When you think of the term, “Queer Space,” what comes to mind? For me, I think of a drag bar with fruity cocktails and bright, neon lights. Beyoncé is blaring, a bachelorette party is screaming, and a twenty-year-old kid from a small town is grinning as he makes out with a stranger in a crop top.
Chances are, your image of a “Queer Space” is similar to mine. After all, these are the types of bars and clubs any student at McGill could find walking around Montreal’s Gay Village prior to the pandemic. These institutions provided a place for a sloppy night out on the weekend, long before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the Montreal nightlife scene.
Entering university, McGill student Taylor Douglas and recent graduate Lucia Winter were excited to explore the city’s queer spaces. Yet, they soon realized a harsh reality about the city’s LGBTQ+ scene.
“When I came to McGIll, I expected Montreal to be a lot gayer than it actually was,” explained Taylor Douglas, U3 Arts. “The Village is unspoken reserved space for cis white men…. also, more than that, there were straight people everywhere!” Lucia Winter added bluntly, “Our experience with the queer space pre-COVID is very male-centric, which is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that there are very few lesbian-centred events.”
Noticing this gap in the market, Taylor founded ElleLui: a queer event series that was specifically “women and non-binary centred, [and] it’s for anyone who doesn’t feel at home in super sexualized settings like the Village.”
The event series started small, with just a few, informal COVID-friendly gatherings among Taylor and her close friends, but it soon evolved into something more official. “Before ElleLui, [My friend] Taryn and I started doing house parties,” explained Taylor. “There were these wine and cheeses that would happen every second Wednesday, and we would host lesbian afterparties on Taryn’s porch.”
“Taylor and I met over the summer,” said Lucia, explaining how the gatherings transitioned into a full-fledged organization. “We had a shared energy and passion for doing queer event series. We founded ElleLui in August, and we had our first event on December 17th.” Lucia paused, eyeing the webcam of the Zoom window with a sense of nostalgia. “It was born out of sadness of not having queer spaces during COVID.”
For an industry that relies on flowing drinks and sweaty, intimate dancing, government lockdowns can be devastating.
Indeed, queer spaces across Canada have been struggling throughout the pandemic. For the past two Montreal Fiertés, drag performers in the city have resorted to Facebook and YouTube events for revenue. Last summer, the popular Toronto gay bar “Crews & Tango” nearly faced extinction. For an industry that relies on flowing drinks and sweaty, intimate dancing, government lockdowns can be devastating.
“Taylor started doing outdoor gatherings of five to six people weekly during COVID,” said Lucia. “Obviously, when the restrictions were lifted, she did it with more people.” Taylor agreed, asserting that in-person events, even if socially distanced and restricted, were preferable to online gatherings. “There’s only so many people who will show up on Zoom.”
Despite navigating shifting restrictions, last autumn, when cases were down in Quebec, ElleLui was able to organize several events in person. It was then when the two young adults noticed how powerful their organization could be.
It turned into more than just an entertainment night. It became a ‘Let’s bring this community together’ event.
“Our trans and gender-nonconforming appreciation event was a big hit,” beamed Lucia, proudly reminiscing the Fall 2021 semester events. “…we had a lot of artists come and sign the Anti-Bill 2 Petition. It turned into more than just an entertainment night. It became a ‘Let’s bring this community together’ event.”
ElleLui aims to straddle the line between community, parties, and activism. While parties are a major aspect of the group’s appeal, Taylor and Lucia stressed that ElleLui has a broader agenda of bringing like-minded people together, especially young people who are new to the city’s queer scene.
Taylor emphasized that she wants the group to be as inclusive as possible, and she will never explicitly turn away someone based on their identity. “I want our group to be a space where it’s like, you just realized you’re gay. You’re coming out and you don’t really know where you fit in this space. You’d be comfortable coming and making friends and not feeling like you need to know everything.”
When asked about future events, both Taylor and Lucia shared ambitious ideas.
“I really hope we have a dance party one day,” said Lucia, “but that’s not in the immediate future.” They also mentioned the idea of “a lesbian frat party night where everyone drinks and plays drinking games and stuff…”: an ironic take on the rigid gender separations of campus Greek Life.
“I’m planning a Beer Pong Tournament for when things go back to normalish, hopefully soon,” said Taylor. “Beyond that, I’m trying to set up a recurrent thing. I want to set up a thing where every month there is a queer thing for queer women, inspired by @blush.party. This is Lesbian Happy Hour…maybe host at Gerts or something.”
After McGill, Taylor shared her ultimate dream would be to expand ElleLui into more than just a side hustle. The soon-to-be-graduate’s eyes lit up when she started imagining her future beyond the university campus. “My long term plan is opening a lesbian bar, so these are just the beginning steps.”