Bonjour! Hi! Ca fait longtemps, hein? It’s been a while! After a semester-long hiatus, I’m back and ready to present a conversation from January 2019 with a young English-and-French-speaking non-binary life-long Montrealer who has become a dear friend of mine these past few months.
As Alex* explains, they “go by they them in English and in French I tend to use the masculine so…il lui.” They have a lot to say about language, gender, social media, toxic masculinity, queer spaces in the city, drag (!!), and the strange habits of straight people.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Max: So, the first question is: how do you or others that you know, especially non-binary people here in the city and throughout Quebec navigate the French language?
Alex: It’s especially hard as a non-binary person because there (are) not very (many) gender neutral options in French as opposed to English and probably other languages that I’m not aware of and things tend to be very, very binary, it’s always either one or the other, there’s no neutral. So, I clumsily navigate around it try to avoid as much as possible but since you need to conjugate the word, (in every sentence) you will get stuck, you will have to decide on a gender at one point or another, unlike English.
Max: Yeah, that is something that I’ve definitely had to deal with myself and it’s, like, ‘why?’ Is it really that hard for the powers that be to just get on board, with inclusive language that’s neutral that makes things easier instead of more complicated?
Alex: Yes, true, but I think it’s not just about the social aspect of it and inclusiveness it’s like very rooted in language, but, like I said, the adjectives…if you don’t want to conjugate them, let’s say if you don’t want to conjugate them, let’s say feminine, the omission of the feminine defaults it (the adjective) to be masculine, it’s not neutral. So, it’s really hard and I’ve met francophone non-binary people recently when asking them about their pronoun they said that in English they go by they them and in French they use il and elle en alternance.
Max: Oh wow.
Alex: Yeah. I’m not sure how that works and I didn’t get much explanation but 3 to 4 people I know have told me to use “il et elle en alternance”, so alternating between the masculine, feminine, I’m not sure how they do (it).
Alex: That’s how (non-binary, francophone) people deal with it (French being very gendered).
Max: So, how can queer spaces whether that’s in terms of, like, language or just in general, um, how can queer spaces be more inclusive?
Alex: That’s a very good question. I guess self-awareness, checking with yourself, whether it’s as an individual or as an organization is key. Always reach to educate yourself always reach to consult the minority or minorities…The concept of inclusiveness way too often is just tolerating, but you need to be, well, in my opinion, I think, I believe, you need to be proactive about including people and actually offering representation and showcasing and, like, consulting the minorities within your environment to make sure that they all feel comfortable.
Max: Yeah, definitely. The next question I had was how accessible the language is, (English versus French). I remember when we first met you had mentioned that when you’re talking about queer issues, even though, even though your first language or Mother Tongue is French, that when it comes to talking about queer issues it’s easier to talk about them in English and I was wondering if you could expand on that.
Alex: True, true, um, it does link up with what you just said earlier in this conversation about French not trying very hard to be inclusive, so, yes, there is the issues rooted in the language, like grammar and syntax and semantics, and other linguistic structures, but there is also all these neologisms that are, like, you know, words that just describe realities that wouldn’t be acknowledged a couple decades ago and now they are. I usually learn them (queer terms) in English first because of (*in exaggerated voice*) the Internet. And then the queer scene in Montreal, the one I tend to gravitate towards is mostly Anglophone. So, that’s where I learn most of this vocabulary, so that’s why it’s hard for me to target them in French. But I do, I have seen recently more and more translation like new words in French for, let’s say to misgender like in English, (I learned recently in French) I would just say misgendered”in a French sentence, but now I try actively to say the correct word which would be mégenré
Max: Well, that’s good to know that there are those steps being taken that aren’t, you know, uprooting the entire language and turning it upside-down, cause obviously that would be very, very difficult for, like, anyone and everyone, but it is nice to know that there are little phrases and little words, like, little changes here and there happening.
Alex: Yes, and I think, also to be fair it’s also English nowadays is a much more global language. And also, like, when talking about these queer issues it makes it accessible to queers all over the world no matter what their Mother Tongue is. So it is unifying and stuff. But then, the local communities need to find their own translation for these words.
Max: What would your advice be to a queer person in Montreal who’s trying to find their way around, looking for those, good, inclusive spaces, and all that?
Alex: Get on social media. And, I think we’ve discussed this the first time we met, you and I. Montreal is very geo-centric in my experience, and by that I mean most of the events and communities are really centered around specific neighborhoods. So, sadly, if you do not attend art school or are not located in these trendy neighborhoods or, yeah, or don’t have the connections it’s really hard to find the scene cause, yes, of course there’s The Gay Village but it’s not what I would call inclusive.
Alex: Yeah, we can talk about that later, but that say, as someone born and raised in Montreal but a much more remote neighborhood, um, it took me until I was twenty-two, actually this (past) summer until I discovered an actual queer scene that I felt good in. I felt like just a small town American kid moving to the big college city just by moving to the Mile End.
Max: Oh wow.
Alex: But, if you can’t afford these “trendy neighborhoods” and don’t happen to go study arts and stuff or whatever queers study on Facebook there is a lot of community organizations (such as) Montreal Queer Fam** and Chez Queer Montreal which is also a great, it’s trying to be a safe space for, like, safe housing for queer people. I would say as advice Facebook will be your best friend because that is how you make awesome connections. That’s actually how I met you, so.
Max: And that is something that, um, I was definitely thinking about and, um something that I actually just wrote about yesterday, is like even in like the very early stone-age of the Internet, it’s always been like…
Alex: *In dramatic fake-menacing voice* There are gays!
Max: *In dramatic excited voice* There are the gays! They are here! I can find them…at least on the Internet. That’s always what I’ve thought is, like, really cool. Cause even though sometimes I might think to myself Oh no! I spend too much time on social media! At the same time, I feel like if I didn’t use social media I would just miss out so much on all these spaces.
Alex: And there you go. And that’s actually an argument I give when people are like: “Ugh! Social media’s the devil!” And I’m like , well to be honest it had a very positive impact on my life. In the past few months, I’ve made really healthy connection due to social media so, eh, sure Facebook’s the devil, Mark Zuckerberg is Satan but, you know, gotta make the best out of it.
Max: Yeah exactly, yeah that’s all good stuff. Could you go ahead and go back to what you were saying about the Gay Village and how, maybe it’s not as inclusive of a space as one might hope?
Alex: So, I would describe it as very old-school. Its Golden Age would’ve been in the 80s I would say. And I’ve heard in the 90s it was still going, but again, like that was when it was the Golden Age of “The Gay” and by “Gay” it means a white cis man. So it was very diverse as you had the Leather and the Daddy and all kinds of bars, but targeted towards cis gay men. And it hasn’t really evolved much ever since. Even the drag scene over there—it’s getting better but, so…not only is it not inclusive, it also doesn’t feel safe to walk around. I’ve personally experienced, depending on how I present, I feel like the more femme you look, the more harassed you’ll get. You see older men, shamelessly cruising, but on the street which can be very uncomfortable. Yeah, and it’s just not something that I’m used to in going to queer spaces, like in my own community I don’t expect to have to be in defense mode, but it does happen in the Village, the Gay Village, so I consider it neither safe nor an inclusive space.
Max: Yeah. It’s one of those things where I was very conscious of that when I was walking down (the street). And you also have a lot of, like, cis straight women.
Alex: The bachelorette(s)!
Max: Yeah, bachelorette parties. Oh my God.
Alex: Oh no, it’s the downfall of The Village. So that was just queer-wise, but yeah the bachelorette(s) fucking ruined it. And, nowadays, it’s also the tourists they come and check it out like a zoo. It’s like: “Oh! See the gays!” Yeah, it’s just a big ol’ mess, to be honest. Also very fueled with alcohol, drugs, lots of parties. I just don’t feel like it’s a very healthy environment.
Max: Yeah, because there’re so many other ways to socialize. Like, I’ll always think that gay bars and stuff are very important, because they are those safe spaces to express yourself. But, if…not queer just “Gay” socializing is just alcohol or drugs, and sex, there’re just so many other things…
Alex: That’s a big problem in our community. It’s a worldwide thing, I believe. But, it’s getting better. There’re more and more queer cafes opening. Shout out to Café Velours! So, yeah, fully agreed, but, it’s getting better. There are more and more queer hangouts that are organized and stuff. That are centered around more healthy activities than just binge drinking.
Max: Yeah, exactly. And it’s really sweet. I’m just thinking about, like, when I think of the more progressive, inclusive queer spaces it’s like, there’s always like…tea…and…knitting…and people reading each other’s natal charts and it’s like so different from the, like, cis white Gay Village.
Alex: That’s exactly what I had in mind. I was thinking about the “Stitch n’Bitch” thing that I saw. And drinking tea. And talking about your chart. And talking about making a zine.
Max: Yeah exactly. Yeah, I was just thinking about Chez Queer Montréal which you had mentioned, which is how I found the place I’m living now. I was just thinking about how every single place that I visited that was listed on Chez Queer Montréal I was offered…one place offered coffee and I had coffee, but everywhere else was tea. The place where I ended up living I did not have tea there, but I was offered tea and the only reason why I did not drink tea there is because I visited another place (*Alex laughs*) that day and I had tea there.
Alex: This is hilarious because I also had tea (at) every single interview with Chez Queer and the place I moved in this summer at the Mile End, well, we had the most delicious chai. I also met my current roommate on Chez Queer. It’s just great.
Max: Yeah, I mean I have heard there are occasionally those, like, nightmare situations but, that happens with any…
Alex: That’s life.
Max: Yeah, that’s life.
Alex: And our community is not exempt of bad patterns and toxicity.
Alex: We’re just humans.
Max: Yeah. And I think there’s a lot of conversations in the queer community about how to handle things like that. If you do see someone do or experience another queer person who’s just being very toxic or just, not being very mindful or abusing drugs or alcohol in front of you…I think people are a little more conscious especially when they step back and are like “ok this person needs help. No, I should not be in the vicinity of this person, but I do recognize that they need help…I think people are also starting to move a little bit more towards restorative justice which I think is good.
Alex: Absolutely, yeah. I’d say that we are definitely more equipped and I think that we’re better at dealing with these situations than “The Straights”. However, I will say, because it is something I’ve had to deal with recently too and it’s just part of the community. Queers love art, it’s no secret. The thing is, when you get to the art world it’s very much of a contact, a matter of contacts and relations and connections and there’s kind of hierarchies sometimes, who you are in the business and the industry, getting your name out there. So when there does happen to be a problem involving, like, someone, sometimes, even within a queer community, it can be very hard to call out this person if you know they’re very influential or there will be people trying to silence you and stuff regarding that and that’s that.
Max: But, yeah, I think you’re right. I feel like these are all issues that happen so often, especially, related to mental health and the arts and toxicity and abuse of power and things like that I think we’re so…
Max: Yeah, trauma, a big word, yeah. And it’s like, those are things that affect, essentially every queer person that I know…
Alex: Is there a single queer that doesn’t have trauma?
Max: It’s really sad. It’s to the point where when I hear the word “trauma” I think “queer.” Like it’s almost part of queer experience.
Alex: Well it is traumatizing to be born not-straight in a straight patriarchy…I would say it (trauma) is not inherently part of our identity, but it’s a matter of context and since we are in a heterosexual patriarchy how not to be traumatized when you’re queer?
Max: That’s true too. I think we’re definitely a lot more equipped on how to deal with it and sensitive towards it, whereas I think a lot of cisgender, heterosexual people are like : “I don’t know what’s happening. What’s wrong with this person? “ No, it’s like, I’m always aware that sometimes people might be triggered…the possibility of someone getting triggered by something or, just not having the spoons to do something, just you know things like that. Giving people space versus checking in on them.
Alex: Exactly. It’s not even words in their (cishet people’s) vocabulary.
Alex: And also they get away with or are trying to get away with so much shit by invoking traumas. It’s like “Oh, but I was hurt before.” Well guess what Susan, I was hurt too! So I think at least I think that, like we said, all queers are traumatized, I guess. Well, it’s not something you bring to the table while dealing with it in argument. We all know that we are sensitive and we all know that we have our own shit and emotional baggage. And it is not an excuse to have an (un)acceptable behavior. Compared to let’s say, a more hetero community, at least, there’s this like this thing you don’t have to deal with of trying to justify your shitty behavior with your trauma. Yeah. I mean it still happens, but…
Max: Yeah, definitely. I will say that a couple of days ago I saw this really good video from…so there’s a few different queer websites out there. There’s like them. And Out Magazine and this was from INTO (IntoMore) which I think is a newer one and they had this video on YouTube that was “Are Straight People OK?” and it was looking at all these tweets and videos…
Alex: *Clapping excitedly* Yes I’ve seen it! Like: (straight women say) “boys who text before 10pm are very important!” Like (queer people respond): “Are straight women ok?”
Max: I just feel so bad, because these things that are so normalized in straight communities. And, I’m like this idea that in a straight, cisgender couple that women are like a “ball-and-chain” and then men are like these babies that need to be taken care of. I’m like…
Alex: Yeah “man child”.
Max: Yeah, I’m just like: “Y’all need to, like, examine all this. And it’s all very much tied into toxic masculinity– which is also an issue in the queer community as well—
Max: But in a very different way a lot of the time and it’s…oh my God.
Alex: Yeah, and the conversation is getting bigger and bigger about it. Like it’s being addressed much more, more than ever before, I think.
Max: Yeah. Oh, yeah and speaking of masculinity, umm and gender and all of that, can you, uh, tell the audience a little bit about your, uh, experiences with drag…dragging and starting all that?
Alex: Well, I’m a non-binary person. Hi. (*giggles*) But I’ve also stumbled upon a word this summer in the (*in exaggerated voice*) Queer Mile End neighborhood that I think fit very well with to describe my gender and identity and that is transmasculine.
Transmasculine people are not exempt from perpetuating toxic masculinity and it’s something that I had to learn to be self-aware of. It can be very tempting when first transitioning and still not passing to try and overcompensate by resorting to those tired gendered stereotypical attitudes. I for one rejected any trait I deemed too feminine in me, be it clothing or behavior wise, trying to fit within this traditional and patriarchal view of masculinity.
Doing drag has been very liberating to me in terms of gender expression and dealing with the pressure of passing. It’s been an interesting journey in reconnecting with “femininity,” which had become so taboo to me. Funnily enough, allowing myself to drag it all up–putting on a wig, painting my face, wearing some nine-inch heels – has helped me to find balance and comfort in the way I present in my daily life and overall disassociate it from my core identity. Moving past the gender binary instead of relying on it.
*name has been changed
**Since the interview took place, this page has been renamed Montreal Queer Social Group, partially over concerns that the term “Fam,” a term originating in AAVE, is culturally appropriative for non-Black people to use.