LGBT
10 min

Montreal’s Sex Garage raid: A watershed moment

How an infamous police raid two decades ago irrevocably changed the nation's gay politics

COME JOIN THE PARTY. A collage of photos from Sex Garage and the party invitation. (Sex Garage © Linda Dawn Hammond / IndyFoto.com‘90)

After-hours parties and police raids are both Montreal traditions, so no one was surprised when Montreal police raided the Sex Garage loft party in Old Montreal on a hot July night in 1990.

When cops couldn’t find any cash behind the bar, they shut the party down anyway. “Everybody out!” they screamed.

So 400 partygoers — mostly gay men, lesbians and drag queens — filed outside like they were told. Some drag queens climbed out the windows and crawled across century-old rooftops to avoid the cops. They were used to it, too. After all, Montreal police had been raiding and harassing gay spaces for decades, only this time no one was going home: Outside stood 16 police cruisers and 40 officers wielding billy clubs.

What no one knew, though, was that history would be made on this morning, ar0und 3am, Jul 15, 1990, and it all began when the cops took off their name tags.

"We were scared when the police got into battalion formation because we knew then that we were going to be beaten,” said Montreal photographer Linda Dawn Hammond, now based in Toronto.

Police herded the crowd, now chanting “Gay Rights Now!” along Boulevarde de la Gauchetiere toward Beaver Hall Hill where another wall of jeering officers stood stroking their night sticks in mock masturbation.

"Suck my cock, faggots!” the cops taunted.

Two sassy partygoers flashed their buttocks, but police only really began beating people after another partygoer, Bruce Buck, returned to the loft to get his leather jacket. Buck never made it back to the loft. He was dragged behind a police cruiser and beaten to a pulp by six officers.

"I was darting in and out taking photographs when an officer came up to me and knocked my legs out from behind,” Hammond remembers. “I was holding my camera chest-level, so they started hitting me there. I didn’t want them to get the film so, as I fell to the ground, I threw my camera at the people running up Beaver Hall Hill and shouted, ‘Grab the camera and run!’"

Eight badly bruised partygoers were arrested and charged with everything from mischief to assaulting a police officer. Hammond’s negatives survived, and her photos made it onto the pages of The Gazette and La Presse the next day. But it took the shocking images of police brutality during peaceful protests over the next two days, however, to finally and irrevocably shake three million Montrealers out of their complacency.

Sex Garage also politicized an entire generation of queer activists who permanently changed the Quebec political landscape. Some of the players that attended Sex Garage are no longer with us and none of them — not even Sex Garage organizer and party-promoter extraordinaire Nicolas Jenkins — ever talked to the media about Montreal’s Stonewall until I came calling some years ago.

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Sex Garage © Linda Dawn Hammond / IndyFoto.com ‘90

THE RISE
 

"I knew there’d be trouble at Sex Garage because there were too many people in an abandoned part of town in the middle of the night,” Nicolas Jenkins told me years later. “I do feel kind of responsible because it was my party."

In fact, the New York-based videographer, born in Peru and the son of diplomats, hasn’t hosted a party since 1994, after he returned to NYC for good. It was in New York in the mid-’80s where Jenkins discovered his knack for organizing parties. He worked at Area, a hugely-popular post-Studio 54 nightclub before moving to Montreal in 1987 where, years later, he was hired as creative director at Montreal’s fabled Station C nightclub.

"I was a club kid,” Jenkins said. “I was really into the early house scene. It wasn’t mainstream yet, so when a friend returned home from London raving about the [UK’s] acid-house and warehouse scene, we decided to throw our first party in my apartment on Rue Mont-Royal. I emptied it, told the neighbours we were hosting a wedding, rented lights and smoke machines and packed the place. There was always a theme — usually centred around sex (Sex Garage was named after a 1972 gay-porno flick) — and I modeled most of my parties on the [multi-media] I’d seen at Area."

Like many gay and lesbian Montrealers at the time, Jenkins despised the ‘80s-era club scene. “Bars avoided playing house music because they didn’t want to attract a black clientele. Business [the legendary St-Laurent Street nightclub by which all Montreal nightclubs are still measured] was playing house, but it was a mostly straight scene."

Montreal’s gay-club scene in the summer of 1990 was just as bad.

"Segregation and puritanism still reigned within Montreal’s lesbian and gay ‘community’,” remembers Montreal journalist Paula Sypnowich, who also attended Sex Garage. “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,” Sypnowich continues. “The cult of the masculine had become revulsion of the feminine, a disheartening attitude in a community so familiar with prejudice. Apparently, we all need somebody to hate. No wonder the most euphoric guests at Sex Garage were the butches, trannies and drag queens who, for once, were exalted rather than reviled."

Ironically, Jenkins points out, gay clubs “hired them later on when they became stars."

Drag queens were staples at Jenkins’ parties. A self-described control freak, Jenkins designed his own party flyers and handpicked whom he handed them to. “One of the reasons my parties were so successful was I managed to mix all sorts of people together. That’s what made it interesting. No one was the same. I had a drag queen next to a muscle queen beside a lesbian standing by a model. There were rich people and there were home boys. We had people who had absolutely no money, but looked fabulous or had the right attitude."

This pre-Internet potent mix drew hundreds via word of mouth by the time Jenkins moved his parties to Old Montreal. The night of Sex Garage, Jenkins explained, he was prepared for all eventualities. “We left the booze [at the bar] out and there was no money on the premises when the cops came. We had a [spotter] on the street keeping an eye out for the police. The cash was always sitting in a bag and someone would just take off with it."

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Sex Garage © Linda Dawn Hammond / IndyFoto.com ‘90 

THE FALL

On the evening of Jul 15, 1990, fewer than 18 hours after the Sex Garage raid, several hundred gays and lesbians staged a sit-in on Ste-Catherine St in the gay village to protest the brutality at the police bust-up. They demanded a public inquiry, that all charges be dropped and that the gay and lesbian communities each hold a seat on the Montreal Urban Community’s minority-relations committee. Everyone went home after being told that then-police chief Alain St-Germain would meet them at downtown Station 25 the next day.

Come the next day, July 16, 1990, “of course, St-Germain wasn’t there,” veteran activist Douglas Buckley-Couvrette, who would die of AIDS in November 2002, told me afterwards.

Douglas, along with CBC journalist David Shannon and Paula Sypnowich, represented over 250 protestors at a “kiss-on” outside Station 25. When their demands were dismissed and they were locked out of the precinct, the protestors demanded to meet with then-mayor Jean Dore, locked arms and occupied the intersection of St-Mathieu and Boulevarde de Maisonneuve.

This time the Montreal media was out in full force and the police, armed with latex gloves and billy clubs, didn’t disappoint.

"I remember seeing reporter Ann Shatilla from CTV Montreal telling her cameraman, ‘Get this! Film that! Over here! Over here!’” says my good friend and veteran activist Michael Hendricks, who has done more for gay civil rights in this country than any judge or politician, including winning his 10-year legal battle to wed his life partner Rene Leboeuf in 2004.

"The cops were practically posing,” Michael remembers. “They took their nightsticks and jabbed protestors in the ribs and balls, and jabbed women in the breasts and pubic area to break their locked arms. That way they could cart them off. One famous picture on the cover of The Gazette shows [protestor] Tara Parkinson being dragged off by her hair by a female police officer. Bystanders were so horrified they were screaming at the police. Then, once inside the station, they were beaten."

Hammond, one of the 48 arrested that day, witnessed more beatings inside the jail cells. “One girl had purple bruises down her arm and another had a boot print on her face."

Then there was Edward Cook, who blew kisses at the police as he was dragged into the station and who screamed in his cell after policed ruptured one of his testicles during a beating. Cook had to wait an hour for an ambulance because police did not want journalists to talk to him.

Buckley-Couvrette was, six hours later, the last protestor to be booked and released. “When I left my cell they took off their boots and belts and I was standing in the middle,” he told me, tears welling in the corners of his eyes. “And they told me to take off my belt and shoes, which I did. I was scared but still pumped an adrenalin. They were just trying to frighten me. It worked."

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Sex Garage © Linda Dawn Hammond / IndyFoto.com ‘90
 

THE LEGACY

Unlike the earlier infamous Montreal police raid on Stanley Street gay bar Truxx in 1977, Sex Garage mobilized an entire community. While it’s true the Truxx raid — Montreal’s “other” Stonewall — forced politicians, in December 1977, to amend the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation (after the Netherlands, just the second jurisdiction in the world to do so), few noticed that Article 137 also voided all same-sex benefits.

"The Truxx raid never changed the attitudes of Montrealers towards gays and lesbians and it certainly didn’t inject pride in the gay community,” Hendricks explains. “That’s why I believe Sex Garage was Montreal’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 and kept parading around the city for another two months."

Hendricks points out LGV was the predecessor of La Table de concertation des gaies et lesbiennes du grand Montreal, the political-action group pivotal in lobbying for the Quebec Human Rights Commission’s historic 1993 public hearings on violence against gays and lesbians.

Later, La Table was also key in lobbying for the 1999 passage of Quebec’s historic Omnibus Bill 32, which extended benefits, pensions and social services to same-sex couples. That also led to Hendricks’ 2004 Quebec Superior Court victory legalizing same-sex marriage in Quebec, a landmark ruling that also forced Ottawa’s hand in the 2005 national debate over same-sex marriage.

Montreal publicist Puelo Deir produced the outdoor-stage show at Montreal’s Parc Lafontaine following LGV’s 1990 march from Montreal City Hall that, in tandem with other Sex Garage fundraisers, helped raise $5,000 to cover lawyer’s fees.

That march also laid the groundwork for Montreal’s Divers/Cite Queer Pride march that Deir co-founded with Suzanne Girard in 1993, a march that in 2007 morphed into the city’s famed eight-day Divers/Cite queer arts and culture festival.

Sex Garage also inspired Bad Boy Club Montreal head honcho Robert Vézina to organize the BBCM’s first Black & Blue circuit party in 1991. “We thought everybody needed a breath of fresh air,” Robert told me years later.

Over the next decade Divers/Cite and Black & Blue would, ironically, transform Montreal into a choice gay tourism destination, pushing Tourisme Montreal to create a gay-tourism template since adopted by tourism authorities worldwide.

But in 1990, this was all unfathomable. Today, Paula Sypnowich remembers how Sex Garage finally blew open more than closet doors.

"The time was ripe for change. A few weeks after Sex Garage, ‘Dykes & Drag Queens’ was held at [the now-defunct club] Jungle, an event where girls were invited to simply show up at the door and see how management reacted. Jungle responded by beefing up security and calling the police who informed the club that they were legally obliged to allow us entry."

Then there’s the little-known fact that Sex Garage changed how Montreal police now deal with demonstrations. “St-Germain announced that, from then on, all peaceful street demonstrations would be tolerated,” Hendricks says.

Criminal charges filed against the protestors — disturbing the peace, refusing to circulate and obstructing a police officer — were dropped in exchange for plea bargains. Those arrested each paid $300 fines. Two police officers, meanwhile, were later disciplined by the force.

"I think Sex Garage really was a watershed moment,” says Nicholas Jenkins. “It turned out to be very positive thing."

"It’s striking how much things have changed 20 years later,” Sypnowich says. “Exclusive bars a rarity, and gay organizations and publications have become increasingly diverse."

It’s important to remember, though, that Sex Garage came with a price, and its repercussions were felt right across Canada.

"I remember once sitting with my mother and I showed her the video of the protests,” Douglas Buckley-Couvrette, voice swelling with emotion, told me years ago. “I said, ‘Do you see what they did to me? Do you see how they beat us?’ I just wanted to explain to my mom that it’s not right to be treated like that just because you’re a homosexual. Now I see we’ve all come a long way."

Moise’s Apples is Richard Burnett’s monthly Xtra.ca column on the history of gay Montreal. Burnett is also Editor-at-Large of Montreal’s Hour magazine where he writes his national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill.

Burnett’s column title — Moise’s Apples — is a reference to the first recorded gay establishment in North America. In 1869 in Old Montreal, men met to have sex at Moise Tellier’s “apples and cake shop."

For more of Linda Dawn Hammond’s Sex Garage photos, visit Dawnone.com/party1.html. Images used on Xtra.ca with permission.