The Pride of Montreal

Richard Burnett

“The tagging you see around Montreal today, it’s all bullshit,” says Montreal graffiti master and painter Zilon. “They’re a bunch of fucking little assholes. What they’re doing is not even art.” This from the man who began spray-painting Montreal public spaces after dusk beginning in 1976. “There are some beautiful murals around Montreal today, but when I began it was wild, it was underground, it was after midnight. Today people hire professionals to do that.”

Over the years, Zilon – who co-starred with me, legendary Montreal gay activist Michael Hendricks and others in the first season of the Life Network reality-TV show Out in the City (“Reality TV is such garbage today, like going to McDonald’s!” Zilon growls) – has parlayed his notoriety into a legitimate career that now spans over two decades, including his Jazz Noir exhibition at the Galerie Lounge TD that runs until September 26.

“I pitched Jazz Noir to Spectra after their gallery [in the Balmoral Building, Maison du Festival] opened, during a photo exhibition [last year] after a few glasses of wine,” says Zilon, now sipping white wine in the same building's Balmoral bistro. The exhibition features 22 portraits of imaginary figures inspired by jazz music. “There are 10 collages and 12 black ink pieces done exclusively for this exhibition.”

Meanwhile, across town the same week Jazz Noir opened, Zilon was also doing some live painting at the Festival Mode and Design, much like he did at the Black & Blue Festival some years ago. “I’m really busy these days,” he says.

Indeed, Zilon is everywhere this summer and autumn. He has yet another major exhibition, at the Galerie MX, beginning September 29 called Eaux trouble$. For this expo Zilon returns to his spray-can roots for 40 pieces. “And we’re going to launch a perfume at the same time!” bad boy Zilon says.

Makes one wonder what it will smell like.

Remembering Sex Garage
Meanwhile, I cannot believe – but am also not surprised – that NOT ONE Montreal media outlet reported the 20th anniversary of (no, not the Oka Crisis) the single most important and influential gay event in the history of this city: the police raid of the Sex Garage loft party on the night of July 15, 1990, in Old Montreal.

Sex Garage – named after director Fred Halsted's 1972 black-and-white porn classic The Sex Garage – was Montreal’s Stonewall and forever changed the face of this city. In a nutshell, following the brutal police raid on Sex Garage, shocking images of police brutality during peaceful protests over the next two days finally and irrevocably shook three million Montrealers out of their complacency.

Montreal gays and lesbians – French and English – formed the group Lesbians and Gays Against Violence (LGV), precursor of the Table de concertation des gaies et lesbiennes du Grand Montréal, the political-action group pivotal in lobbying for the Quebec Human Rights Commission's historic 1993 public hearings on violence against gays and lesbians.

The 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 my friend and veteran gay activist Michael 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.

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.
And 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 lawyers' fees.

That march also laid the groundwork for Montreal's Divers/Cité Queer Pride march (just like the 1969 Stonewall Riots inspired the first commemorative Gay Pride parade in NYC in 1970) that Deir co-founded with Suzanne Girard in 1993.

“There will always be Pride [parades],” says Divers/Cite head honcho Suzanne Girard. “You need them for the youth. They will always [need to] come out and it’s always hard.”

The Divers/Cite festival organized Montreal’s Pride parade from 1993 through 2006, when it handed over the reins to Celebrations de la Fierte. “Last year we got many emails from young people saying we saved their lives,” says Celebrations de la Fierte president Eric Pineault. “If I can save one life per year, I’ve done my job.”

But before Celebrations de la Fierte even came into existence, Divers/Cité and Black & Blue would transform Montreal into a choice gay tourism destination, pushing Tourisme Montréal to create a gay tourism template since adopted by tourism authorities worldwide.

But in 1990, this was all unfathomable.

Today, Suzanne Girard is still at the helm of Divers/Cité, which turned 18 this summer. I remember back in 1994, Divers/Cité's budget was a whopping $42,000. This year it was $1.8-million.

“Community organizers think our budget is huge, but people [in the tourism industry] say we're small,” Suzanne points out.

Activists can scream about the commercialization and corporatization of Pride and gay festivals like Black & Blue and Divers/Cité all they want, but remember there is no such thing as a free lunch. “If you think we’re too commercial, then take the labels off [your] running shoes, caps and iPhones,” Suzanne says. “Then talk to me about what’s corporate. This is the world we live in.”

And it got tougher still when the Harper Tories this year denied tourism grants to every single Pride event in Canada, as well as Divers/Cité. The BBCM's Robert Vézina told me in February that Black & Blue will no longer even bother to apply for federal tourism grants until Harper is voted out of office.

“This [Marquee Tourism Events] Program isn’t about economic stimulus – it’s about blatant, political vote-buying,” charges the Liberal Tourism Critic, MP Navdeep Bains, in a press statement. “They're taking funding from events where the Conservatives have few votes, like extremely popular [gay] arts festivals that need government help to thrive.”

Then throw in the high cost of security and insurance as well. When Divers/Cité got out of the parade business in 2006 -–a year before Paris-based Têtu magazine asked in a cover story, “Is Gay Pride still necessary?” – they were ahead of the curve.

Suzanne just wishes Célébrations de la Fierté would change their dates (this year it ran August 10-15). “We have two big gay festivals two weeks apart,” Suzanne says. “Move it! There are other long weekends during the summer. They even originally wanted our dates.”

The two festivals may quarrel and Gay Village establishments may diss Girard – who has been a den mother for two generations of gay activists and is one of my personal heroes – but Suzanne says, “The gay community is a bitching community and we live in Quebec where it’s our motto! We bitch! It's ingrained in us! Quebecers bitch, and the gays bitch and it's a double bitch!”

Say what they will, but Célébrations de la Fierté this year reclaimed Divers/Cité’s old downtown parade route and Divers/Cité’s minute of silence to honour those we have lost to AIDS. And now each summer the Gay Village merchants association turns Ste-Catherine St. between Berri and Papineau St. into a pedestrian mall, a Divers/Cité innovation from 1996.

Suzanne admits there is growing political pressure from the Ville-Marie borough to move Divers/Cité from Parc Emilie-Gamelin (“We turn that hole into a gem every year!”) to Place des Spectacles. So Divers/Cité are striking up a 20th-anniversary committee to organize their 2012 festival. Divers/Cité also wants to bring back the Flex outdoor concert and the Sex Garage stage – a stage of alt-rock performers created by my buddy and Montreal nightlife legend Plastik Patrik in honour of the Sex Garage raid of 1990.

“I think moving to Place des Spectacles would bring it up a notch, rejuvenate it,” Suzanne says. “We have some big shows. Can you imagine Mascara or Boulevarde des Rêves there for our 20th anniversary? Le Grand Bal? I would love it! I think it would also bring in a lot of other Montrealers to the festival. More than ever we could live up to our name.”

Jazz Noir by Zilon :
At Galerie Lounge TD, until Sept. 26

Eaux trouble by Zilon :
At Galerie MX, beginning Sept. 29