Police brutality and LGBT history: 22nd anniversary of Sex Garage
It was 22 years ago today, in the night of July 15-16, 1990, that 40 police officers (with their ID badges removed) raided the Sex Garage after-party in Old Montréal. Of the 400 gays, lesbians, transgender people and drag queens dispersed from the venue, 10 are arrested and many brutally beaten. The numerous show-downs between police and the LGBT community in the days that followed made the raid into Montréal’s Stonewall, for which it is still remembered today…
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Looking back on it, local observers and activists refer to the Sex Garage raid and its aftermath as Québec’s Stonewall. Police raids of gay venues were nothing new in Montréal, but this time, the brutality of the Station 25 officers towards the 400 party-goers made the news, mostly thanks to photographs taken by Linda Dawn Hammond which were published in The Gazette and La Presse. The photos show the row of dozens of police, their ID badges removed, brandishing billy-clubs: they had come to break up the private party due to a noise complaint, but their methods showed the extent of homophobic violence still rampant in Québec society. Police yelled homophobic epithets at the dispersing crowd, arrested 10 of them, and put another 10 in hospital.
“Our count on the original Sex Garage bust… was 32,” photographer Linda Dawn Hammond told 2B, unsure of the exact number. Hammond, who was there the night of the raid, saved her photos for posterity by tossing her camera to a friend who was fleeing the venue as the cops started their crack-down. “They removed their badges in front of us, while staring us down, and then pocketed them, before the beating began. They blocked us from leaving, so I don’t think it was really an attempt to disperse us,” Hammond clarified.
The community reaction was swift. The Sex Garage raid is “what really set things in motion” for that entire generation of LGBT activism, activist Michael Hendricks told 2B. “Many of the partygoers were [members of] ACT UP,” he points out, referring to how the radicalized context of AIDS activism meant that this raid was not going to be taken lying down, so to speak. “Two days later, while the TV cameras rolled, the police beat Sex Garage protestors during a ‘Kiss in’ in front of the old Police Station 25. The police had gone too far.”
In response, ACT UP organized a protest demo for July 30. “This would be the largest daytime homosexual demo that Montréal had ever seen,” Michael Hendricks related. “Then ACT UP created le Groupe des lesbiennes et gais contre la violence(LGV) to take on police brutality and repression,” a committee which would be active for 3 years, bringing institutional homophobia and police brutality in the public eye. For Linda Dawn Hammond,
“Gays have never been considered a ‘soft target’ since in Montreal!”
Leading up to the July 30 demo, the LGBT community mobilized like never before, notably with a sit-in the very next day outside of police station 25, where Sex Garage attendees had been senselessly beaten the night before, on the corner of Saint-Matthieu and de Maisonneuve. Fifty peaceful demonstrators were clubbed, beaten, and dragged away (some by their hair), with images of the police repression finally making it to the mainstream news.
Even though discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was technically illegal in Québec since 1977, the Sex Garage raids and ensuing police crack-down led to the realization that a deeper form of equality was needed in order for real progress to take place. Hence, the Table de concertation des gais et lesbiennes du Grand Montréal (which took up the baton from the LGV) obtaining in 1994 the report “From illegality to equality” from the Québec Human Rights Commission. That was the same year as the last significant gay bar raid by the SPVM, at the Katacombes (Station C).
The many legal and social gains that would take place in Québec throughout the 90s and 2000s can be traced mostly to the resistance and outrage that was born out of the Sex Garage raid. Coming full circle from party to politics, and back to party, the Black & Blue and Divers/cité festivities were inspired by the community’s need to take up more cultural space in the wake of the repression that Sex Garage showed the world was very much still part of LGBT people’s realities.