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La vie gay en Quebec
Montreal architectural style
Paris isn't the only place you can be gay, speak French, and gnaw fresh croissant. Indeed, Montreal and Quebec City afford opportunities to enjoy la vie en homo between baguettes without leaving North America. And on excellent currency exchange rates, no less!
The province of Quebec is one of my favorite destinations in the world, and legally, gays are well-protected there. Bill 32, made official in June 1999, recognized same-sex spouses as common-law spouses, affording them identical benefits to those of heterosexuals: income tax breaks, Quebec's pension plan, social assistance, and even joint auto insurance. There are out gays in government, which officially backs gay-supportive resources, including a pair of booklets aimed at young gays (they feature chapters such as "Male Couples Do Not Play Sexual Roles" and "Suicide Is Not the Answer"). Recognizing the pink dollar--and diversity in general--the Montreal tourist office began courting queer tourists in 1994. In 2001 it spent $275,000 on the gay market, while it also launched an intensive (and winning!) campaign to host the 2006 Gay Games.
A proposed lighting scheme for Montreal's Gay Games in 2006
Montreal's seven-day gay pride summer celebration, Divers/Cite, brings international entertainers, activists and all sorts of homo hubbub, while Montreal is also home to October's massive weeklong circuit party Black and Blue. Meanwhile, the 15-year-old annual gay film festival, Image & Nation, sees theaters packed with cinema-savvy queers.
An island, bilingual Montreal is home to almost 2 million, with a total of 3.5 million in the greater metropolitan area. Like Toronto, Montreal boasts a weatherproof "underground city" of stores, businesses, restaurants, movie theaters, and transportation hubs, although it's almost three times larger (about 18 miles). Montreal's subway--le Metro--and buses make for easy access.
Pointe-a-Calliere, Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History
There's no shortage of accommodation options, including several gay-run guesthouses in the gay village. I opted for Le Roy d'Carreau Guest House, a homey and superconvenient establishment run by amicable couple Duane and Richard. Happily, Le Roy is just steps from a large gay bookstore and my favorite Montreal restaurant, Area. Indeed, I ate at this divine "fusion" haven several evenings, savoring elaborate, multilayered dishes.
Other delicious restaurants--including Saloon Cafe and Resto Bisous--sit along the gay village's main strip, Rue Sainte-Catherine Est. All day and night one can settle in these cafes' and restaurants' windows and patios, watching passersby cruise back and forth and back and forth. And back and forth.
During the '70s, the gay village was a poverty-ridden area, with gay businesses located to the extreme west. Then a gay business, Priape, helped motivate migration to the village's current location--in fact, Priape's owner named the area after New York's Greenwich Village.
Last year, fears apparently arose that some businesses were trying to "straighten up" the village and push the pink farther east--the popular Unity club turned hetero and a few gay bashings transpired. But locals were quick to raise their voices, and that undesirable transformation is ceasing. To wit, the "straightened-up" Unity failed and closed in less than a year, and it relaunched as gay again last June!
Shopping is a favored pastime in Montreal, and with the U.S. dollar so strong, it's also a must. Ste-Catherine extends all the way downtown, leading to endless spending opportunities from the Gap to secondhand record shops. Once downtown, consider a walk or drive up Mont-Royal, which is, as it sounds, a mountain--smack-dab in the city's center and what the city in fact is named after: the Royal Mountain.
Besides green and relaxing park space and an oratory, the peak of Mont-Royal boasts a thrilling view both day and night.
Montreal's museums range from the expected art gallery to the unusual. As I prefer the latter, the Montreal Insectarium seemed ripe for picking. Part of the enormous Botanical Garden complex, the Insectarium is home to bug-related exhibits. I took a gander at live scorpions, spiders, crazy-assed walkingsticks, and an aquarium filled with blood-starved mosquitoes, which I mocked with joy through small, screen-protected openings. Can't suck my blood, you bastards. Every November the Insectarium hosts "bug tastings," during which one can partake of a gourmet chef-prepared multicourse feast featuring insects.
The restaurant at Pierre du Calvet
While Montreal perpetually updates and reinvents itself, one section retains yesterday: Old Montreal. You might have seen it in the film The Heist--Robert De Niro's character lived there. Pierre du Calvet, a massive 1725 home-turned-hotel-and-restaurant, is one of the hood's most exalted gems. With stone walls, a fireplace, and a singular table that overlooks the main room from a small balcony, it will seduce you out of time, Gaetan Trottier, an openly gay man whose family has passed the house down for generations, personally oversees all its functions--make sure to say hi to this charming gentleman! At the restaurant, I recommend the traditional five-course Quebecois menu ($48 Canadian)--and reservations.
Come evening, the village bustles with bar and club life. Check French-language publication Fugues and bilingual companions Rainbow Guide, Voir, and Mirror. The recently remodeled, multilevel Sky at 1474 Rue Ste-Catherine Est is one of the busiest and hippest dance spots in town, with special party nights all week. To my joy, it played tunes by Montreal-born French disco diva Mylene Farmer while I did sour cherry liquor shots! On another night, however, I witnessed a youth overdosing while his "friends," a 45-year-old overgrown adolescent and his barely legal companion, poked his unconscious twitching body, giggling. Noticing this, I ran for help and got it, which scared the older guy and friend into literally dragging the kid out fast.
Parking attracts a large crowd
A popular and kooky drag queen, Mado, who once hosted a weekly shindig at Sky, opened her own venue, Cabaret Mado, at 1115 Ste-Catherine Est, and it's chock-full o' drag. Part of the massive Bourbon Street complex--a New Orleans-themed amalgam of restaurant, guesthouse, and disco--club La Track is hot on Wednesday and Sunday nights. Until recently, lesbians had a home of their own in Sisters, but it sadly closed. Now ladies head to nearby Pub Magnolia at 1329 Rue Ste-Catherine Est. Older gays frequent Le Meteor and Rocky while a mix of alterna-queers, leather daddies, and bears (and chasers) flock to Parking for a dance. Orphans may also hunt for daddies, leather, 'n' bears (oh my!) at the Stud and Aigle Noir (Black Eagle).
Anyone can find--and have, for l'argent--a hot nude guy at Montreal's famed stripper venues Campus, Taboo, and Adonis. Bathhouses are enormously popular in Montreal as well, and I'm told there's one for every body and age taste.
Three hours away by rail, Quebec City is as close as you can get to actually being in France without leaving the continent. Witness the old section's 400-year-old stone streets and fortified guard wall. French is the predominant language--some denizens don't speak English at all (or pretend not to).
There's an annual gay pride celebration in early September, in addition to another festival of, ahem, interest: the International Festival of Military Bands, which sees hot little military guys convening to blow their horns.
I checked into L'Hotel du Vieux-Quebec, which like its name communicates is located within the heart of Old Quebec. My room was comfortable (nonsmoking, incidentally) and overlooked well-traveled rue St-Jean, which leads outside the wall and right to the gay spots. Just steps from my hotel's doorway were all the expected tourist conveniences and attractions, in addition to some of the city's most renowned traditional restaurants.
My first day I cased out Old Quebec, taking in its gorgeous cliff views over the St. Lawrence River; towering castle-like Hotel de Ville; and rustic streets lined with local artisans and boutiques. Begrudgingly, I admit to checking out the "Quebec Experience," a downright Dadaist multimedia presentation on the city's history. I also followed St-Jean outside the wall, happening upon a treat: Erico Choco-Musee. This artisan chocolate shop offers not only delicious goodies like homemade chocolate chip cookies with chips made from different countries' cocoas, but a free museum containing a multitude of objects related to chocolate making and consumption.
Renting a car while visiting Quebec City is something to consider--much lies outside what can be accessed by public transportation. One day I took a ride to the Montmorency Falls. It's apparently 1-1/2 times higher than Niagara Falls, and you can go up to the top via cable car, view from a walkway, and even stay for a meal at its restaurant. A short drive from the Falls are several sugar shacks (cabane a sucre). Sugar shacks are where they make maple syrup--which is distilled from maple trees and boiled down--and they often have syrup-soaked feast celebrations. During winter it's a tradition to pour a line of piping hot maple syrup across a trough packed with snow and consume the resulting taffy, and all year they simulate this with artificial snow for the public. While in the area you can also visit homes hawking tons of colloquial homemade delicacies. One household specialized in making currant wines and liquors, which were delicious and affordable!
Back in Old Quebec, I sat down for a meal at Entrecote Saint-Jean at 1011 St-Jean, a bistro popular with locals and visitors alike. Make sure to try the steak frites! Speaking of frites, while in Quebec and Montreal be certain to order your fries "poutine" style--topped with a rich brown gravy and delicious, fresh cheese curd.
Seekers of true traditional Quebecois cuisine should visit Aux Anciens Canadiens at 34 Rue Saint-Louis. Try its pea soup; tourtiere, a flaky-crusted meat pie; and maple-sugar pie topped with fresh whipped cream. I enjoyed a hearty caribou dish--chunks of the handsome critter lumped into a pastry shell and complimented by a creamy sauce and sprinkling of berries.
A Web page from Le Drague's site
Quebec City doesn't have a gay village so much as a gay block. Right outside the Old City's wall, multilevel bar, disco, and Internet cafe complex Le Drague forms the de facto hub of QC's mini gay village, which is concentrated around Ste-Jean and Cote Sainte-Genevieve. On Sundays Le Drague features immensely packed drag shows which, according to locals, are either hit or shit. All ages, scenes, and sexes convene at Le Drague, whose bar boasts an immense selection of international beers.
Having accumulated a lot of goodies in Quebec, from that black-currant wine to clothing, I needed to buy another suitcase, so I hopped a bus to nearby suburb Sainte-Foy's cluster of massive indoor shopping centers (including Place Laurier, Place Sainte-Foy, and Place de la Cite). Needless to say, I will return with larger luggage for more of that good, gay la vie.
(The Pointe-a-Calliere, Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, Montreal architectural style, and the famous Christmas tree of Place Ville Marie on the home page of Advocate.com are all courtesy of www.tourisme-montreal.org.)