After being made invisible and criminalized, their history almost ignored, lesbians in Quebec are emerging from the shadows with the publication of Lesbian Archives, a unique and unprecedented work of some 1000 pages, and almost as many photos, launched on Saturday in as part of the Lesbian Visibility Day festivities. To illustrate how far we have come a long way, look back on this unpublished story in seven chosen times, with the author, Julie Vaillancourt.

Lesbian women are for centuries, if not unknown, at least invisible, private sphere obliges. This is not exactly the case for men, as evidenced by the famous “sodomy” law added to the Canadian Criminal Code in 1892, criminalizing all sexual activity between people of the same sex. In the 1950s, this law was extended to women. This is what will be worth to a first woman to be accused of “gross indecency” in Yellowknife, from 1955, with the case The Queen against Moore. A 40-year-old of African-American origin is indeed accused of having “dared to kiss another woman in a shameless manner”. She will even be accused of “Lesbianism” (with a capital L), although acquitted on appeal.

Back to the beginning of the 20th century, where the beginnings of a lesbian cultural life finally germinated in Montreal, around the Canadian-American poet Elsa Gidlow, to whom we owe the very first volume of openly lesbian poetry in North America ( On a Gray Thread, 1923). “Lesbianism is first associated with very literary and bourgeois circles,” says Julie Vaillancourt. Elsa Gidlow joins the English-language underground magazine Fantastic Flies, the first in the country to tackle (and even celebrate) gay issues head-on. Ironically, she then left Montreal for New York, for lack of avenues to meet other lesbians here, she said.

If showing off remained dangerous for lesbians until the 1960s, they nevertheless appeared quietly through the performing arts. The Théâtre du Rideau Vert, founded by Yvette Brind’Amour and her lover Mercedes Palomino in 1948, dares a daring inauguration with the play Les innocentes (Liliam Hellman), banned in Boston, Chicago, then London, which denounces the ambient puritanism , tackling “female homosexuality” head-on, but not lesbianism. “The lesbians are present, confirms Julie Vaillancourt, but are once again not named. »

Hard to believe and yet, “it happened in Canada”, recalls Julie Vaillancourt. At this same time, and while homosexuality was considered a crime (by law), a sin (by religion) or a disease (by science), the country carried out a real “purge” of its function. Public Service, its Royal Gendarmerie and its Armed Forces. It’s the Cold War and we associate homosexuals, women included, with communists. A professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Frank Robert Wake, invents the “fruit machine”, supposed to identify gay people, like a Clockwork Orange, quickly abandoned. But the purges continue, as evidenced by the case of Martine Roy, brought to the screen in 1989 in a short documentary film (Une fille de ma gang, by Marilyn Burgess). The ex-soldier underwent various interrogations and psychiatric treatments, before being fired, because of his homosexuality.

In 1969, with the “omnibus bill”, Pierre Elliott Trudeau decriminalized homosexual acts committed in private by consenting adults. A major change of course, with one nuance. “It comes, up to a certain point, to criminalize homosexual acts committed in public”, nuance Julie Vaillancourt. This is evidenced by the numerous police raids on gay bars, but also lesbians, which are beginning to appear here and there in Montreal.

Lesbian bars are much more discreet than their gay counterparts. You can count them on the fingers of one hand: Des ponts de Paris (the oldest, from 1950), Chez madame Arthur (in the 1970s, rue Bishop, where the Institut Simone de Beauvoir is located today, address legend that inspired Marie-Claire Blais’ novel Les nuits de l’underground), and Chez Baby Face. Despite their low visibility, they are also subject to police raids. The most famous is undoubtedly that of the gay bar Le Truxx, in 1977, which will be followed, the next day, by one of the first demonstrations in defense of the rights of gays in Quebec, chaired by Jeanne d’Arc Jutras, pioneer of the gay and lesbian rights movement (deprived of custody of her son at age 20, because of her orientation). That same year, Quebec became the first province to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Canada will follow 20 years later.

The years that followed, the 1980s and 1990s, epitomized the “golden age” of Montreal lesbianism. Lots of magazines (Revue L), documentaries (Yesterday’s Amazons, Today’s Lesbians, which will be remade in 2002) and festivals (Image Nation) with lesbian themes appear. Just like bars, this time concentrated on the Plateau, notably rue Saint-Denis, while gay bars are moving towards the Village. We think of the Labyris, the Exit or the Lilith. This was followed by mixed bars (Le Lézard and Zorro) and many other addresses in the Latin Quarter. Since the Drugstore, closed in 2013, there is no longer a single bar for women in Montreal. “Like society, it’s become more inclusive,” says Julie Vaillancourt, who hopes young women will learn a lot about their community by reading these archives. The goal is “not to forget those figures who paved the way before us,” she says.

Comprised of two volumes and the fruit of two years of research, Lesbian Archives offers an ambitious, albeit “fragmentary” overview of the history of “those who love women” and who have so far been almost invisible, of ancient Greece. until today. Published by the Sapphic editions of the Quebec Lesbian Network, the book, reviewed by an advisory committee made up of Dominique Bourque and Line Chamberland (Lesbian Memoirs), will be offered for consultation at BAnQ. Only 200 limited edition copies were printed.