On July 17, 1869, that guardian of public morals, The Montreal Star, published this piece under the title “Served Him Right”:

Last night, a man was caught on the Champs de Mars attempting in company with a young lad to practice one of the most revolting species of crime that can well be imagined. One of our detectives happened to be passing at the time, but on seeing what was going on he quietly hid himself behind a tree so as to make sure of his man. The detective was about rushing out [sic] to seize the scoundrel when he heard a party of youngman [sic] coming towards him. He signalled them to keep quiet and watch what was going on. They did, and in a moment saw enough to justify them in chasing down the brute and giving him the most tremendous thrashing. The detective left in another direction, not wishing to interfere in the matter, as it was in very good hands. We strongly recommend that a couple of policemen should be detailed to attend the Champs de Mars every evening from about seven to twelve o'clock. It would prevent a great deal of crime.

The age of the “young lad” is never mentioned, but it should not be supposed he was underage. The rare times newspapers deigned to mention homosexuality, they routinely described men in their 20s and even 30s as “boys” or “lads,” and otherwise greatly exaggerated any age difference. The intent was to heighten the reader’s disgust and make an older man seem predatory.

No further details exist. The man was never formally charged, and no mention was made of bringing the “young lad” back to his family (further hinting that he was an adult). The police officer was apparently content to let the vigilantes do their work of beating or perhaps even murdering a man (maybe two) who should have been under his protection, and went on his way without even watching to see how the scene resolved.

Coming a month after the Moïse Tellier and Joseph Gagnon stories – the first police raids – this curious little piece shows us something we have not seen yet anywhere in Canada’s history: the phenomenon we would later call gaybashing.

Defining gaybashing

Gaybashing (also called “queerbashing,” “queer baiting,” “dykebashing” when it happens to women, or simply “bashing”) is a form of anti-LGBT violence committed by individuals. The violence and oppression we have studied up to this point has been largely institutional – governments, police, prisons, churches, and hospitals have been the primary offenders.

Gaybashing is the privatization of that violence, committed almost exclusively by young, heterosexual men.

The curious thing is that while this phenomenon has been studied by sociologists, criminologists, and psychologists, no one that I can find has ever tried to give it a history. Most that mention it in a historical context lump it in with state-sponsored violence, so that the men the Roman writer Tacitus mention as having been drowned in bogs for homosexuality by the German tribes are sometimes described as “the first gaybashings.” Others speak of the first executions in the Middle Ages, again committed by church and governments.

These, though, are state-sponsored or institutional violence. What interests me more – and which does not seem to have ever been studied – is the question of when groups of individuals began attacking and murdering homosexuals or suspected homosexuals entirely of their own accord.

It seems certain that gaybashing has a history of some kind. There was no such thing in Ancient Greece and Rome, and even at the height of anti-sodomite panics in the late Middle Ages and early modern era (when governments were murdering us in significant numbers) there is no sign of private individuals doing the same. “Sodomites” were symbolically burnt in effigy by crowds in the Italian cities of Siena and Florence in the 1400s, infamous examples of mob hatred of homosexuals in the the Middle Ages; but when it came to the actual burning of men convicted of homosexual acts, that seemed to have been left to governments.

What is more, we know that gaybashing is not only something that has a beginning (however obscure that might be) but something that has changed shape over time.

Quentin Crisp, writing in the 1960s, noted that “Queer-baiting” as he called it “has not vanished” but “has fallen into the hands of younger and younger boys.” The stories I have been able to find from the early 20th century seem to bear this out – gaybashing used to be the exclusive province of adult men, but at sometime in the mid-20th century it became an act teenage boys were far more likely to commit.

And since no one studied its history, no one knows why that would be.

The suddenness of its appearance on Canada’s stage in 1869 – a month after the death penalty is removed for homosexuality – does suggest one possibility. More reports of gaybashing appear throughout the west around the same time that western nations were reducing the sentence for “sodomy.” It might simply be that after hundreds of years of hearing that homosexuality was a heresy that brought fire and brimstone, plagues, and the collapse of civilizations, straight society had simply chalked their government’s new leniency up to corruption or weakness, and decided to take matters into their own hands.

Another factor might be that every corner of Western civilization was swelling in population, and those populations were becoming more mobile and more anonymous. The medieval peasant might have had a low opinion of their lord and their priest, but they knew who to bring a crime to, how to report it, and probably what would happen next. In the 19th century, cities were growing exponentially, vast sections of distant countryside were urbanizing and filling up with newcomers, and the West was becoming largely a society of strangers.

In that situation, governments and other authorities seemed newly strange and distant, and there was a sense that folks would have better luck trying to take the law into their own hands and punish crimes themselves. Canada tried to delay this phenomenon by making policing a priority across the country, but given how harried Montreal’s police force seemed at the time, it seems unlikely they inspired much confidence.

(Though if the events portrayed in the article above are any indication, the police of Montreal were all too happy to step aside and let the vigilantes do the “community policing.”)

With any social phenomenon, multiple factors undoubtedly contribute. And while the causes are murky, the result is clearer: the persecution of LGBT folk entered a kind of shadow realm, with no court records, no habeas corpus, no constitutional guarantees, or lawyers, or security of person.

While official persecution continued for some time, this new shadow level of homophobia meant that whatever official protections existed, the safety of LGBT folk would always remain in question. Even after the legalization of homosexuality, governments, police, and courts could tacitly look on, give their silent approval, and retain plausible deniability that they were participating in any way in the persecution.

Only rarely did this tacit approval need to become overt. Should a gaybasher be caught, the courts could reduce or eliminate sentences by claiming that hate was not a factor – any gaybashing that ends with the theft of a wallet will generally be downgraded to a simple mugging – or that the panic induced by the possibility that a gay man might be attracted to him induced a a kind of temporary insanity in the perpetrator (known as the “gay panic” defence).

And of course, it has not gone away. I began working on this article less than a month after the worst mass-shooting in American history, in a gay bar in Orlando. America actually has thousands of gaybashings every year, a few fatal (according to the aggregate statistics compiled by the US Department of Justice) most of which are never noticed by the public. The pundits were quick to write off the mass murder as either an isolated act of insanity or blamed the perpetrator’s Muslim background. Both are strategies for ignoring the real, ingrained, violent homophobia that is part of the cultural fabric of the West.

Canada has only had one real comprehensive study – the Pink Blood study by criminologist Douglas Janoff. He found there had been about 100 murders motivated at least partly by hatred against LGBT folk between 1995 and 2005, or about 10 a year. Shortly before the Orlando shooting, two men were attacked for kissing in a public place here in Montreal.

Yet, these acts seem to have had no history written that I can find. And having no history effectively normalizes them.

Was this the first gaybashing in Canada? It is possible. Montreal’s mostly rural landscape was turning into stone, brick, and finally concrete at a dizzying rate in the mid-to-late 19th century as its population exploded, and the cruising zone of the Champ-de-Mars was likely a new phenomenon for a city (and country) suddenly bursting at the seams. It would have created a tempting target for a gaybasher, as soon as straight society realized what it was.

It is also possible, of course, that this is simply the first case of it we have recorded.

Gaybashing and Silence

There is hardly any mention of gaybashing in any mainstream media before the beginning of the gay liberation movement in the post-World War II 20th century. I have found scattered references in both legal documents and fiction from across the West, but nothing else as early in 1869. Marcel Proust mentions it in his novel A la Recherche du Temps perdu, in a scene set around 1900 in France, where it is shown as a not only permitted but the expected action of a young Parisian man who has been flirted with by a homosexual.

For the most part, silence clings to it. Even now, it rarely makes the media unless it has some especially horrific aspect – Matthew Shepard tied to a fence and tortured, or a mass-shooting in a club. Most pass unnoticed outside of our community.

Stories from an earlier age do sometimes surface, though. The grandfather of a close of friend of mine told his grandson that he and his friends had gone out looking for “queers” to beat up when he had been in the Navy during World War II. I have heard this same narrative in other places – some considered it to have been a normal part of military life, a rite of passage, even proof you were “one of the boys.” Given the heavy rate of military service among Canadian men in the first half of the 20th century, I cannot help but wonder if a large minority or even a majority of men from certain generations participated in gaybashings. We are unlikely to ever know.

Nor was it limited to the rituals of young men. Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile’s book The Canadian War on Queers includes a conversation with a woman identified only as Arlene, interviewed in 1987, who said that police officers in the 1950s Ottawa would “take you down to Cherry Beach and handcuff your hands behind your back and beat the shit out of you. And leave you there…If you were lucky they left your clothes. That was another dirty trick: take your clothes and make you walk home stark [naked].”

Arlene also told her interviewer that she had been raped by police at Cherry Beach when she was 17, after being picked because her “butch” clothes marked her as a lesbian.

Coming out myself in the mid-1990s, there was no shortage of similar stories from older gay men and lesbians that I knew. I myself witnessed a police officer threaten a fifteen-year old boy with a “starlight drive” for heinous crime of looking too long at his police partner. That happened outside the same cafe in Vancouver’s West End, The Edge Coffee House, which was invaded by a pack of gaybashers in 1994. Derek Janoff’s Pink Blood is replete with examples of anti-gay murders of an astonishing brutality from across the country.


Unlike the laws and the institutional brutality we’ve focused on before, gaybashing is less our past and more our present.

Yet part of the hope for the progressive historian is that by giving a complete shape to something toxic in our culture – by examining where it comes from – it ceases to simply be a fact of life and becomes something that was produced and which can be finished by historical factors. If gaybashing had a beginning, it can have an ending.

Since we cannot know if gaybashing was actually a new phenomenon in Canada in 1869, we cannot draw any certain conclusions. My hypothesis is that it was still a recent phenomenon. I suspect that the roots of this new, private violence were twofold – the lessening of the legal penalties surrounding homosexuality in the 1860s, and a new anonymity of people in the fast-growing cities of the West that alienated them from the more traditional authorities.

Moreover, I suspect that the persistence of gaybashing is that it continues to serve a purpose for the forces of privilege and heterosexual supremacy. As society’s official structures become more open and accepting – as we gain more formal protections and greater equality under the law – gaybashing serves the social homophobia that is still deeply rooted in our culture.

In the US, where better statistics have been compiled than we have in Canada, the number of bashings have actually increased since the beginning of the 21st century. While some of that is better reporting, the accelerated rate of increase suggests another, more extreme reaction to official equality and increased visibility. I suspect this echos what was happening in the mid-19th century.

After the bashing in the Champ-de-Mars, The Montreal Star‘s campaign of shaming and moral outrage seems to have come to an abrupt end. Looking into the paper in the months that followed, I found no further references to the cruising zone in the Champ-de-Mars. There was mention of a potential lawsuit from Moïse Tellier’s lawyer (with the paper defending itself) in the edition a day after the Tellier trial was reported, which may have been a factor. The Champ-de-Mars cruising ground itself seems to have lingered on at least into the 1880s before the gay men who frequented it moved into the Parc Mont-Royal.

It was not the end of the moral crusade against homosexuality in the papers, however. Only seven years later, The Globe was covering the celebrity trial of Francis J. Widdowes, and La Presse returned to the subject of the Champ-de-Mars grounds in a lurid piece in 1883.

The Montreal Star might have been the first paper in Canada to lead a moral crusade that required it to speak publicly about “the love that dare not speak its name,” but it was far from the last. With the rise of the “Social Purity Movement,” homosexuality became the sort of social problem that had to be discussed (though still in coded euphemisms).

Meanwhile whatever community had begun to form around the Champ-de-Mars (and the men we have named both lived in the area), it seemed to have disappeared by the 20th century. When next a recognizable district appears in Montreal – or two rather – one is on Peel Street and the other on lower Saint-Laurent. Both would offer an easy walking trip up the mountain where a new cruising area had formed.

Those stories will have to wait. For now we turn to the celebrity trials overseas that inspired moral crusades against homosexuality in Canada, and the press coverage they received.

Sources: The July 17, 1869 edition of The Montreal Star provides the only source of this story. There was no surviving record of either Moïse Tellier and Joseph Gagnon – both formally charged – so it should be unsurprising that there is no official record of this gaybashing unofficially sanctioned by the police. No other paper seems to have covered it. Douglas Janoff’s Pink Blood is as far as I can tell the only detailed study of bashing in Canada, and an excellent resource. For hate crime in the United States, the best source is the US Department of Justice’s own detailed studies. Quoted by the Human Rights Campaign, it showed in 2007 5 murders and over 600 beatings. The statistics I found for 2011-2015 period on the DOJ’s own website work out to more than 40,000 “hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation,” the majority of which took the form of assault. I also drew on The Canadian War on Queers by Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile, and Homophobia: A History by Byrne Fone. The 1994 bashing at The Edge Coffee House was covered in Xtra‘s May 20th edition, 1994. Marcel Proust’s novel A la Recherche du Temps perdu is a work of fiction, but one written by a closeted gay man drawing on his own experiences, and as such offers us some of our few glimpses of gay life at the time. I have also drawn on my own experiences, and those related to me by older gay men – given the absence and extremely homophobic bias of the few written sources I’ve found for earlier periods, I see no problem with relying on these oral histories. Unlike most of the topics covered in this project, gaybashing is very much of the current day.

A mere three days after the Moïse Tellier trial, The Montreal Star reported on another queer case:

Joseph Gagnon, the same party who was charged at the Police Court a few days ago with having stolen about $415, but who was [set free] for want of evidence, was brought [this] morning before the Recorder’s Court having been found drunk in company with a soldier last night. Detective Lafon testified that the prisoner was one of the most abominable wretches in town — quite a match for Tellier and Dufaux — being a Sodomite; his house on St. Mary street being frequented by soldiers and most depraved characters. He accosted respectable parties on the street and made most abominable proposals to them. The Recorder inflicted a fine on him of $10 or two months in jail.

This one short article is all we have to go on about the case. About this Joseph Gagnon himself, he has proven impossible to track. The somewhat ironically named Recorder’s Court – the old name for Montreal’s municipal court – was actually very poor at keeping records, and left us nothing about the case.

There were more than a dozen Joseph Gagnons in Montreal in 1869, but most of them were children, and apparently none of them lived on St. Mary’s Street (which has long since merged with Notre-Dame Est).

The most likely candidate (and this is very unsure) was a medical student in his early 20s. Another was a furniture-maker, also in his early 20s. There was also Joseph Gagné, who was at least once misindentified as Joseph Gagnon in records. Gagné was a tailor in his early thirties, and he lived on Notre-Dame where it merged into St. Mary’s – an address that put him two blocks from the Champs-Mars and puts the Montreal garrison barracks practically in his backyard.

These three lived alone. There were three other adult Joseph Gagnons as well, mostly in other districts and with families. It’s also possible there was another Joseph Gagnon in the area who was simply missed by official record-keepers.

The other names in the story are easier to track. Vincent Lafon was one of Montreal’s three police detectives. The France-born detective appears frequently in the crime pages of Montreal’s newspapers. “Dufaux” is a mangling of Pierre Dufault’s name. Dufault was convicted for a second time of bestiality earlier that same week, another example of the longstanding association in the minds of homophobic authorities of homosexuality with bestiality (they were in fact in the same section of the legal code).

Still, for all the gaps in the story, with a little bit of background knowledge the article says more than it seems to.

The first thing we can note is the crime Gagnon (or Gagné) was charged with. He was, notably, not charged with sodomy or attempted sodomy, which means that none of the soldiers or “depraved characters” he was bringing home ever charged him with rape or attempted rape. He also seems to have had a known reputation, and was astonishingly open about his intentions. Anyone going home with him knew what he wanted.

Indeed, the article hints at a third party who found him and the soldier, but clearly did not catch them in the act. Was this in public, maybe in the park? Or was it in his home? If he was not caught in the act, why arrest him at all? The law gave the police broad powers to arrest people for drunkenness, but they usually had to be doing something crude or offensive to public morals (though not necessarily illegal) in order to be charged.

It seems likely that whoever arrested him knew who he was, and why he was with that soldier. If this happened in his home, it would almost certainly have to be a police officer who walked in on them. And the police were clearly keeping tabs on him. Detective Lafon considered him “notorious,” and the best guess is that they had his apartment under surveillance.

Moïse Tellier had been followed home by a police detective. Could Lafon or another detective have followed Gagnon home, hoping to catch him in the act? That seems the most likely scenario. After all, The Star mentions he was bringing soldiers and “depraved characters” there.

In short, it seems that we are looking at another primitive sting operation conducted by the police – again, a police force that was new, hobbled by extreme underfunding, and far too few to deal with the serious crimes of a quickly growing Montreal. In other words, it was devoting resources to following, gathering evidence, and arresting homosexuals, and it considered this a priority on par with such things as robbery and assault.

Why? There was certainly no shortage of homophobia, either in its older, religious form or its modern “scientific” form that hinged on degeneration theory. Yet there were plenty of police forces of the era who barely had homosexuality on their radar, and by all accounts the Montreal police at the time had much more important things to worry about.

What seems even stranger at first – but which might explain things – was that Lafon had come from France. For all that France was romanticized for generations of gay men as a haven and a place of safety because it was the only place in the West where homosexuality was legal, things were not quite as welcoming as the rest of the world believed.

France had legalized homosexuality in a revolutionary fervour under Napoleon, but sexual minorities of the France of the late 19th century had suffered a seriously backlash. Theories of “degeneration” had taken firm hold of the nation, and brought with them modern versions of the Sodom myth: nations could be destroyed by perversions that could be spread. While homophobia is typically seen as religious in nature, the new wave of “scientific” homophobia breathed new life into the mania to contain, control, and generally persecute homosexuals.

The police stepped into the breach to quell public panic. France’s police did everything in their power to make the lives of lesbian, gay, and bisexual citizens miserable. Gay neighbourhoods were under surveillance. If gay men could not be arrested for the simple fact of homosexuality, then they could be arrested for a host of other things, from “public solicitation” to a host of other minor crimes.

We know very little about Lafon’s life or when he came to Canada, or if he was actually trained in France, but this kind of a sting would be in character with the work of French police. The goal would have been to catch him in the act, but when that failed he was given the “drunk and disorderly” charge. The purpose of the this would have been both to punish Gagnon, but more importantly to strike fear into the community around him.

The Star seems to have been a happy partner with the police in this. In the article, they are working to present Gagnon in the worst possible light. The robbery they allude to was not even mentioned in any earlier issue of their paper, or any other paper I have found. As he was judged “not guilty,” it would have been libellous for a paper to suggest he had committed the theft, and yet the article clearly does that. The implication is that Gagnon was a threat beyond simply his homosexuality, and that somehow being a “degenerate” conversely proved retroactively that he was guilty of the other crime.

Given the hatred of homosexuality among the general public at the time, one has to wonder why the paper would need to bother implying he was a thief. Reading between the lines, there is a possible answer to this – for as much as The Star wants Gagnon to be hated, there is no real indication that he was harming anyone. None of his lovers accused him of anything. Folks knew what he was, and yet it probably took a zealous police detective to try (and fail) to entrap him.

The Star was clearly trying to implicate him in some other criminal element, so that anyone insufficiently horrified by his apparently consensual homosexual acts will at least come to see him as a threat for other reasons. And while it is entirely possible that Gagnon needed to steal to survive – men who were more or less “out” tended to lead very marginal lives in a society that hated them – there is no way that The Star could know whether Gagnon was actually guilty. They need him to be guilty however, to make him seem like more of a threat than he actually was.

In the end, The Star really did not need to push homophobia. A new, uglier form of it had already taken root. Within a month, a vicious new era had dawned in Canada – mere weeks after the death penalty was officially removed for homosexuality, private citizens had begun to take up the effort of vigilante “justice” against homosexuals.

In the next article, we’ll look at the first recorded gaybashing in Canada, which happened in July of that same year.

Sources: My primary source is The Montreal Star article “Another Wretch” dated June 11, 1869. The information on Dufault was a few days earlier in the same paper. I searched for Gagnon in Census data, and in Lovell’s Directories for the years around 1869, but the first and last name are too common. There is no Joseph Gagnon on Saint Mary’s that year (which is now Notre-Dame Est). Some of the addresses are missing from Lovell’s, however, so it is possible authorities simply missed him. Saint Mary’s ended two blocks from the Champ-Mars, a location that put it right near the Montreal barracks, where the city’s soldiers lived. Census data and Starke’s Pocket Almanacfor 1869 and 1870, as well as ages spent pouring over newspaper crime reporting from that year, filled me on Detective Lafon. My information on LGBT life in France at the time comes from a series of books I’ve been reading in preparation for an article on World War I, though Queer Lives – a set of 19th-century French gay men’s biographies edited and put in context by William A. Peniston – has proved particularly enlightening.


Photo: The Champ-de-Mars in 2016.  A photo from 1866 shows the park barely changed, though lined on both sides with trees and without the old city wall exposed.

Study the history of gay and bisexual men long enough, and sooner or later you will have to broach the topic of cruising grounds.

It’s something of an uncomfortable topic for many gay men these days, but beginning at some point in the middle ages, every city of any real size in the West gives rise to a public area – very often a park or forest – where men met men for anonymous sexual encounters.

This formula does not seem to universal to all societies, or even necessarily exists in the West’s ancient past. Ancient Greece and Rome had their gyms and bath houses where men met men to flirt and even have sex, but the anonymity – the silence – of the cruising grounds was something different altogether. Part of the advantage of these areas was that the men knew nothing about one another. Each put the other at minimal risk.

It’s no accident that most gay neighbourhoods arise close to cruising grounds, and that the cruising grounds usually come first. There seems to be a kind of organic process that can be observed in Western cities, in which the cruising ground produces the gay community around it.

It’s not difficult to imagine why. Men who use cruising grounds sometimes move close to it, especially for those men for whom it becomes a major part of their lives. Those men can invite men into their homes instead of staying at the park, where conversation is possible as well as sex. They will frequent business nearby, and may even own them. They will become familiar with the other regulars of the park.

This inevitably creates informal networks and connections outside of the cruising ground, which in turn leads to the sharing of experiences, the creation of art, and the development of shared political and cultural views and values. Eventually the neighbourhood develops a reputation, which attracts gay and bisexual men who would not have joined the cruising scene given a choice. Luckily for them, an alternative then exists.

Still, this crystallization of a community on the edge of a cruising ground can only happen if the larger society around it is willing to grant at least a grudging tolerance – or if not tolerance, then to not consider its destruction a priority. Such a community will not form so long as the police and the neighbours are committed to its extermination.

And when a society decides to withdraw a permission it had previously granted – to make breaking that community a priority again – then the community will usually break or be forced to move. This happened to the British “Molly Houses” in the eighteenth century, and to Montreal’s twin gay districts in the 1970s.

Cruising grounds are harder to destroy. They have no institutions to target, no central figures to get at. They have to be attacked one man at a time. A concerted, constant effort will force them to change locations, but they will simply spring up in another park or public washroom. They are the lowest common denominator of a gay community, emanating from a simple mathematics of population. They are merely the result of gay and bisexual men having nowhere else to go.

Legend has it that “Molly Wood’s Bush” was used in Toronto since the 1830s, but the earliest solid corroborating evidence for a cruising ground exists for the Champ-de-Mars beginning in 1869, a three-block stretch of park in Montreal behind its decorative city hall and its silver-domed law court.

“Champ de Mars” (“Field of the God of War”) is an old French military term for a place where troops were trained and put on display. The original one for Montreal was located outside the city wall. After the British conquered Montreal and the wall was torn down, the park behind city hall was renamed in its honour.

In 1869, most of the island of Montreal was still farmland, but the section of city close to what we now call Old Montreal was heavily urban, cramped, and overpopulated. At some point before June of 1869, men from the rapidly growing city began frequenting the little patch of green space to cruise for sex. It was inevitable that sooner or later, they would attract the notice of the police.

Moïse Tellier’s Cake and Apples Shop

On any short article of LGBT history in Quebec or Canada sooner or later you’ll inevitably reach a curious reference to Moïse Tellier’s cake and apples shop. The version most often published is that the shop was a supposed notorious hangout for homosexual men in Montreal, raided by the police in 1869.

Hardly any of these lists go into any significant detail of the event, and none put it into any context. Indeed, there is enough evidence to suggest that the version almost universally given is wrong.

Almost everything we know about the shop and the raid comes from a single newspaper article in the long-defunct Montreal Star newspaper, in their June 8, 1869 edition:

Yesterday morning, an old man of 60 named Moise Tellier was brought before was brought before the Recorder charged with indecent assault on a Constable. Tellier lives at 477 Craig Street, the same premises occupied by James Butler of the Britannia Saloon, Dr. Perrault and several other respectable citizens. Tellier’s business is nominally to keep a small shop for apples, cakes and similar trifles. But the business is only a cloak for the commission of crimes that rival Sodom and Gomorrah. A house of prostitution were indeed decent compared to this den. It has been watched for sometime past by the police, and we regret, for the credit of our city and humanity, to say that several respectable citizens have been found frequenting it and evidently practising abominations.

The police apparently set up a sting operation, and one complicated by Moise Tellier’s connections:

A special policeman was sent there, and after a brief acquaintanceship, Tellier made ouvertures to him of a nature too abominable to be described. The policeman knocked him down and brought him to the station. We are sorry to say that Mr. Bourgouine was found to defend him. It appears that Mr. Bourgouine is counsel for the revenue department, that a son of Tellier’s is a whisky detective, and that most of the expeditions [police raids] against shebeens [unlicensed bars] are organized at Tellier’s house – certainly a respectable rendezvous. The miserable wretch fell on his knees and implore pardon of the court, withdrew his plea of not guilty, and threw himself on the mercy of the Recorder [Municipal Court Judge], promising to quit the practice and leave the place. The Recorder said he regretted he could not send him to the penitentiary. The law provided no imprisonment, but he would fine him $20, the highest prescribed amount.

The trial was mentioned in a blurb in the major French-language daily La Minerve the same day, but that newspaper went into no details other than to state the name of the accused, the crime he was convicted of, and the the fine. No other newspaper saw fit to mention it, and while some papers (such as The Montreal Herald) only published a small selection of local crime news, in others it is conspicuously absent. Both The Montreal Witness (a Protestant religious paper) and the L’Ordre (a Catholic religious paper) both routinely reported on local crime, but excluded Moïse Tellier’s arrest.

(This is especially glaring in the case of The Witness, which reported on prostitution, murder, theft, beatings, public drunkenness, and countless other crimes, but would apparently not report on homosexuality.)

The story is presented in modern lists of the gay history of Montreal as the first gay bar or secret club. It tends to be described variously as some kind of early speakeasy, and Tellier as some kind of patron and centre of an early gay community. I’ve seen it called North America’s first gay bar.

Yet it seems as though no one has ever previously made a serious effort to research Moïse Tellier and his life. There is enough information to sketch out some aspects of the man and his store, but what we know raises more questions than it answers.

The article in The Star, unsurprisingly, got his age wrong. At the time of the trial, Tellier was 53 years old. Eight years before he had moved to the address on Craig Street, we get a glimpse of his life in the 1861 census. He had lived on Sanguinet Street nearby, in a two-storey brick building with a wife, an elderly, never-married Cyrill Tellier, and six children – Georginie, Joseph, Josephine, Narcisse, Louise, and Philomine.

As for the son who was on the police force – assuming that that was not another mistake on the part of The Star – only Joseph could conceivably be old enough in 1869. It is possible Tellier had another adult son who was not living with him, but there are no police detectives named Tellier listed with the city police force in 1869 or 1870.

His wife’s name is completely illegible due to the enumerator’s poor handwriting and the condition of the document, but a Canadian government archivist’s best guess of “Emilie” seems plausible. There is a “D” in front of her name. Tellier is listed as “widowed” and “married.” The census at the time included the recently deceased along with some kind of indication of their status, and the “D” most likely stands for “défunt” – dead.

(The archivist who transcribed that page of the census interpreted the “D” before her name as “Dr.,” though this is six years before Emily Stowe became famous as the first woman to practise medicine in Canada. That is only one of many reasons why this is highly unlikely.)

The family moved almost every year, though there is nothing out of the ordinary for the time – nineteenth century Montrealers were very nomadic. There is no record of them before 1854, but given the poor record-keeping of the time and the many records destroyed by accident and violence, this is not surprising. It is also possible the family came out of rural Quebec before 1854, as so many had.

We have absolutely no idea how Tellier saw his own sexuality. The words “homosexual” and “bisexual” did not exist in English at this point. Contrary to what some historians believe, men did wrestle with what their sexuality meant, did form identities around it, did reach conclusions about the origin of their desires, and did categorize themselves and others before the words we use existed; but the authorities were completely uninterested in such things. They rarely recorded these identities, or if they did it was done to illustrate how unrepentant these men were.

So if Moïse Tellier had reached any conclusions about his own sexuality, we will never know it.

If the Moïse Tellier who moved into the storefront on Craig Street sometime in 1868 or 1869 looks nothing like gay community leader he’s sometimes made out to be, the idea that his store was some kind of secret gay bar or speakeasy seems just as unlikely. The shop was a small storefront crammed in beside a bar and a doctor’s office, and pressed up against a much larger house where a single family was apparently running a law office and a dental practice out of their home.

The fruit shop (as it is generally listed in guides) was narrow, and probably not long. It was brick, and in the one surviving photo that includes it, it looks to be only two storeys. At least five of Moise Tellier’s children lived with him, probably in living quarters on the second floor. It was small, humble even, and most likely very crowded.

As for what happened in June 8th, the facts generally agreed upon are that a) something of a homosexual nature was going on, b) Tellier was involved and implied to be for some time, and c) on June 8th he had sexually propositioned a constable. Tellier offered a not-particularly-sincere plea that he would repent and change his ways, and the judge was not convinced.

What was going on in the shop? Most of the assumptions about it are based on The Star’s ludicrous language that it was the site of “the commission of crimes that rival Sodom and Gomorrah” and that “A house of prostitution were indeed decent compared to this den.” Also, there was the accusation that prominent citizens were visiting it.

Leaving aside The Star‘s unreliability – in their effort to fulminate, they forgot to fact-check such basic details as Tellier’s age – I think what most people who’ve looked at the Tellier case have failed to grasp is that the kind of language that the paper used was simply how newspapers at the time talked about homosexuality (when they deigned to talk about it at all).

So The Star would have used the same language whether Tellier was hosting all-male orgies, or if he was one half of a discreet, monogamous gay couple.

As if to hit this point home, reporting three days later on a man named Joseph Gagnon who was bringing soldiers home with him for sex, they said he was “quite a match for Tellier.” This would be a strange comparison if Tellier was running a secret club while Gagnon was just bringing men back to his place.

By far the most likely possibility is that the widowed father of at least six was quietly taking men home from the Champ-de-Mars cruising ground across the street, most likely at night when his shop was closed and his children were asleep. Any “prominent citizens” frequenting it would have likely been his partners, though it’s not impossible he let others use his back room.

Anything more than this would have been pretty much impossible, given the homophobia of the times and the nature of the space he lived in. As disappointing as it might sound, Tellier was most likely just using his shop as a safer and warmer alternative to having sex in the Champ-de-Mars park, which was already being noticed by the police and by that new phenomenon – attested to in newspapers for the first time a month after the Tellier trial – the gaybasher.

There is one last mystery with regards to Tellier, and that is we don’t know what he was actually convicted of. Both The Star and Le Minerve claimed it was “indecent assault,” and Tellier admitted to homosexual acts.

But the judge lamented that he could only sentence he could give Tellier was a $20 fine, and there has never been a point in the history of Canada when same-sex sexual assault was so lightly punished.

To be fair, it was a confusing time in Canadian law. A new, consolidated criminal code was coming into effect the month after Tellier’s trial. But the original law had provided the death penalty for same-sex sexual assault (or attempted assault). The new law specified that any man convicted of “indecent assault” against another male was “liable to be imprisoned in the Penitentiary for any term not exceeding ten years, and not less than two years,” or a sentence up to two years in an ordinary jail.

The Recorder’s Court, ironically, kept very poor records, but what we do have seems to concur that Tellier was not charged with “indecent assault” – there was no such crime before the court that year, and no such crime remanded to the higher court of the Quarter Sessions.

All we have is a tally of each crime committed, and he was most likely one of the 86 people charged with the “assault or resist [of] any Officer” statute in the city bylaws, which was so broadly defined as to give the arresting officer wide powers.  Given how specific “attempted sodomy” was in its definition, it was probably all they could have charged Tellier with.

Twenty dollars was worth a lot more in 1869, but the law said that the penalty should have been far worse.  It would have been an appropriate penalty for “assault or resist” though.

The Guards at the Gate

I began this article by reflecting on the relationship of cruising grounds to the large community. The cruising ground is not just a steam-release valve for gay and bisexual men in a homophobic culture – from a social history perspective, it’s a larger community in embryo.

For a cruising ground to grow into a complex community, the rest of the world has to be willing to leave it alone. If the larger, homophobic culture perpetually polices the borders places like the Champ-de-Mars (or Molly Wood’s Bush, or Stanley Park) and harasses the men that use it, the seed it represents will never germinate.

The reason Moïse Tellier’s supposed gay bar has achieved a kind of mythic status without any real evidence that it existed is simply because people want it to be true. LGBT folk want to believe that someone carved out a space for themselves in a world that so viciously hostile. Montrealers want to believe that their city has always been a place where anything goes. Canadians want to believe that the country is more tolerant and compassionate than its neighbours, and always has been.

The reality is a lot more ugly. As short as Canada falls from its own ideals today, the late 19th and early 20th century was an especially intolerant age. Montreal was no exception to the rule, and in the 1860s violent religious bigotry was especially on display here. The Canadian Illustrated News opened its first issue of the year 1869 with a picture of churches burning in Montreal. Catholics and Protestants murdered one another in street riots.

And the competition between Catholics and Protestants had the side effect of spurring both on toward greater heights of moralism and fanaticism. Compared with Britain’s much more relaxed attitude toward religion and post-Revolutionary France’s anti-clericalism, Canada was medieval in its approach to the various branches of the Christian religion and the absolutism with which it applied them.

It is important to see Tellier’s arrest in this context. Since the days of the first European colonies, things had never been good for LGBT people here. Now society was rapidly becoming more racist, more fundamentalist, more bigoted – and more convinced that it had to root out corruption of any kind.

To see it another way, the Montreal police force was only five years old, had only a handful of officers, and had to police a city of more than a 100,000 people that was rapidly growing. They were underfunded, underpaid, and stretched thin. If they set up a sting operation, made two arrests, and almost made a third of men cruising the Champs-de-Mars in a single month (and they did) it was because they considered targeting the park a serious priority for their scant resources.

The Champs-de-Mars was frequented for at least a decade and a half, if a La Presse article from 1883 is any indication. It is telling that it never produced a gay neighbourhood around it. At some point the cruising grounds moved to the much larger Mont-Royal park, where a series of trails had been built in the 1870s, and where it was easier for men to meet each other without attracting police attention.

When Montreal finally got its gay neighbourhoods – two parallel ones, in fact – it is not at all surprising that one was at the foot of the mountain. The other was in a “tolerance zone” where the police avoided making arrests for vice crimes so that they could keep all that “vice” in one place.

That’s a story for another day. Before we move on to other topics though I would like to take a further look at the persecutions of 1869, to the case of Joseph Gagnon and at the beginning of gaybashing in Montreal.

Sources: My first sources were the series of Montreal Star articles – dated June 8th, June 11th, and July 17th, 1869. I checked a half-dozen other newspapers, but only Le Minerve even mentioned the Tellier case. I used the census for the years of 1861 and 1871, and Lovell’s directories over a period of 20 years – there only seemed to have been one person by Tellier’s name in the city at the time. I checked detailed city plans of the house. There were the usual sources – legal codes for the era. I used Starke’s Pocket Almanac for 1869 and 1870 for details about the police, as well as Constabulary: The Rise of Police Institutions in Britain by Hereward Senior. I hunted through archival photos and maps for details on the house itself, but only one photo included even a corner of the building. The block where the building was has been demolished to make way for the Ville-Marie Expressway, though in a photo from 1927, it appears that a factory-like building had already replaced it.

After a hiatus of more than three years – and a computer crash that eliminated most of my research notes – I’d like to continue where I left off, exploring the first community that Elsa Gidlow illuminates for us.

Last time we looked at the women in her circle, the small community she created around herself and around Roswell George Mills of LGB people and sympathetic heterosexuals. I’d like now to turn to the men.

Lucien Lacouture and Henri Lamy

At some point in the 1910s, Gidlow ran into Mills and coming out of a priest’s home on Dorchester Street. The priest was one of Mills’ lovers. As he was leaving, two friends of Mills’ – Henri Lacouture and Henri Lamy were coming to visit the priest, whom Gidlow never names. According to Mills:

…these two young men, and others were welcomed visitors. The priests offered themselves as lovers, treated the young men royally, serving the gifts brought in by their devout parishioners. They, of course, were sworn to poverty and had no money of their own to buy such luxuries.

Mills also related how on a police raid, the officers had found the priests with some very young lovers all dressed as women. This fascinated Gidlow, who wondered why. Mills answered, “Did you ever stop to consider that priests, monks, the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy, spend their life in drag?”

It had been through the church that Lacouture had discovered he was gay. He had been a seminary student, and quite devout. He had always believed he was going to become a priest. But he became tormented when he fell in love with another seminary student, a boy named Jean, who was in Gidlow’s words, “filling his mind and heart to the exclusion of meditation on God and the saints” and who “appeared more beautiful (heresy!) than any saint with his intense eyes and merry mouth.”

Lacouture went, tortured by his feelings, to confession. He cried, confessed it all, and waited for his punishment. He expected excommunication, or at least to be excluded from his vocation in the priesthood. Instead, the priest – a Father Francis – told him to meet him at the parish house, for what would be Lacouture’s first sexual experience.

He left his career in the church after that.

Lacouture became very much a part of Mills’ circle, and a friend of Gidlow’s. According to Gidlow, after he gave up on the religious life, Lacouture became (appropriately given his name) a fashion designer. He had a plan to live in New York for two years to learn his art, and then return to Montreal. After his return, said Gidlow, he designed clothes for wealthy women.

A dictionary of Quebec fashion flushes out a few details, mentioning “The little we know about this designer permits us to know that he was noteworthy in the Montreal of the 1920s and 1930s.” Lacouture was born in 1895. When Gidlow was in New York, he was making regular trips there to purchase fabrics he couldn’t get in Montreal.

And Gidlow was very right that he was a designer to the rich. His clients included Saidye Bronfman, the matriarch of the Bronfman liquor empire and one of the wealthiest families in Canada.

He died astonishingly young in 1934 of a brain tumour. He was not yet forty. His apprentice, a woman named Hernance Ferland was taken up by Marie-Paule Nolin, founder of what would become Canada’s greatest fashion house of the 1950s and 1960s. Ferland’s talents – and the clients of Lacouture’s she brought with her – help make Nolin’s empire what it was.

Lacouture stayed with Henri Lamy whenever Lacouture was in New York. Lamy was also an expatriate Montreal. He and Lacouture had been lovers, and remained close friends throughout their lives.

Lamy was not as close to Gidlow, and left fewer records to trace. Gidlow said he had gone to New York to get training as a singer. According to Gidlow, “Teachers had promised him that his rich tenor voice could qualify him for grand opera if he would overcome his laziness and work.” He moved onto West 44th Street, where his apartment became the kind of base of operations for expatriate Montrealers.

He does not appear to have ever made it. I’ve never found his name in connection with the opera. When Gidlow made return trips to Montreal to visit friends and family, he was there again.

Harcourt Farmer

Harcourt Farmer was a stage actor and a writer. Gidlow does not appear to have been fan of either his work or him personally. She was jealous by her own admission, and she “hated him” for his sexual relationship with Estelle Cox, with whom Gidlow herself was in love. Her description of him – the only one we have – should be taken in that context:

Harcourt had a dark, slightly sullen, dissipated face, the plastic face of an actor, handsome at times, and a thin, nervous body he handled gracefully. The few times I had been alone with him he had appeared lonely and had not hesitated to let me know he would have liked to make love with me. My lack of interest and response let our relationship settle into a pleasantly casual friendship.

Farmer was interested in both men and women. While he an Gidlow were often rivals for the same woman, he also had for a lover a young war veteran named Charles McDonnell – who we’ll return to in a moment. His philosophy on love seemed to have been – as Gidlow quotes him – “A lover in bed is worth two in the offing.”

Farmer is one of the few of Gidlow’s circle I have been able to find in primary sources. His school of elocution – undoubtedly how he made a living as a struggling actor – was on McGill College Street.

His writing show up from time to time as well. He wrote frequently for journals on culture in and outside Canada. He produced one piece for The Canadian Bookman (April 1919), asking if Canada would ever develop its own theatre tradition. He was doubtful it would. In June of 1920 he penned an article predicting the death of jazz in Musical America. “But every fad has its day,” he wrote, “and ‘Jazz music’ is no exception to the rule.”

(One wonders what he might have made of the Montreal Jazz Festival. The world’s largest jazz fesitval, now nearly a hundred after he’d predicted its end, is centred a few blocks from Roswell George Mills home!)

As an actor, he does not seem to have ever made the transition to film. He performed Shakespeare at Stevenson Hall in 1919, to a mixed review in The Gazette. After 1920, he fell entirely off the radar. Entirely. He does not appear in the phone book, he writes no articles, and does not perform onstage. Elsa never mentions him again, and I’ve found no frther mention of him anywhere.

About his love life, Elsa is rarely specific, and details mostly his relationships with women, particularly with Estelle. She does mention that he’d been the lover of a Charles McDonnell, a soldier in the war.

Charles McDonnell

Most of the gay and bisexual men who met at Roswell Mills’ home in Montreal seem to have made a life for themselves, in spite of the challenges facing LGB individuals in the 1910s and 1920s. Charles McDonnell was the one true tragedy.

That tragedy was in great part due to the war. McDonnell had been deeply traumatized by his experiences on the front line. He did not find anyone particularly sympathetic. He was lovers with Harcourt Farmer for a time, but though he was “young, good looking, passionate, [and] loved and wrote poetry,” Farmer dumped him saying “I can’t keep coddling him…He’s always in the bloody dumps reciting Housman [a gay poet who wrote very often about death], talking about corpses.”

McDonnell followed Gidlow and Mills to New York. He tried to get some of his poetry published by the magazine Gidlow worked for, but she rejected it – too “sentimental [and] derivative of Housman.” He became involved with Roswell George Mills, but Mills couldn’t handle his constant talk of the horrors of war.

Gidlow quotes McDonnell:

You haven’t seen them. Ten million corpses. Ten million of them! They were young like us. They ate. They drank. They were even merry. I loved them. I made love with one of them. There in the trenches where he became a corpse.

The military was uninterested in helping him, and no one in his circle of friends was equipped to. It was before post-traumatic stress disorder even had a name. Mills dropped him, and McDonnell committed suicide soon after.

I’ve tried to add to McDonnell’s story.  I’ve been able to locate two Charles McDonnells from Montreal who served overseas, plus a Francis Charles McDonnell from Montreal, and a fourth I’ve been able to find nothing about at all.  One, an  English-born printer who lived on Milton Street, seems a little older than Gidlow’s description.  Another was married, and also seems a little old.  She described McDonnell as very young, and both would have been older than her and in their 30s when McDonnell died.

That leaves Francis Charles McDonnell, who lived on Saint-Antoine Street likely not far from Roswell, and would have been just 20 when he enlisted in 1916.   He lived with his mother Catherine and was a clerk.  His physical description mentions him as thin, five-foot-two, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and of clear complexion, which of all of them seems to match Gidlow’s description of “that beautiful young man” by the standards of the age.

This McDonnell sailed to England with 199th Battalion Duchess of Connaught’s Own Irish Rangers.  They trained there, and it seems as though they were sent to the front line as reinforcements for units that had lost infantry.  Since he survived the war, his service record is sealed, and I have not been able to find anything else about him to match him to Gidlow’s description.

Phyllis Gidlow

Gidlow devotes even less time to exploring the situation of her sibling, Phyllis. Phyllis Gidlow, she tells us was “mad,” and she documents Phyllis’s slow deterioration over the years. Her sibling refused to eat, and was “raving in tongues,” before the family decided to institutionalize her. Conditions were poor in the institution, Gidlow writes, and Phyllis died.

Gidlow adds one curious detail in her description of Phyllis: “She insisted on wearing boys’ clothes and said she was a boy.”

Gidlow gives us very little to go on. Given her dismissiveness toward other trans people – she was downright mocking when describing trans folk she met in Germany at Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute – it’s safe to assume she’s giving us a very skewed picture of Phyllis Gidlow. And given what we know of the ways in which a transphobic culture causes or worsens psychological problems for trans people, it’s not unreasonable at all to suggest a whole alternative narrative.

What is Phyllis Gidlow was actually trans? And her psychological problems stemmed from being in a culture – and a family – whose most bohemian members had no compassion whatsoever for her situation?

It’s only a theory, and given what little Gidlow gives us to go on, simply speculation. But if Gidlow’s sibling is trans, he would be the first trans person in Canada we can put a name to.

Sadly, I’ve been able to find nothing about Phyllis Gidlow, except a date of death (May 6, 1930). Gidlow mentions that Phyllis was committed to the Protestant Verdun Insane Asylum, which is now the Douglas Hospital in Verdun. Their brother Eric was also there. If those records are kept anywhere, I would not be able to access them.

Gidlow’s Circle

Else Gidlow’s circle – the one that coalesced around her and Roswell Mills – gives us something that rarely see in any country, and which is even more lacking in the Canadian context: an intimate portrait of the LGBT community before the liberation movement. It’s the first such view we have. Every other glimpse of that community has been through the eyes of authorities – through the police, and medical authorities, journalists, and official records.

The rare times there’s been a hint of the voice of the people themselves, it’s been muffled and vague: a bit of poetry, or a line of testimony in someone else’s record. With Gidlow, we finally see how LGBT people of the time lived, loved, and saw themselves.

Of course, there had to be countless other stories, lost to us – there were communities in all the larger cities, and circles of friends who knew each other in other places. Also, there was the war that had so destroyed Charles McDonnell, and defined the end of one era and the beginning of another for Western history generally. It had no small impact on the course of LGB history in the course of the 20th century, and in a strange way forged LGB communities of its own.

It’s to the War to End All Wars that we turn next.

Sources: My primary source, as for the last few entries, has been Elsa: I Come With My Songs by Elsa Gidlow. There was very little to flush it out with, though over my years of hiatus I researched everything from old phone books to dictionaries, to biographical materials.

For Lucien Lacouture’s life, I only had Dicomode: dictionnaire de la mode au Québec de 1900 à nos jours by Gérald Baril available to flesh out what Gidlow tells us. I searched several works on Quebec Opera for Lamy, and found nothing.

Harcourt Farmer does turn up from time to time. The phone book provides the address of his “school for elocution,” over the course of several years. Most of the pieces I’ve cited in the text above, while the mixed review in The Gazette comes from the May 28, 1919 issue. His unusual name should make him easy to trace, but he vanishes rather suddenly in the 1920s, with no clue from Gidlow where he might have gone. Given how eager he was to take centre-stage and how happy he was to have a public forum for his opinions, his disappearance is rather odd.

Charles McDonnell’s records, what little I was able to find, are from the Library and Archives Canada’s online research pages.  It has six entries for that name, three of them from Montreal and one unknown.  Two of them are older – one married, and one from England with bad teeth.  It seems unlikely either is Gidlow’s “beautiful, young man” from Montreal.  His regiment number was 919021.  I’m continuing research into the subject.

Phyllis Gidlow’s records, if any exist, will be sealed at the Douglas Hospital. As far as I know, there’s no way for a member of the public to access them, so the story of Elsa Gidlow’s sibling will have to remain incomplete. It’s unclear whether the doctors of the time would have understood what it meant to be trans, and it’s entirely possible they’d have come to the same conclusions Elsa Gidlow did. Gender identity at a concept in psychology had only been studied by those doctors on the cutting edge of psychology, such as those whose research interested Magnus Hirschfeld. It was only later the year that Phyllis Gidlow died that the first publicized sex-reassignment surgery was performed, and the reality of trans people brought to wider public attention. Thus, the truth of Phyllis Gidlow’s indentity is likely lost to us.

I’ve been on hiatus for years, with little time and no energy for the research involved. I’m looking to get back into it.

For tonight, I just wanted to mention that today is the 43rd anniversary of the final rubber stamp on the Omnibus Bill that made me not automatically illegal for having a relationship in my country.

Tomorrow, we in the LGBT communities will be inundated with Stonewall retrospectives as we always are on June 28th, and Canadians will talk about Stonewall as the start of the movement. But our movement up here was alive, well, and had achieved its first major victory. It got royal assent the night before Stonewall – something in the air, clearly.

No disrespect to Americans who have every reason to celebrate tomorrow, but it isn’t right to forget our own history, and discard the memory of the work of tireless activists up here who made it happen.