The Roots of Divers/Cite
It’s coming up that time of year again: Divers/Cite, Montreal’s “LBGTA” pride event.
As some know, but too many do not, Pride in Montreal takes place later than in most North American cities, commemorating as it does not Stonewall, but Sexgarage, an after-hours party that was subject to a violent police raid in 1990. A raid that was followed by a queer protest against police brutality which would itself then be violently attacked by the police
Or as party-goer – and photographer – Linda Hammond recalls:
On the evening of Saturday, July 14th, 1990, a party attended by over 400 people in the warehouse district of Old Montreal became the scene of a violent police attack on its patrons. The incident sparked a chain of events which changed the face of Montreal gay politics and greatly affected the lives of those involved. The party was called SEXGARAGE, and the incident became regarded as the Stonewall of Montreal.
(Rather than give a play by play of the party, i’ll just direct you all to Hammond’s site – an excellent historical document of Montreal police homophobia and brutality, full of pictures – you have to click on the images, including the entry ticket, to see the display.)
As i mentioned above, the violent police raid provoked a peaceful “love in” against police brutality… which was itself attacked by cops from Station 25 (which at that time was where the C.O. Sud is today), who of course showed their homo-sensitivity by putting on rubber gloves before the fun began.
Summer of 90: police glove up before beating queer protesters in front of Station 25
Forty four people were arrested, countless more hurt. As one self-identified “heterosexual onlooker” wrote in to a local entertainment paper after the attack:
I saw a policeman push a woman across her breasts with his riot stick. I saw a policeman jab a young man in the groin with his riot stick. I saw another officer wear a grin of joy, as he grabbed a young man by his belt, clearly inflicting pain… These people needed protection from the police!(Letter to the Editor, Montreal Mirror July 26 – Aug 9 1990)
But this show of brutality was not really a show of strength, and if the hope had been to intimidate the new generation of queer activists… well let’s just say it didn’t…
Doesn’t power always looks the same when it has lost? Looking back at police actions that summer, it is clear that there was no plan, there was no strategy, and there was no real question of the queer community not “winning”, all that was needed was the will to win. And for once, that there certainly was. (As to how much more could have been won, that’s another story…)
A few days after the “love in” was attacked by Station 25, hundreds marched through the streets. Again and again, the link was made between police violence against queers and the police killings of Black youth in Montreal, and the ongoing repression of the First Nations. This was not “single issue”, this was not “single community”, and in the minds of those who marched with their signs against homophobia and taunted cops with their boxes from dunkin donuts, this was not a parade.
Now the police did not attack, which in retrospect can be read as “the police backed down”.
Then again, a week later, on Sunday July 29th it was not hundreds but thousands of queers and supporters who marched through downtown Montreal, in what has since been commemorated every year as “Divers/Cite”.
Sunday July 30th, 1990: not a parade, it was a demonstration
In terms roughly like what i have just recounted, the “summer of 90” has been described before. It’s a story that gets surprisingly little play from the official Divers/Cite organizers, but it’s not unknown, or inaccessible, and there’s usually an article in a local newspaper or two around this time of year filling people in on the colourful history. Which is good.
But it all gives rise to two questions.
The most obvious: what the fuck happened since? It’s been a long time now that Divers/Cite has been a parade more akin to St-Patrick’s Day than a demonstration against oppression or police brutality. Indeed, a few years ago parade organizers welcomed former police chief Duchesneau to march with them (he was “shot” with waterguns full of red dye by some radicals who remembered the police murders and brutality that had occurred on his watch), and then the organizers actually had the police intervene to throw out a tiny contingent of queer anarchists. Like other corporate tourtisty events, Divers/Cite is now an excuse for the police to clamp down on homeless kids and sex workers who might spoil the sanitized atmosphere… or as the organizers of this year’s radical queer “Pervers/Cite” event put it, Divers/Cite has become “white, mainstream and corporate”, a far cry from what it was when it began.
And of course: this is not a Montreal phenomenon, but one which spans North America, as “Pride” events are generally corporate events, with little connection to or input from radicals or the oppressed.
For the moment, i’m not going to delve into that question, though i certainly think it’s a problem worth pondering. (For those interested in resisting this trend, i encourage you to attend the Pervers/Cite demonstration on Sunday: it’s meant to highlight the politics and solidarity which are absent from the official celebrations, and as a demonstration wil attempt to join the parade… people are all to meet at de Lorimier and Ontario at 11:30am, we’re leaving at noon sharp…)
But again, that question, the “selling out” of pride is not what i’m going to go on about.
What i do want to ask, as it is rarely if ever discussed, is why did people fight back in 1990?
As i mentioned above, the police had no “master plan”, beating up gay kids was not a “strategic priority” so much as a fun pastime, and when push came to shove and people shoved back, and then shoved back some more, the cops quickly made nice. Their priority (not entirely unrelated to question-#1-which-i-shall-not-ponder!) at that point was getting a handle on the movement, identifying reasonable spokespeople (generally spokesmen) and “making sure this doesn’t happen again”. & by “this” different people certainly felt entitled to understand different things…
So what made 1990 different was not the police, or the powers that be. It was the hundreds of people who showed up at the “kiss in” at Station 25 just days after the first police attack of Sexgarage, and got beaten and arrested for their trouble. More importantly, it was the hundreds more who showed up to march through the streets just days later, despite the threat of violence. And the thousands a week after that.
Again with hindsight, one must wonder how much further things could have gone, had the envelope been pushed, had the tendencies towards solidarity been stronger… but i digress… and it certainly was better than what we generally see… my point is that all it took to win was the desire to win, and the willingness to fight back.
So again: why did people fight back in 1990?
Queer Crisis / Colonial Crisis: The Journal de Montreal July 17th 1990
Two factors coincided to allow people to fight back that July.
First, 1990 was the summer of the so-called “Oka Crisis”. This is not the place to go into details, but in a nutshell, the Mohawk Nation (which holds territory around Montreal) was engaged in one of the most intense standoffs with Canadian colonialism in the 20th century. In Kanehsatake not an hour away, an entire community was resisting the State (the Canadian Army would be called in a month later). The Mercier bridge between Montreal and the south shore had been seized by warriors who, day after day, night after night, confronted racist mobs and police.
Racism was at a fever pitch in Montreal, and yet amongst those who identified – no matter how vicariously or unrealistically – with the Indigenous struggle against the State, it was a time of intense hope. As one comrade – who had been a politically active anarchist for years – confided in me, this was the first time he had ever seen the possibility of armed revolution in Canada.
It is important to keep this in mind, because i think it’s really central to what felt possible at that point. There is a tendency, i know, to separate struggles, and to look with skepticism for attempts to harness the energies of one people’s tradition to another people’s benefit – a kind of “political appropriation” – and this makes sense because people do rip off other people’s struggles, generally to the advantage of whomever is least oppressed. But that’s not what i’m talking about here – rather, what i’m referring to is something organic, unorchestrated, and fundamentally healthy which occurs when people see others fighting back and come to understand that this is a possibility for them too.
Nor was this all on the level of the abstract or the sub-conscious – at the time too some people wondered at the timing. Linda Hammond suggests that one reason Montreal cops may have been in need of some “beat that dyke” excitement may have been their feelings of being left out, as they “couldn’t get the Indians”. After the Station 25 attack the Journal de Montreal ran a side-by-side spread of photos of the queer fightback and the Mohawk resistance (see above). Many of the same activists who were involved in organizing against the police attacks were also involved in organizing in support of the Mohawk Nation, days being divided between both campaigns as best they could. Statements against racism and in support of the Mohawk struggle were made at both the July 22nd and 29th demonstrations against police homophobia – and many were those queers who missed that historic demonstration on the 29th because we had trekked to the rally held that day just outside Oka against Canadian colonialism.
All of which should not be overstated. What i’m describing is not cause and effect, rather a very meaningful coincidence. And any honest observer has to note that the trajectories of the Mohawk Nation and canadian queers over the next seventeen years could not be more different, with the latter being promised acceptance as the court jesters of the hetero-patriarchy and the latter continuing to be buffeted by the kind of economic and political exclusion capitalism reserves for its internal colonies… but again, i digress..
Montreal Daily News, sometime that week in March ’89
There is a second, more overt, set of events which also did their part to foment the initial queer fightback in 1990.
On March 19th 1989 a young gay man living with AIDS, Joe Rose, was murdered on a Montreal city bus. The details quickly circulated amongst his friends, and got picked up by the media:
According to his companion, when Rose tried to leave the bus at Frontenac Metro station, the group surrounded him.
“They pulled off his hat,” he said.
“They were chanting ‘faggot, faggot’.”
Rose’s lover, who asked to be identified as Daniel told the Daly News details of the grisly crime circulated quickly in the gay community.
“They were playing football with him,” Daniel said.
“They were throwing him back and forth, knifing him in the abdomen. When they finished their business he [Rose] walked three steps and collapsed.
“While he was lying there in the fetal position the group moved in and kicked him. They kicked him at least 50 times.”(Montreal Daily News, March 21st 1989)
Rose had been working on getting a hospice opened for PWAs, and had been thinking of starting a PWA magazine. He and many of his friends were part of a continent-wide wave of queer activism around AIDS, and within days of his murder there was a quickly-organized rally in downtown Montreal, and that same week several dozen people met in the space above the anarchist Alternative Bookstore and founded Reaction Sida, the idea being that this group could both act against street violence and politically to bring attention to the ongoing AIDS calamity.
It was a coming together of many different people from many different scenes – feminist dykes and gay men, anglophones and francophones, mainly but not only quite young… most from Montreal, but some who would travel back and forth to New York City where they were already active with ACT UP. As well as more than a few anarchists, as in the late 80s queer and AIDS-related campaigns seemed the closest thing in many of our lives to a mass movement with radical politics.
Reaction Sida did not last long, but before it faded it got to tag along as AIDS Action Now, ACT UP New York and hundreds of AIDS activists from across the continent descended on Montreal for the Fifth International AIDS Conference which luck had happening in Montreal that summer. In many ways it was a perfect match: the out of town activists had knowledge, experience, and undeniable legitimacy as they had often built real fighting organizations in their own cities. What Reaction Sida lacked in AIDS-related experience it made up for in local legitimacy and contacts, and so (with the hiccups and clashes that are par for the course in such situations) the match was consummated… and the protests were incredibly empowering.
The 5th IAC: AIDS activist crash the party?
AIDS activists are the party!
The International AIDS Conference was an event of the World Health Organization, and as you would expect was a top-down affair meant for professionals – doctors, politicians, researchers – with people living with AIDS and organizing around their illness hardly on the agenda. Indeed, the infamous $500 entrance fee was almost guaranteed to keep things that way.
From the beginning members of ACT UP, AAN and Reaction Sida took matters into their own hands. Storming the opening session, they confronted conference organizers with the choice of either calling the cops to arrest the demonstrators, or allowing them to stay. Calling the cops would have been a public relations disaster, and so the activists held the floor for an hour, chanting slogans and reading a ten point manifesto demanding an international code of rights for people infected with HIV, international standardisation of the criteria for approving drugs and treatments in order to speed up worldwide access to new therapies and guaranteed access to approved and experimental drugs and treatments and the right to confidential and anonymous testing for infection with HIV. The Mulroney government in particular was attacked for its lackadaisical approach towards the plague.
I’ll never forget the sight of our ragtag group of 300 protesters brushing past the security guards in the lobby of the Palais de Congress, the fleet of “Silence=Death” posters gliding up the escalator to the opening ceremony or our chants thundering throughout the cavernous hall. There we were, the uninvited guests, taking our rightful place at the heart of the conference. And when PWA Tim McCaskell grabbed the microphone and “officially” opened the conference “on behalf of people with AIDS from Canada and around the world,” even the scientists stood and cheered.
But it was only when we refused to leave the auditorium and instead parked ourselves in the VIP section that the crowd realized that our action was more than just a symbolic protest. Despite threats and rumors of a potential “international incident,” we remained in our seats, alternately chanting and cheering, and giving notice that PWAs were “inside” the conference to stay. From that point on in the crisis, researchers would have to make extra room at the table for PWAs and their advocates.(POZ, July 1998)
Indeed, conference organizers at first offered 200 free passes to PWAs, and then simply said that any self-identified PWA could attend for free. There was street theater, pointed interventions, and protests every day…
…in short, it was all a success, and a generation of Montreal queers felt that much more able to challenge the powers that be and win.
(That the “victory” at the IAC failed in any way to stem the overarching decline of the AIDS activist movement is, again, something we’ll leave for another day.)
fun and games at the 5th International AIDS Conference
Finally, there was still a feminist movement in the late 1980s, and it retained a militant wing. Many of the leading activists in AIDS activist organizations – including Reaction Sida – were feminists and lesbians, and besides this there was a kind of “women’s community” of struggle the likes of which has not been seen for some time. (i’m not in a position to comment on whether this was a good or a bad thing: many of the women involved in that scene were themselves harsh critics of what they described as the racism, transphobia, whore-bashing, and even sexphobia of their own movement. Yet obviously they themselves fought against these tendencies… my point being – and remember i observed this as a guy who was obviously not a part of it – it was their movement, and even in their criticisms they seemed to draw on lessons and strengths which came from their movement and its theoreticians.)
So i would also suggest that within this momentum of struggle which led to the decisive advances of 1990 there is a clear feminist trajectory. Already in the fall of ’89 queers from Concordia’s Women’s Collective were holding kiss-ins to protest a local restaurant’s lesbophobia. When Marc Lepine entered the University of Montreal engineering department on December 6th and killed fourteen women (as part of what he described as his struggle against feminism) local organizations including the Women’s Defense Committee responded organizing a monster vigil of thousands.
The Women’s Defense Committee would continue to carry out actions to protest sexism and male violence against women for the next few years. When police would next attack a Montreal queer demo in 1992, it would be because it was marching in solidarity with a WDC march protesting Canada’s sexist laws criminalizing women who went topless. By that time the women from that scene had been elected to the Concordia Students Union under the slogan “Feminism Works”, and they were having lots of fun and games of their own… all of which i am sure will be discussed some day – but not today!
It has been eighteen years since Joe Rose was killed and the International AIDS Conference was stormed, seventeen years since the Oka Crisis and the Sexgarage raids. It is in many ways a different world as processes as big and complex as neo-colonialism, the fall of the Soviet bloc and globalization have unleashed profound changes we are only beginning to identify.
Meanwhile, despite the hype, despite Will and Grace and gay marriage and “cool queers” there is more and more that needs to be done. “Gay acceptability” has come at a steep cost to gay runaways and sex workers and others who are now a liability to the respectable and admirable homosexual entrepreneur. Guppification plays out in a cruel dialectic with homophobic and whore-phobic violence, each of which makes the oppressed ever more vulnerable. The very public embrace of gay entertainers is cold comfort as we get the sneaking suspicion that we could simply be being set up as scapegoats when the water gets choppy.
There is as much reason to organize and fight back now as their ever was. The only question – now as seventeen years ago – is what will allow people to feel that winning is possible, that fighting back is worth it.
That’s what we have to figure out.
Thanks to the nice things people have told me about this text, i decided to lay it out as a pamphlet – it is available through my distro Kersplebedeb. You can email me at email@example.com to order a copy; also check out my Radical Literature page for loads more pamphlets and books.
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