Reconstructing LGBT history is difficult at the best of time. Historically, homosexuality has been seen as “the worst of sins,” “the nameless vice,” and “the unmentionable crime.” It is rarely spoken of, and then in whispers and euphemisms, until very recently.
Historians use mostly court records, newspapers, and private journals to sketch out the life of homosexuals and bisexuals before the first glimmerings of the liberation movement in the nineteenth century. Which brings us to the problem of New France — a place with a mostly-illiterate population that kept few journals and had no newspapers.
The stories of the unnamed drummer, the Seigneur de Saint-Michel, and the Two-Spirit people are the only examples historians have found of homosexuality in New France’s history. From what we can gather from the extant records, the Seigneur de Saint-Michel and the drummer were the only ones ever brought to trial for homosexuality in New France.
The lack of court cases suggests one of two possibilities about New France:
- homosexuality was rare, or passed largely unnoticed
- it was not rare but largely tolerated, with few cases going to trial
I think that — at least by the time Montreal was firmly established — the second possibility, not the first, better describes the situation. Though I realize this runs counter to everything we’d assume about that time and place, I think that the evidence weighs in its favour.
To begin this argument, I’d like to draw attention to Nicholas Daussy, Seigneur de Saint-Michel himself. He was clearly an intelligent man — he knew the law, he knew his rights, enough at least to demand a trial on his terms.
So why did he carry on what sounds like it was a set of very public relationships? There were eight witnesses, after all, not counting Dollier de Casson, who brought the case forward. And why — when the judgement accused him of “debauching many men” — were only two arrested?
The Saint-Michel case has all the hallmarks of the kind of trial where someone is “made an example of,” to send a message to others committing a common crime. And yet still, Saint-Michel managed to avoid jail, the galleys, and the death penalty. How did he do it?
Over the next few entries, I’m going to explore the political, cultural, and religious climate of New France. I’m going to start with life in France, since the colony was mostly made up of French immigrants until the 1700s. I will then move on to the social and sexual life of New France and the moral crusades of the church in that era.
While there’s little hard evidence either way, I think I can show that Quebec’s tolerance towards homosexuals and bisexuals is not something new, but has been part of local culture since the earliest days of its colonial history.