Memory, Archive, and Bell-Bottoms

Picture this: a 17-year-old boy braving a frigid Montreal night in the middle of

December. He exits the Metro at Beaudry station with a few of his colleagues from The Gap, his first job. As he steps outside, he walks westbound and his heart starts beating faster. A block later, he spots a short lineup at the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Montcalm streets leading into Unity – a vast two-storey gay bar with a rooftop patio. This is where he’s going – his first gay bar ever – and he’s both terrified and excited.

Human memory operates in a fascinating way. While it can sometimes fail us in the most quotidian of things, like a locker combination or a recently met acquaintance’s name, it can make something that happened eons ago seem like it happened yesterday. That boy going to Unity was me, and that night happened 13 years ago, yet there are dozens of things I still remember vividly: the bitter cold outside, the slippery stairs leading up to the entrance of the bar, the overwhelming scent of artificial fog, the three bottles of Smirnoff Ice I drank (yes, I was 17), and the way all my clothes and giant mop of curly hair reeked of cigarettes (yes, one could still smoke indoors back then) and sweat after three hours of wild abandon on the dance floor. The list goes on, always surprising me with its length.

Even though I moved to Toronto five years ago, Montreal still feels like home. Twenty-two years’ worth of memories are scattered all over the cityscape, and I reacquaint myself with them every time I come back to visit family and friends. This experience is not unlike encountering ghosts, albeit in a less morbid manner. They float by street corners, outside apartments, and inside bars, reminding me of times both happy and sad as I began to come out and discover my identity as a gay man. Together, these ghosts form a personal archive of sorts – a collection of memories superimposed onto a map of the city. And in this way, Greg Campbell and I are very similar creatures.

Campbell is the writer and performer of OUT, a brilliant autobiographical play that explores his coming out and sexual awakening as a gay man in late 1970s Montreal. Originally performed at the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival, the play is chock-full of crystal-clear memories and details of Campbell’s adolescence set against the bustling nightlife of downtown Montreal. As the sole performer in OUT, Campbell takes on more than a dozen different roles with startling ease and leads us back and forth between Montreal nightclubs and the Campbell family home.

A self-confessed archivist, Campbell’s memory is beyond impressive, and it stems from his long-time interest in journaling, as well as his careful conservation of important items from his past: “My play came out of my journals. When I started to research the play, the research was right there in front of me: my 1977 diary. And what amazed me is the rapidity of the events.” As Campbell points out, 1977 was a very momentous year in Montreal, but also in queer history in general. With the Summer Olympics held in Montreal the year before, vast efforts were made by the municipal government to “clean up” the city, and this involved a number of raids on queer establishments in the downtown core. These efforts reached their climax on October 22, 1977, when a massive raid took place at Truxx, a gay bar on Stanley Street; 220 people were arrested, 146 of whom were charged with gross indecency and other charges. This raid led to an even larger protest the following night attended by over 2,000 people and, two months later, to an amendment in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to include sexual orientation as a prohibited form of discrimination. The outcome was significant for the history of Montreal and the province of Quebec, and it would serve as a powerful example to other provinces, which would soon experience similar conflicts.

It is important to remember that things were not always rosy lest we fall into nostalgia. It can be easy to idealize the past, especially for people such as me, who did not experience any of this firsthand yet who remain deeply curious. Queer folks living in 1970s Montreal experienced glamorous disco-filled nightlife just as they experienced harassment, violence, raids, and even firebombings (one of which I explored in my own one-person play Aquarius, presented at the 2017 Rhubarb Festival) – they fought for their rights and lives.

Nevertheless, Campbell never loses sight of the joy and love that he experienced in his youth as he went out to the legendary Lime Light discotheque, danced with wild abandon, fell in love, and discovered his sexuality. Even the tensest conversations with his parents are filled with love and tenderness, as he performs them in OUT. Campbell reminds us that it is through our encounters with different people and different environments that we shape our identities, sexual and otherwise. And while it may cause us strife at the time, it is an essential part of coming of age and coming out. This is undoubtedly something we can all relate to, and ultimately, the heart of Campbell’s play for me is found in its relatability. As he recently explained to me, “This story is an exploration of belonging, of wanting to be appreciated, accepted, and loved. And this is universal. This is my journey to be accepted and to be part of something.” It is, indeed, a journey – one that, I believe, we take every day of our lives. Thirty years separate my coming out from Greg Campbell’s, as does geography (the current location of Montreal’s Gay Village is two kilometres east of where it was in the 1970s) and history. But in memory, we are connected, and I could not be more excited to watch him share OUT with all of you.

photo by Tanja-Tiziana