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When I first moved to Mile End, at the northwest edge of Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood, gentrification was already well underway, but pockets of resistance (and affordable housing) remained.
Grungy queer venues like Cabaret Playhouse and the Royal Phoenix (god I miss their fries) and a population that seemed to be at least 60% beautifully dissipated artists made me feel like I was living in Paris in the early 20th century. Those venues even seemed geared towards queer women and nonbinary people, a welcome change from the cis-gay-male-dominated spaces of the Village, an area located along Ste. Catherine street, and historically the center of queer, or at least gay, activity in the city. Alas, the Mile End’s bohemian vibe and its more welcoming queer spaces were not to last. Royal Phoenix closed in June of 2014, and Playhouse didn’t last much longer, shutting its doors for good in 2015.
The Mile End itself is increasingly occupied by young, upwardly mobile professionals and their families, and the person in the apartment above mine is paying very nearly twice what I do to live in this rundown tenement building, poorly maintained by our uninterested, unfriendly landlords. What’s a queer, femme working artist to do as I pack my things and prepare to move away from the city that’s been my home for more than half a decade? Why, find new spaces of course, or at the very least some fantastic parties.
So, when a friend invites me to Grind’her: Wide Open Spaces at Café Cleopatra—a beautiful if slightly rundown cabaret space with a strip club downstairs, and a history of trans inclusion and employment stretching back decades, and one of the best places in town for drag shows, burlesque, queer parties, and more—I jump at the chance to go.
Well, I say jump. What I mean is that I stare at the event page in terror, click interested, lie down for a minute, consider my energy levels, stare at my cats, think about running away to an empty island and never interacting with a human being ever again, decide I should really go out since I only have so much time left here, and then write to my friend to say yes before I can change my mind. Fortunately, this friend is one of those delightful people who continue to invite me to events despite the fact that my intense introversion means I say no far more often than I say yes, so she rides the wave of my initial indecision with aplomb.
Socialist sluts and strippers unite
The third line on the Facebook event page reads, all caps, SOCIALIST SLUTS + STRIPPERS UNITE—well, I’m definitely a socialist, but my ability to be a slut has always been constrained by a) my raging social anxiety and b) my inability to enjoy or even want sex without some sort of meaningful emotional or intellectual connection. But a lot of my community and many of my best and most supportive friends are strippers, sex workers, and self-identified sluts, making it that much more likely that I’ll have a good time at this event.
I sleep badly the night before, full of anxiety over my move, and give up at around 6:30 Saturday morning, rolling the exhausted heap of my body into the shower and lying there until my cats harass me out of it. At least I’ll be clean if, by some miracle, I actually meet somebody at the event, described as “a night of unrivaled debauchery [in praise of] dyke and queer sex workers at Montreal’s finest lesbionic stripper evening.” And exhausted or not, I’m determined to have a good time (plus, writing about it means I get to bring a notebook to scribble things down in, and having something to do with my hands is key to keeping my brain calm enough that it doesn’t ruin its own fun).
My friend and I agree to meet at her place around 8:30 or 9:00 before heading over to the event, which starts at 10:00, and I spend most of the day packing. At around 7:00, I make myself some supper and throw on some makeup and then sit down to roll a joint before heading out. I walk to my friend’s house, heading down Boulevard St. Laurent, a vibrant street full of shops and restaurants that cuts the city almost exactly in half, so I can stop at my bank on the way—I’m going to need some cash to tip the performers. The sun is setting after the year’s first summer storm, and the clouds glow like they were painted by Botticelli, salmon, and gold. There’s even a rainbow, which seems a little on-the-nose, given my plans for the evening.
A slow start
At my friend’s place, we drink cider and smoke part of the joint I’ve rolled and then hop on the metro to Café Cleopatra. When we arrive the room is almost empty—they’re selling one dollar bills at the entrance that we can use to tip the dancers, who will trade them for real cash at the end of the night, and my friend and I buy $5 each to start. We take a table in the back corner and three people take the rest of the bench beside us. Two of them immediately start making out.
Most of the room has been cleared out for dancing and there’s a stripper pole in the center of the stage, which thrusts outward from the room’s north wall. A portrait of Marilyn Monroe laughs on a wall towards the back, and a small archway leads to a bar and two bathrooms—I only ever use the bathroom on the south side of the room. The one on the north wall is strongly rumored to be haunted, and whether you believe in ghosts or not, it gives off a weird, vaguely unpleasant vibe.
There are no unpleasant vibes at the bar, though—Alain, the stocky, cheerful barman, grins at me and asks if I want a Pabst, my regular drink when I’m performing in drag. I’m not in drag tonight, though, so I order a gin and tonic. There’s a person in a black vinyl Mickey Mouse costume and towering teal boots running between the bar and the backstage, most likely one of the organizers—I’d love to one of the organizers some questions about the event, but it’s obvious they’ve got more than enough on their plate.
My friend wants to smoke a cigarette before the event starts, so we step outside—the air is chillier than before, and we’re not wearing our jackets, but it’s a comfortable chill, and I lean against the side of the building while she smokes. A steady stream of people is moving into the building, and we watch them, hoping we’re being lowkey and not creepy, but the people we’re checking out seem inclined to check us out, too. There’s a person in fantastic red pleather pants, and somebody I know exclusively via Instagram who has a collection of some of the best tattoos I’ve ever seen, plus a flowing green undercut. It’s a diverse crowd in every sense, cis and trans femmes and non-binary babes of all body types and races, all of them excited for this rare, lesbian-focused event.
A few cis men are milling around too, smoking cigarettes before heading back into the downstairs strip club—they peer at us sideways, not quite sure what to think about the mass of queer femmes heading up the steps to the cabaret.
This is a cruising event
Our seats are long gone by the time we head back into the venue, so we grab a couple of spare chairs on the other side of the room—I’m excited for the show to start, not least because I’m so tired that I’m not sure how late I’ll be able to stay out. My friend is a little nervous an ex of hers is going to show up, so she’s not sure how long she wants to stay either.
But the host takes the stage a few minutes later—first up, she reminds us this is a cruising event. If we don’t want to be cruised, there are yellow scarves available at the door: wearing one will let attendees know you’re not here to hook up. I don’t see a single person wearing a yellow scarf the entire time I’m there (though I’m so exhausted that I honestly consider asking for one myself—I’m pretty sure I’d fall asleep in the middle of something important if I tried to get laid tonight). There are no seats left—the person with the pleather pants is standing by the entrance, and my Instagram acquaintance with the great tattoos has found a barstool just a few feet away from my friend and me.
We don’t get many chances like this
The music is loud and insistent and my friend dances in her chair to the “untz untz untz” rhythm while the first act sets up on the stage. The stripping is scheduled to start at 12:30, but first we’ve got a musical act: LAL.
They’re a singer backed by a DJ, and their energy is intense—in the first song they shout again and again, “I’m not your victim”. Attendees take to the dancefloor during the second song as they cry out “rules were meant to be broken” and “this land was stolen”. My friend and I get up and dance too.
People are laughing and talking, flirting while they dance in a way we rarely get a chance to. At most queer events, it feels like queer women and nonbinary people are theoretically welcome, but the spaces are rarely comfortable enough for us to actually flirt and hook up with people—the last time I tried to make out with another woman on a dance floor, we were immediately interrupted by a dude who assumed he would be welcome to join in.
This is the first space I’ve been in for a long damn time where I’m pretty sure I could kiss a woman or a nonbinary person without feeling like a dude is going to jump in and try, best case scenario, to Snapchat us (also a thing that has happened). I wish to god I wasn’t so tired, because I don’t know when there’ll be another of these events. I’ve never seen Cleo’s this packed before, so I’m betting a lot of people feel the same way. The atmosphere is friendly and comfortable—a couple of femmes are making out beside me, and for once I don’t feel like I have to keep half an eye out to make sure nobody harasses them (I protecc, I attacc). My friend is overwhelmed by the sheer number of babes in the room, and so am I, to be honest.
The crowd goes wild
We head over to stand by the bar—my friend orders another drink from Alain while I snack on the chips available on the bar counter (my friend is horrified that I eat bar chips, but I’ve never turned down free food before and I’m not about to start).
Finally, just when I’m starting to feel like I’m too tired to stick it out any longer, the first stripper takes to the stage. Her name is Magnolia Revenge, and the place is so full that it’s pretty much impossible to see anything she’s doing, but the crowd goes wild. My friend and I scream and cheer along with everybody else, carried along by the crowd’s energy even though we don’t really know what’s happening onstage. Occasionally, Magnolia climbs up a little higher on the pole, and we get a moment’s glimpse of her, and the crowd screams again. She finishes and stalks offstage, the sound of the roaring crowd following close behind her.
It’s at this point, exhausted, packed in like sardines, and afraid my friend’s ex will show up any minute, that we decide to head home. I hand my and my friend’s tip money to the person working the door and tell them to give it to whichever performer they like best. As we’re leaving, somebody warns us that if we go outside we’ll have to stand in line again—they’re way over capacity and there’s a lineup down the street of people hoping to get inside. Lesbian-specific events are almost non-existent, not just in this city, but in every city I’ve ever lived in, and trans-inclusive lesbian-specific events are even rarer.
Text me when you get home
We catch the last metro, hopping on the green line at Station St. Laurent, just a couple of blocks from the club. We both transfer to the orange line at Berri-UQAM and my friend reminds me to text her once I’m home—we’re back out in the world, after all, and we have to look out for each other.
Stepping off the train at Station Rosemont, I walk across the overpass to Mile End, wondering if this event is part of a sea change, a move towards a system that will include spaces for people like me and my friend and our trans and non-binary siblings. After all, we’d like to get laid from time to time, too! The air is hot and humid, and unnaturally still after the storm earlier that evening. Billboards glow against the brick façade of the old warehouse that welcomes me back to my hood, and as I look up I see again, for just a moment, the ghost of a rainbow reflected in headlights on the clouds—it’s still just a little too on-the-nose.