Thursday, April 29, 2010

Looking back at queer life in North America since the 17th century

What was life like for gay men over a 100 years ago? Homosexuality was a criminal act just about everywhere so it must have been very difficult for gay people during that time period. Did you know there are a few records that survive from 150 years ago documenting gay life in North America? In fact, in gateway cities like New York City and Montreal a queer culture was evident and even thrived.

Richard Burnett writes:
The first recorded gay establishment in North America — and the namesake of this column — was Montrealer Moise Tellier's "apples and cake shop" on Craig Street (now St-Antoine) in Old Montreal in 1869, where men met and had sex.

But back then anyone outside of the loop had to be extremely careful about where they got laid.

For instance, Montreal police records from the summer of 1891 document the arrests of William Robinson and William Looney for having sex by the fort on Ile-Ste-Helene.

"William Robinson was on his back with his pants down his legs and his shirt lifted above his chest," the arresting officer wrote in his deposition.

"Looney also had his pants pulled down and shirt pushed up and was lying on top of Robinson. Their private parts were touching and they were making up-and-down movements. They continued to do this for 10 minutes."

Alfred Metayer's November 1876 conviction for assault with intent to commit sodomy is equally disheartening.

Municipal-court judge Charles Jospeh Coursol sent Metayer to St-Vincent-de-Paul Penitentiary for three years for "that detestable and abominable crime (not to be named among Christians) called buggery, with the said Louis Martin, then and there feloniously, wickedly, diabolically and against the order of nature to commit and perpetrate, to the great displeasure of Almighty God, [and] to the great damage of the said Louis Martin."

The fact that all gays and lesbians did not internalize the dominant culture's view of them as sick, perverted and immoral went a long way to helping establish an exciting singles-bar scene in Montreal that, unlike the straight world, dominates queer life well beyond middle-age.

That went over especially well when Montreal was a major entertainment capital, second to only New York and ahead of Chicago on the vaudeville circuit, and the city was still wide open to gambling, boozing and whoring during American prohibition.

Even Al Capone opened a nightclub here (it still stands today as the Lion d'Or).