Saturday, April 23, 2011

Baby Face Disco (Face de Bebe)

Denise Cassidy in front of 
Baby Face Disco (1980)
Baby Face Disco (Face de Bebe)
Location: 1235, boul. Dorchester, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Founded: 1968?

Closed: 1983?

Baby Face Disco is widely credited as being Montreal's "first truly lesbian bar."

According to Richard Burnett, Baby Face founder Denise Cassidy--who was nicknamed Babyface--managed several lesbian bars between 1968 and 1983, including La Source, La Guillotine, Baby Face Disco, Chez Baby Face and --after Quebec's French language law, Bill 101-- Face de bébé. (In case you were wondering, we're told that Cassidy inherited the Baby Face nickname from her brief wrestling career before she opened Montreal's first lesbian-only nightclubs.)

This is what Cassidy said about her experiences some 15 years ago in an interview by Quebec professor Line Chamberland. The English version was published in the Hour:

"It was difficult to be accepted by girls from [Montreal's mostly English] West End," Cassidy told Chamberland. "I came from the [mostly French] East End, I was more or less butch, and I wore gold lamé. Girls in the West End didn't have the same mentality; they were more snobbish — it wasn't a butch and a femme, it was two femmes. But once my name was established everything was okay.

"I also ran my club differently. Unlike other clubs, the girls couldn't do whatever they wanted. The law was the law. I was strict, but I was always respected."

Cassidy's bars protected lesbians from harassment. She also avoided underworld intrigue — the Montreal mafia demanded protection money from establishments throughout the city in those days — and prevented police raids by maintaining a "clean" establishment.

"The girls were scared to come [to my bars at first]. They weren't out like they are today and they were afraid their families would discover what kind of bars they went to.

"The first bars were pretty tough — it was a hard milieu, especially when men discovered my bars were for women only. There were always men who wanted to come in. I worked with a baseball bat by my side for the longest time. And there were fights. Friday night was hell sometimes!"

The brawls weren't just between drunk men picking fights; sometimes it was her paying customers as well.

"They [the girls] would come in alone, have a few drinks and let loose. I tried to get there before the fights broke out. I kept an eye on everything, although Saturday nights were quieter since they were mostly couples."

All the women I talked to for this column, including Suzanne Girard and Line Chamberland, remember Cassidy and her bars fondly. But the end was near after the language wars, fuelled by the 1980 Quebec referendum. Cassidy closed Face de bébé in 1983.

"It was impossible to mix the West [End girls] with St-Denis [Street, where Face de bébé relocated] — the English [versus] the separatists. [But] I made sure that everyone was happy, one group one night, another the second. I tried to be fair and it worked well seven days a week.”

In "Remembering Lesbian Bars: Montreal, 1955-1975," Line Chamberland provides the following description of Baby Face Disco:

Baby Face Disco was typical of the lesbian bars of this period [1968 on]. It was Montreal's first lesbian-only drinking establishment, created and managed by a butch named Baby Face, who had extensive experience in other bars. As in other discotheques, the space was equipped with a jukebox, a small dance-floor and strobe lights, which required a minimum investment. There were few tables, so customers stood or walked around. This movement made it easy to meet new people. Baby Face herself acted as bouncer, chosing whom to let in and keeping a watchful eye on her customers. The clientele was made up of many different groups, lesbian from different classes and ethnic backgrounds, older butches and femmes and younger lesbians - feminists, anglophones and francophones. Each social group behaved according to its own rules and rituals. Dress, etiquette and patterns of interaction were quite different between those who were into roles and those who were not. The former usually sat in the same area, mostly in couples and groups. They still cruised by having the waitress take someone a drink or - with permision of the butch if needed - by asking a woman to dance. These older ways of sexually approaching a woman coexisted with newer models. For younger lesbians, standing near someone, inviting her outside to smoke pot together or dancing alone in a sensuous manner were preferred. These cultural differences were puzzling for both sides.

So just what other bars existed prior to this time, or during this same time? In Donald W. McLeod's "A Preliminary Checklist of Lesbian and Gay Bars and Clubs in Canada, 1964 - 1975," sixteen other Montreal bars were identified as "most popular" with lesbians. These included Bar Labyris, La Baton Rouge, Black Bottom, Cafe Canasta, Cafe Casa Loma, Cafe Casbah, Cafe Only, Cafe Rodeo, La Cave, Chez Madame Arthur, Club Zanzibar, La Guillotine, Jilly's, Les Pont de Paris (which was founded in 1955, and included a separate seating area for lesbians), Le Sabre, and La Source.

Johanne Cadorette names the following lost Montreal lesbian bars from the 1980s and early 90s: Bilitis, L'Exit, Lilith, Kreu, K-2, Sisters, and O'side. As of 2004, with the closing of Magnolia, there were no lesbian bars left in Montreal.

Like many apologists for lost womyn's space, Cadorette doesn't necessarily see this as a bad thing. In fact, in an perverse twist on queer theory, she tries to turn this into a good thing, as a "simple manifestation of the evolution of queer women's culture." As she goes on to argue:

First, we are now talking about a community of women that identify as lesbian, bi, queer, transsexual and transgender, many of whom feel more comfortable socializing in mixed groups whose members include gay men and/or queer positive heterosexuals.

Secondly, we are broadening our horizons, and bars are taking a back seat. Queer women have more options for socializing than ever before. We can join groups that focus on sports, socializing, reading, politics, and ethnicity, attend sex workshops, etc.

This defense, though increasingly common, strikes me as ahistorical and naive. It ignores the history of how hard it has been to create and defend womyn's space in any way, shape, or form. It also vastly overestimates how acceptable such space is to so-called "queer postive heterosexuals," who are not necessarily that "positive" --especially in a consistent or truly respectful way. And what does "positive" mean anyway? That such "heterosexuals"--and we are clearly talking about mostly male heterosexuals, though Cadorette's generation no longer considers it nice to acknowledge this fact out loud--avoid actual overtly violent acts that would fall under the legal definition of assault? What about leering, groping, propositioning? To many lesbians, this wouldn't be considered "postive" behavior at all. To many heterosexual males, it's perfectly "positive." It's just the way they behave in bars. And now that all the "queers" tell us that the term lesbian doesn't necessarily have an agreed upon meaning, that "lesbian" can mean sleeping with men, why wouldn't the straight guys bug the lesbians? They've been told it's okay now! And these days, we're even told that rape is a matter of "interpretation," where the woman/victim's "opinion" is just that. (The whole "rape rape" argument.) So I fail to see any big historical change from fifty years ago. In the language and justification for men's acts, yes, but not in their actual behavior. The statistics still show that the vast majority of women are murdered, assaulted, or raped by men, usually heterosexual men.

I'm also skeptical of the floating lesbian party idea that Cardorette defends, which is increasingly popular not just in Montreal, but all over North America. Although Cadorette and others like her romanticize the whole "hobo" fantasy, this is really just minimizing a situation that should be raising concern. Why is it that only lesbians try to bravely treat their own lack of territory as a good thing? No other historically oppressed group would say they'd rather be homeless than housed, renters than owners, refugees rather than being citizens of their own countries. But as women, lesbians have been taught to feel guilty or nervous about establishing and defending their own space. It's still taboo--even 40 years after the second wave of the women's movement. Interesting, that....

Photo: Denise Cassidy at the door of her club Babyface, in 1980
(Suzanne Girard photo)

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