization, we asked the Old Port again this year, but the Old Port is federal land, and they won’t take down their flags so we can put up ours.”

As for Divers/Cité abandoning its gay roots, Girard says, “In French we are called ‘Divers/Cité: la fête gaie de Montreal.’ You can’t get gayer than that. Our moniker is ‘All Together Different’ in English, but we use both of them together. Is Black and Blue not gay because it isn’t held in the gay village? I can go on and on. I think it’s great that we’re making the Old Port gay. Historically, it’s been the gateway to Montreal, and how much do gays and lesbians love uniforms? Our site is gorgeous and the possibilities are endless.”

A lot is riding on good weather, and in case it rains Divers/Cité is spending $25,000 on rain insurance.

Girard estimates that if Divers/Cité draws 10,000 to 12,000 people per day at $15 per head, the extra $500,000 generated can be poured back into the festival to improve the site and programming next year. “We now have 21 years' experience, no accumulated debt, and our budget this year is $1.8 million,” she says. “But we’re [still] very tight financially. We’re still taking risks to solidify the festival further. We want to become more of a dance-performance and dance-music festival and expand until we take over [all of] the Old Port.”

Girard admits overall attendance dipped slightly last year, but, she says, “Beer sales didn’t go down, and this year all of our hotels are booked.”

Will Divers/Cité’s den mother stick around for the festival’s 25th anniversary in 2017?

“I hope I’m here until at least the 25th anniversary,” Girard replies. “But there’s a younger generation coming up, and I’m not afraid to pass on the torch.”