Sex Garage 25 years later

A turning point in the fight for gay rights

The cameras were rolling as Montreal police beat gays and lesbians, and it changed everything
Photo: André Querry

Twenty-five years ago this month, Montreal police raided a queer loft party and beat and arrested Montrealers targeted for their sexual orientation. The next day, seeking justice, hundreds turned up at the police station. They were also beaten.

To mark the anniversary of this turning point in the LGBTQ rights movement, Ricochet spoke to several people who were there, including a photographer who produced iconic images of police repression that endure to this day.

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Monday July 16, 1990. At noon about 250 Montrealers gather near the police station at the intersection of Boulevard de Maisonneuve and Rue Saint Mathieu for a "love-in." Mostly members of the city’s gay and lesbian communities, they discover on arrival that a planned meeting with the chief of police has fallen through. He hasn’t shown up, and he has ignored a modest list of demands put forth in the wake of an unprecedented incident of gay bashing by police officers from Station 25.

Crowds on sidewalks quickly assemble into a street demonstration. Two hundred people sit in the street. Some begin to kiss. Under clear blue skies, a love-in has occupied the intersection.

“I don’t exactly know why they let me keep taking pictures [outside Sex Garage]. Maybe they figured they would get the camera from me later, and I would have wound up providing them with the documentation rather than getting it to the press. It was terrifying.” - Photographer Linda Dawn Hammond

The loving mass of people power is attacked by police. Batons hit faces, eyes, crotches. Officers pull people away to a precinct by their feet or hair. All the while media cameras are rolling. The action is caught on film, broadcast live, and repeated over and over for the whole country to see.

On this day in history, a city preoccupied by the Oka Crisis suddenly saw the sorry state of civil rights in Montreal. Just days after the bungled and fatal Sureté de Québec raid at Kanehsatake, those sworn to protect and serve the citizenry beat gays and lesbians in broad daylight. Public faith in the police plummeted.

The images of raw brutality did more than just shock. They confirmed what the lesbian and gay communities in Montreal had been saying for years: that the police were indifferent at best, aggressively homophobic at their worst.

The raid

Just the night before, 400 people had been at Sex Garage, an after-hours venue in the Paper Hill district in Old Montreal, when the police raided the party with brutal force.

Police at Sex Garage
Linda Dawn Hammond

Montreal police felt comfortable carrying out a coordinated attack on the gay community because they assumed their version of the story would not be challenged. But even in the era before social media, a camera loaded with black and white film and a wide-angle lens was all it would take to arm the victims with undeniable proof.

Linda Dawn Hammond had spent the previous day attempting to get to a wedding ceremony in Chateauguay that she was supposed to photograph. The unfolding Oka Crisis had left many people in and around the city on edge, and the solidarity blockades in Kahnawake had sent her on a detour. Though exhausted when she returned home, she ultimately decided the party at Sex Garage wasn’t worth missing, and she set off with her camera in hand.

In the early hours of July 15, Montreal police entered the venue on the premise they were searching for illegal substances. Finding nothing, they left, only to return 15 minutes later to order everyone out of the building.

Those still inside the venue heard one patron, Bruce Buck, had been severely beaten by police when he attempted to re-enter the building to retrieve a leather jacket. He was likely the first person to be beaten, and was later charged with assaulting a police officer.

“As soon as I stepped outside I knew there was something off about the whole situation. There were maybe 30 cops standing out in the street surrounding the building’s entrance, and they all had these strange expressions on their faces,” Hammond told Ricochet. “Some looked scared, and others seemed confused. At least one seemed completely transfixed on me, while another next to him seemed to be in a daze.”

As hundreds of revellers made their way onto the street, police officers blocked rue De La Gauchetière, forcing people towards Beaver Hall Hill, where another group of police was waiting. Officers began removing their name tags. They taunted the growing crowd with homophobic comments and mock masturbated their batons.

A television report from 1990 on the Sex Garage raid and its aftermath.

All hell broke loose after that. Some people panicked and tried to run; others stood their ground and had their legs kicked out from underneath them. The attack was savage, the beatings indiscriminate. Hammond snapped photo after photo, and the flash of her camera made her difficult to miss. The wide-angle lens kept her close to the action.

“I don’t exactly know why they let me keep taking pictures. Maybe they figured they would get the camera from me later, and I would have wound up providing them with the documentation rather than getting it to the press. It was terrifying.”

Sex Garage
Linda Dawn Hammond

Hammond didn’t see the police officer who hit her across the chest. She fell, landing hard on the ground. The flash of her camera flew off, landing in a gutter. She threw her camera up the hill towards a group of people running from the scene. An acquaintance caught the camera before police could get to it. As police lunged for the camera’s flash (believing it to be the camera), Hammond retrieved the camera and then passed it along to a friend on a bike to whom she had already given two rolls of film. They later met up at Hammond’s home before bringing the exposed film to La Presse, and then to the offices of the Montreal Gazette.

“Initially the Gazette wasn’t enthusiastic about the story, arguing the Oka Crisis was more important. They changed their mind when I mentioned there would be a follow-up love-in the next day at station 25. That’s when they decided to run with it.”

The black and white images that appeared in the city’s two newspapers of record showed the police involved in the raid were not wearing their name tags. In the background of what has become an iconic photo, a commanding officer can be seen holding a bullhorn. “He was issuing orders to the police,” said Hammond.

A sit-in was held on Saint Catherine Street around 9 p.m. on the night of the 15th. The crowd there was convinced to end the demonstration when told that police chief Alain St-Germain would meet with representatives of the community the next day. But instead of the police chief, members of the city’s gay and lesbian communities met a line of 70 police officers, who set upon them in an orgy of gratuitous and undeniable brutality for the second time in as many days.

LGBTQ communities unite against police violence

The immediate aftermath of the Sex Garage raid was the healing of a rift between the gay and lesbian communities and the realization that a common cause required an end to the self-imposed segregation between gays, lesbians, and everyone else in the spectrum of sexual identity.

Veteran Montreal journalist Richard Burnett told Ricochet that Sex Garage was a “perfect storm.”

“The people who were partying that night didn’t exactly fit in with the mainstream gay and lesbian communities — the boys stuck with the boys, and the girls stayed with the girls, and there wasn’t much room for anyone in between,” said Burnett. “That’s partly what made Sex Garage unique and appealing. Nicholas Jenkins (who organized the Sex Garage parties) thought gay life in Montreal sucked and wanted to make it more interesting. So he gathered an eclectic mix of people who would have otherwise found themselves on the fringes of either the gay or lesbian communities, and in some cases didn’t fit in with either.”

Even the venue was particular. The building was already associated with the city’s punk scene and was used for performance and rehearsal. The Paper Hill district (surrounding Saint Patrick’s Basilica) had, by the late 1980s, been almost entirely depopulated of residents. (Today the building, like nearly every other adjacent building in the district, has been converted into condominiums.) It was ideal for large, discreet parties. It was as far removed from the budding East End Gay Village as one could get. “Back then that whole part of town was more or less abandoned. People thought they’d be safe from harassment,” said Burnett.

In the days that followed, the police awkwardly attempted to provide a rationale for their actions. First they claimed they were searching for contraband. Then they claimed they were responding to a noise complaint. Finally they settled on the hard-to-believe assertion that party organizers had called them for help after the crowd had grown too large, which both Hammond and Burnett say is utterly ridiculous.

A French television report from 1990, including an interview with photographer Linda Dawn Hammond.

Out of the violence was born Lesbians and Gays Against Violence, an organization that would ultimately see members on the Montreal police’s minority relations board. A report issued in 1994 recommended improving relations between police and the increasingly vocal and united LGBTQ community in Montreal.

Succeeding Alain St-Germain as police chief, Jacques Duchesneau was well known for his bravery in eliminating corruption within the police service (he had his own commanding officer arrested for taking cocaine from the evidence locker in 1981) as well as his socially liberal views. During his four-year term as police chief, sensitivity training programs were put in place and relations between police and the LGBTQ community improved dramatically. By 2006 Montreal was host of the inaugural World Outgames, and the city had earned the enviable position of being the world’s premier gay tourism destination.

For their part, the Montreal police are quick to point out that only a small number of officers presently serving were in uniform back in 1990. The police force has evolved along with society, said Sergeant Laurent Gingras, a media representative for the police. Although the force maintains a morality squad, “there’s no discrimination” and police no longer target bathhouses or patrol Mount Royal for gay men who are cruising.

“The morality squad’s only concern is contraband and the drug trade. They don’t care about sexual orientation. If we raid a bar, it’s because the liquor permit has expired,” Gingras told Ricochet, adding that homophobia is not tolerated in today’s police force.

A different time

Sex Garage is now a memory, and for today’s youth — open-minded and free-spirited as only Montrealers can be — the idea that police would engage in gay bashing is hard to comprehend. It was a different time; it was in a sense a different world. And though the story’s been told and a dark chapter in the city’s history has been closed, questions remain about what motivated police officers to engage in such an attack.

Sex Garage
Linda Dawn Hammond

For Linda Dawn Hammond, the remaining unanswered questions can be summed up in an encounter roughly a week and a half after the raid. She met up with her lawyer at the Rockland Shopping Centre to take some photographs. After parting ways, Hammond was approached by a police officer from Laval, who informed her she was being arrested for conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Her lawyer was also arrested, and discovered a wheelchair-accessible van was waiting for him. Hammond’s lawyer used a wheelchair.

“Ultimately they let me go, and neither of us was ever brought up on the bogus conspiracy charges, but I’d certainly like to know how they knew we were at Rockland. And to have a waiting van, one designed specifically to transport people in wheelchairs.… That was too much. The only way they could possibly have known I was meeting my lawyer was if they had tapped my phone, as I had spoken with him earlier in the day,” said Hammond.

“So all these years later, I’m still wondering why they did that, why they would go to such lengths to intimidate me. They called me the lesbian organizer of Montreal, even though I wasn’t. They called me a punk anarchist, even though I wasn’t an anarchist. They kept an unmarked squad car parked outside my home for days on end and even showed up in plainclothes at a bar I was trying to get a job at … And all for what? I don’t think I’ll ever know.”

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