Montreal-based group’s members reflect on the city’s LGBTQ+ history and their personal connections to it

Words: Emma Brayley
Photography: Elisa Barbier

When John Walker came out to his mother after his divorce in 1975, she was devastated. By the end of their conversation Walker had been disowned.

“[She] said, ‘John, by the way, are you a homosexual, by any chance?’” Walker recalls. “I said ‘Yes, mother, I am.’ And then the whole thing fell apart.”

He and his mother reconciled some time later. But, for many years, Walker decided to live a dual life, out to some and closeted to many, especially when it came to his professional life. Back then, being open about your identity put you at risk of losing your job, he explains.

LISTEN: John Walker talks about living a double life as a gay man in a blue collar industry.

Decades later, though, Walker says he has seen an evolution, both in himself and in Montreal.

“I feel that I should tell [people] because it’s a part of me, my character. You have a problem, well that’s your problem. But I have no qualms now disclosing my sexual orientation or my HIV status,” says Walker.

Today, Walker is getting ready to sit down for a Friday lunch with friends he knows through Gay and Grey, a Montreal-based group that brings together anglophone LGBTQ+ people over 50 years old.

While only six men made it out to Notre-Dame-de-Grâce for this particular Gay and Grey lunch, the organization’s founder, Bruce Cameron, pointed out their membership has grown to about 40 over the past few months. Despite efforts to expand the diversity of the group, so far only about five or six women are members, he says.

Bruce Cameron plans with David Cassidy the activities Gay and Grey will hold for the month of March during their weekly meeting at the Kensington Presbyterian Church in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Montreal. Cameron started Gay and Grey as a way to encourage older gay adults to build friendships.

Although the men sitting around the table might share an identity—that of a gay man over 50—the experiences they recount over lunch run the gamut from quiet home lives, to protesting the discrimination of LGBTQ+ people, to living with the outcome of the AIDS epidemic.

LISTEN: John Walker talks about being diagnosed with HIV.

While many likely think about Montreal as a progressive city today, that was not the case a little over 40 years ago. On Oct. 22, 1977 police raided the popular Stanley St. gay bars, Le Mystique and Truxx. In total, 147 people were charged in relation to common bawdy-house laws. In other words, these bars were determined to be places where so-called “indecent acts” occurred. The owner of Truxx was charged with keeping a common bawdy-house, while the other 146 people were charged as “found-ins,” as individuals who just happened to be in such an establishment during the raids. Today, many attribute the raids to then-mayor Jean Drapeau’s efforts to “clean up the city” that began just prior to the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

Though many of the charges were eventually dropped or dismissed in court, some men chose to plead guilty to avoid being publicly outed.

The day after the police raids, on Oct. 23, 1977, the city’s gay community fought back as 2,000 protested in the streets of what was then the Peel-Stanley Gay Ghetto. In December 1977, the Quebec government made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, the second jurisdiction to do so world wide at the time.

“As far as I’m concerned—other people have different opinions—that was Montreal’s Stonewall, because it made a significant change as far as the law,” says Daniel Wylie, a member of Gay and Grey who participated in the Oct. 23, 1977 protest. Wylie had been out around Peel-Stanley on the night of the police raids, and says he missed the one at Le Mystique by about 15 minutes.

Daniel Wylie laughs while chatting with his friends at the Gay and Grey meeting on Friday March 1, 2019 at the Kensington Presbyterian Church in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Montreal. During the 1970s, Wylie witnessed a number of police raids on Montreal’s gay bars.

Some of the men caught up in the raids were arrested at machine gun point, Wylie remembers. Even with the changes to Quebec’s discrimination laws, Wylie recalls raids continuing in various gay bars around the city up until the 1990s.

K. David Brody is the author of Mourning and Celebration, a book which explores how his own experience as a gay Jewish man of Polish descent would have played out living in a Polish shtetl in 1909.

Brody, a member of Gay and Grey, has seen and been at the forefront of gay liberation in Quebec for many years. When Brody’s partner passed away in the mid-1990s, he learnt the surviving partner in a same-sex relationship could not receive the provincial death benefit like those in heterosexual common law relationships could.

Brody and three other men sued the province on the basis of discrimination based on sexual orientation. The case was before the courts for eight years, from 1994 to 2002, but eventually they won. Their case and the legal precedent it set spurred further changes to the law.

David Cassidy, a board member of Gay and Grey and a long-time Montreal activist and community organizer, has created many LGBTQ-focused organizations in the city, including AIDS Community Care Montreal (ACCM).

“I’ve created organizations so long as I had somebody who fit the criteria,” says Cassidy.

In addition to community organizing, Cassidy’s passion project includes a book he and his partner of 45 years co-wrote in 1999, titled Longtime Companions.

The Kensington Presbyterian Church provides space for New Hope community centre for older adults, and the Gay and Grey meetings in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Montreal.

“[We wrote it] because there was a lot of people in the gay community who didn’t accept that people can be together for [long] periods,” says Cassidy. “It was hidden. There was no place to record that statistic. It wasn’t a part of the census at that time.”

Cassidy points out much of the information behind long-term partnerships in the LGBTQ+ community remains hidden today, in part due to a lack of organizations for LGBTQ+ couples or older LGBTQ+ adults.

Though Gay and Grey is a start, he says there are very few spaces for older LGBTQ+ people to meet outside of the bar scene.

As part of Gay and Grey’s weekly meeting, the group of friends eats a lunch at the Kensington Presbyterian Church in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Montreal. From left to right: Bruce Cameron, Daniel Wylie, K. David Brody, John Walker, Gilbert Hymer, and David Cassidy.

“Seniors, if they don’t have a network, [they get isolated],” says Cassidy. “That’s why this group is growing. There’s such a lack of meeting spaces and resources that this group is a natural take-off.”

While many of the men at the Gay and Grey lunch speak of the trials, tribulations, and ultimately the triumphs of the gay liberation movement in the city, not everyone at the table shares these same experiences.

Gilbert Hymer, an actor, describes a quiet life with his partner. Having met in their early 20s in the 1970s, they settled down and became somewhat isolated from the wider community.

“Since I’ve joined this group, I’ve learned that in the 70s and 80s there was a lot of discrimination, which I didn’t realize at all,” says Hymer. “They did raids on different venues and I never experienced that.”

“I don’t know if we just went on the wrong nights?” he joked.

After his partner died, Hymer began joining groups like Gay and Grey to help break isolation. Despite the more political ambitions many Gay and Grey members had in their youth, today it seems as though this organization is more based on sharing, conversing, and meeting new people. Though Cameron had initially intended on the group doing some activism, he seems pleased people are simply socializing.

“The idea is to make it grow, but based on what people want to do, [and] not necessarily my agenda, which was more political,” says Cameron. “It has to do with socialization, mutual support. The idea is to break the isolation in and of itself. Given the linguistic limits of some of the people, it works.”