Upon arriving in Montreal, dubbed the Paris of North America by many who’ve visited, queer tourists often dive directly into the Village. And it’s an impressive strip — size queens note how long it is, stretching along Ste Catherine from the Berri metro station all the way east to Papineau. But a good many of the city’s gay citizens don’t actually live in the Village, and recent successes in nightlife ventures have reflected what many Montreal experts know all too well — that the entire city is a little bit queer.
Two organizers of alternative queer events have been overwhelmed by the responses to their ideas, which have outdone even their wildest dreams. For the last three years, François Guimond has organized Mec Plus Ultra, a monthly night catering to a primarily gay crowd, usually held in The Belmont, a mainly straight club situated at 4483 Blvd St Laurent, at Mont-Royal, the heart of the Plateau neighbourhood. Guimond says that one reason for starting Mec Plus Ultra was very basic: “One night I was out with a friend driving around from place to place, and he said, ‘You know, the music in your car is better than the stuff we were hearing in the clubs.’”
Guimond says that when they began Mec Plus Ultra, Belmont management questioned how many people they could pull in. “So they put us on Sundays. But we proved very popular, one of their biggest nights, in fact, so they moved us to Saturdays.” The key? “We hired good DJs, people who would not play top-40 music. No typical club or house music allowed!”
He says they relied on an element of surprise with each night they organized. “One night we brought in an electric bull. People got into riding it. We even tried a religious theme one night; we had an angel going around asking people for their confessions. We got theatrical and interactive, and people liked it.”
Guimond thinks the conventional wisdom about the internet killing queer nightlife is not the case in Montreal. “I think one can complement the other. Now people go out and meet someone and then friend them on Facebook. It’s an easy way of staying in touch and getting to know someone better . . . If anything, the success of Mec Plus Ultra just showed us how eager people were to go out again and connect in person.”
He says he has always remained sensitive to the fact that, while a lot of people go out in groups, many would attend events on their own. “I think a lot of people just weren’t going out for a while, people who felt there weren’t nights that reflected their tastes and sensibilities. We put on some stupid games, like giving people stickers and then they had to find their match with whoever had the corresponding sticker. People liked it because it helped to break the ice and got people talking to each other.”
The past four years have seen the rise of another queer phenomenon, Faggity Ass Fridays. The night wasn’t just a way of reaching out to those who were bored with what was being offered by other clubs; it was started by activists who were astonished by the provincial government’s decision to abandon sex education in classrooms after some deemed the province’s sex ed curriculum too racy. Rather than attempt to explain themselves, the provincial government decided to stop offering sex ed altogether.
Shocked by such a move, a number of activists banded together to create Faggity Ass Fridays, with all proceeds going directly to Head and Hands, a youth organization that created a peer-based sex education program to fill the gap created by the government’s cowardly response to ill-informed opposition.
FAF has become something of an institution in the city. Generally offered the last Friday of every month and currently at the Playhouse (5656 Ave du Parc), the night has featured live musical acts (a rarity in queer circles) as well as guest DJs. Village Voice journalist Michael Musto raved about FAF in his column two years ago after visiting Montreal.
Val Desjardins has been coordinating FAF for almost two years, but she’s looking for another coordinator, as she’s got her hands full. FAF is held on the Plateau and in Mile End, lively neighbourhoods where high-end restaurants, funky gift shops and hipster cafés are interspersed with traditional Jewish, Greek and Portuguese merchants. After seeing the response to FAF, Desjardins decided those neighbourhoods and their queer residents were being underserved. That led her and a posse of friends to launch the Royal Phoenix (5788 Blvd St Laurent), a queer bar, club and restaurant that opened last summer.
The response surprised even the most optimistic, including Desjardins herself. “Wow. We had hopes, of course, but we didn’t see it coming — not like this.” The Royal Phoenix routinely has lineups on weekends, and after only a month Desjardins decided to expand by opening a kitchen, which serves a number of healthy dishes.
“To me, the Royal Phoenix is a reflection of the best things about Montreal,” Desjardins says. “I think it comes back to our European roots. People in Montreal are very emotional. You know, when I go home for Christmas, a family gathering always ends in song and dance. People in the rest of Canada are a bit stiffer. DJs will tell you: people in Montreal are a lot quicker to get up and dance once the music starts playing.”
Desjardins says that the club’s raison d’être, like that of Mec Plus Ultra, was to do something that wasn’t happening before. “We liked the idea of a club where there was a lot of crossover: we have some nights when we play a lot of jazz, other nights fusion, other nights hip hop. And that’s reflected in our clientele; we have a very varied group of people coming in.
“I’m not pretending that Montreal is some kind of utopia. I know it has its problems, but I often feel like the different cultures aren’t clashing here — they’re living together quite well. I feel like that’s what happens at the Royal Phoenix, too.”
Desjardins has kept her management style very democratic. “We have 20 employees, and if they have a good suggestion, I’ll implement it within 24 hours. I listen to the staff. They’re the ones on the floor, working hard. It’s very important for me to have a friendly staff, with everyone knowing they contribute in a valued way to the overall success of the bar.”
Now, Guimond and Desjardins will be combining forces. Guimond is organizing a new night, Audio Porn Club, which will be held on select Saturdays at the Royal Phoenix. “As you can tell by the title, we’re putting an emphasis on offering a different music menu for people who want to go out,” Guimond says. “We’re going to be bringing in international DJs as well as the best Montreal has to offer.”
“Our main goal,” Desjardins says, “is to give people the space they’ve always wanted.”
Montreal’s Trudeau Airport is not served directly by the metro system, but an STM bus (route 747) will take you downtown, 24/7. There’s also a regular bus (route 204) to the Dorval bus/train terminus. A taxi downtown costs a fixed fare of $38 (all prices Canadian). The Aerobus shuttle is an easy and inexpensive option at $16; it leaves every half hour in the daytime and drops you off at the central bus station.
Central Montreal is quite walkable; a stroll from the gay area to the main downtown shopping core takes about 20 minutes. For street addresses, remember to distinguish between “est” and “ouest” (east and west) on major thoroughfares. The metro is clean and reliable, and it operates until about 12:30am. Single fares are $2.75; three-day passes are $14. But one of the best ways to get around is by bike; there are bike paths throughout the city and along the river and canals, and Bixi, Montreal’s public bike-sharing system, has stations on almost every block. Rent a bike for $5 per day from any station and return it to any station.
For map locations and website links to almost 200 area places of interest see our gay Montreal listings pages.