It is the end of an era: the BBCM Foundation has pulled the plug on its world-renowned Black & Blue circuit party.
The BBCM Foundation on August 1 announced “the cancellation of all activities of the Black & Blue Festival and the Carnival of Colors of Montreal in October 2023 due to important government cuts following the COVID crisis and because of new, more specific government criteria that this LGBTQ+ community non-profit organization is unable to meet in carrying out its projects in 2023 … The Board of Directors is now working to ensure the sustainability of The BBCM Foundation until December 31, 2023 as a priority.”
Whether Black & Blue returns in 2024 appears uncertain.
What is certain is that Black & Blue, founded in 1991, put Montreal on the international queer map alongside Divers/Cité which in 1993 began organizing Pride in Montreal for 14 years, before the creation of Fierté Montréal.
Black & Blue and Divers/Cité turned Montreal into a hugely popular pink tourism destination that grew the city’s Gay Village into one of the largest and most exciting “gaybourhoods” in the world for more than a decade, peaking with the inaugural World Outgames in 2006.
COVID was especially rough on the Village which today is dealing with an epidemic of homelessness, addiction and crime. But the writing was on the wall as far back as 2015 when Divers/Cité folded, eight years after it stopped organizing Pride to become a queer arts festival. The decline and end of Black & Blue and Divers/Cité truly marks the end of an era.
Montreal becomes queer destination
Pride celebrations were a spotty affair in Montreal until Divers/Cité was co-founded by Puelo Deir and Suzanne Girard in 1993, directly inspired by queer resistance to the violent Montreal police raid on the historic Sex Garage loft party in the early hours of July 15, 1990. That raid ignited 36 hours of clashes between Montreal’s LGBTQ+ community and the city’s police force, which at the time harboured a culture of homophobia. Sex Garage is now widely considered to be Montreal’s Stonewall: it brought together anglophones and francophones, and politicized a generation of queer activists who would change the Quebec political landscape.
Divers/Cité produced countless fundraisers and benefits to pay for office rent, city permits, production costs, security, and festival and parade insurance. The organization’s 1995 budget was $60,000, up from $42,000 the previous year. In the spring of 1995, Puelo Deir and I met with Tourisme Montréal, basically begging them for any kind of assistance for Divers/Cité. We left with nothing that year, but Tourisme Montréal’s then-president and CEO Charles Lapointe hired the world’s leading LGBTQ+ market research firm Community Marketing & Insights to do a study about Montreal among LGBTQs in the United States.
Lapointe also got to know the local players — notably Divers/Cité and the BBCM Foundation — over three years before introducing a pioneering pink tourism campaign. But as Puelo noted, “Tourisme Montréal had no product to sell before we arrived.”
After the violent Montreal police raid on Sex Garage, Vézina came up with the idea to host an all-night dance party.
“Montreal needed a breath of fresh air back then, especially in the gay nightclub scene which was a bit lame at the time,” Vézina said. “We first wanted to create a new, fun and thematic event in Montreal and we invited our friends from Toronto, Boston and New York to join us at the beginning. But we made sure we had the approval of the police to do an afterhours, with all our permits in order to avoid the problems encountered at Sex Garage. After the first two Black & Blue events in 1991 and 1992, we knew we had a successful formula and decided to do it on an annual basis.”
Dance to the music
After drawing 800 revellers to their first dance party in an abandoned bank in 1991, Black & Blue quickly became one of most successful circuit parties on the planet, filling many of Montreal’s legendary and iconic venues over the years, like Olympic Stadium, MTELUS and the Palais des Congrès, generating millions in local economic and tourism spin-offs over three decades, as well as raising money for HIV/AIDS support organizations and LGBTQ+ community groups. Attendance peaked in 1999 when 17,000 partygoers packed Black & Blue’s Olympic Stadium outfield dancefloor.
Perhaps the most remembered installation is the 25,000 lit candles that greeted partygoers on the outfield of Olympic Stadium at the 2000 edition of the Black & Blue main event.
Performers over the years included pop and dance legends like The Human League, Martha Wash, Ultra Naté, Loleatta Holloway and Kristine W., while all-star DJs included Danny Tenaglia, Victor Calderone, David Morales, Hernan Cattaneo, Susan Morabito, Angel Moraes, Roger Sanchez and Chus & Ceballos, as well as Montreal’s own Misstress Barbara and Mark Anthony – Vézina’s fave DJ over the years – who spun for at least half of the Black & Blue main events over 30 years, including the very first party.
“This is partying on a grandiose scale!” Mark Anthony told me in 2010. “My favourite moment occurred during Black & Blue 1999 at noon, the end of the party, at the end of my set. After the last song, I looked down to the dance floor from the DJ booth which was two storeys up! A sea of bodies still stood there clapping and cheering for more music! When the lights came on I was blown away to see about 15,000 people still assembled on the dancefloor. It was a very magical and surreal moment.”
Another memorable moment came in 1996 when Montreal soul queen Michelle Sweeney descended from the Olympic Stadium roof like an angel to join the Chorale Ganymède choir in singing “Reach Out” by Sounds of Blackness.
“I remember they had me come out on a hydraulic lift,” Sweeney recalls. “It was crazy! They didn’t have any banisters, nothing for me to hold on to, and I came down from the stadium roof to sing with a choir. I have always loved gay audiences because they have always been full of love. And the more drama they wanted, the more I gave. That night thousands of people were screaming and dancing, it was just an incredible moment.”
BBCM Foundation Director of External Affairs from 1995 to 2015, Caroline Rousse also remembers that 1996 edition of Black & Blue. “That was the same year Girlina flew over the crowd in a spaceship and landed on the stage!” Rousse told me in 2010. “That was my favourite Black & Blue! There are things we did back then that just can’t be done anymore, like Michelle Sweeney on that stage coming down from the ceiling. Oh boy, that would not be accepted by the authorities now!”
The worst moment in 30 years?
“When a group of criminal gang members strangely showed up in a huge uniformed troop in an attempt to enter the main event in 1996,” Vézina told me in 2021. “Our event is obviously not the style for such criminals… We had to close the doors for quite a long time – nobody could come in or out – until the police got them to leave.”
End of an era
Black & Blue and Divers/Cité were the crown jewels of Queer Montreal’s golden era. Both were created in direct response to Sex Garage. They changed the city. “We (got) the most beautiful people from around the world in Montreal during Black & Blue,” Vézina said. “Our reputation as a fun, thematic and sexually-charged event started in 1991 when we invited our good-looking friends to attend our very first party. That’s how we got our bad-boy reputation. It was a bit obnoxious, but it worked.”
In its August 1 press release, the BBCM Foundation stated, “The organization will look at the possibility of an overhaul of activities in 2024 or even the possible creation of completely new events.”
With Black & Blue and Divers/Cité now both gone, it truly is the end of an era.