Linda Dawn Hammond: On the 25th Anniversary of the SexGarage Police Raid
A quarter of a century later, SexGarage is still remembered
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the police raid on the “SexGarage” loft party in 1990, where many patrons were beaten and arrested. The event is significant historically for Montreal’s LGBT community. It was immortalized by the photography of Linda Dawn Hammond.
Hammond – a graduate of Concordia university – was recognized for her contribution this summer as a guest of honour at Montreal Pride.
I spoke with Hammond over the phone about her experience at SexGarage, and the impact of her work. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
So when were you at Concordia?
Well I was in the photography department doing my Bachelors of Fine Arts, and I graduated in 1990.
You ended up being at the SexGarage party taking photos – how did you end up photographing events like that?
I started shooting the club scenes in New York and Toronto back in 1976, ‘77 – the beginning of the punk scenes, and there was an overlap with the gay and the punk scenes in the clubs that I attended. And then when I moved to Montreal I became acquainted with Nicolas Jenkins who had been living in New York. He had been working in various clubs there, and wanted to bring the kind of the inclusive club scene to Montreal.
In the gay scene, things were quite separate: the lesbians had their own scene, the gay men had their own scene, and the trans people … weren’t really very welcome in many scenes. So Nicolas wanted to bring everyone together, and this is what sort of differentiated the SexGarage party from other events, because straight people were also there. It wasn’t just gay people, regardless of what the police thought at the time.
So let’s move on to the night of the police raid on SexGarage. Was there anything unusual about the party? Was it particularly rowdy or anything?
No [laughs], absolutely not. I mean, there wasn’t really much going on that was out of the ordinary for that type of event. It would have probably disturbed some people, if they were very conservative, because there was dancing, and there was sort of … one might consider it semi-nudity, because some people were wearing thongs.
But aside from that, no, it was just a regular party as far as I’m concerned. And there was no issue of a noise complaint, because it was in a warehouse area [in Old Montreal] where there were no neighbours that were actually living there – it was all band practice spaces.
So what was the series of events? Did the police order people to vacate the building from outside?
No, they actually came in – they entered twice, and no one that I know saw them the first time. People were kind of skeptical – we heard through people that were working there that the police had been there, and that they told us all to leave. But, as no one had seen them, and the lights were still down, and the music was still playing, people just kind of ignored it, thinking ‘well, maybe that’s just another performance piece.’ You know, maybe these weren’t really cops, right? [laughs]
And then we started hearing another rumor, which was that somebody had actually left the party – because they had forgotten their coat – and tried to come back in, and they were taken between cars and beaten really badly. And that was Bruce Buck, who was friends with a lot of people there. They were quite shocked at that – I have friends that witnessed that from an adjacent loft space.
So fast-forward, and there are now a lot of people outside who are being brutalized by the police. And there you are, snapping pictures. I’m just curious, on a technical level, what were the unique challenges of photographing this event?
My problem was that I had gone prepared to shoot a party, not to shoot an event like this, so I only had my 28mm lens with my analog camera. And a 28mm lens is actually quite wide, which means that if you step back even a few feet, everything is going to look very small – you won’t be able to identify anybody. So that meant that if I wanted to get anything of any substance, I had to be right in front of, let’s say for instance the police who were removing their identification badges, I needed to be right in front of them – just a few feet away.
And I’d been shooting all night … so my flash batteries were starting to fade, and I didn’t have any extra ones. So every time I took a shot, I wasn’t going to stand there waiting for my flash to regenerate in front of the police – you know, where they could get their hands on me. So I would retreat, wait for the flash batteries to come back to full power, and then move back in again. And of course every time I did this, they knew exactly where I was.
And I was right there with the police, and they were beating people. I guess at that point, they decided that they’d had enough of me photographing … and one of the cops came up behind me, knocked my knees out from under so I fell forward, and then hit me across the chest area where I was holding the camera. I sort of fell forward, but then I twisted so I could protect my camera and keep it away from them.
Do you ever think about how SexGarage would be remembered if you hadn’t been there to take those photos?
I’ve been thinking about that more recently, because of all the attention we’ve been getting over this. I thought that it had been relatively forgotten – I was very surprised when [the 25th anniversary] came up. Even at the 10th anniversary, I couldn’t generate any interest whatsoever. But I’m so happy that people are remembering it.
People say, ‘what are the best photos you’ve ever taken’, and probably, in all honesty, I think the work that I did in Oka after this is probably my best work. But in terms of the importance to a particular community – yeah, I do recognize these photos are extremely important. Because, if I hadn’t been there, there would have been no proof that this even happened – nobody would have cared.
So here we are, 25 years after SexGarage. How do you feel about the way things have developed since then? Has there been any progress?
The fact is that, yes, things have improved for the LGBT community in terms of relations with the police – I will say that. But looking at Quebec, what I’ve seen of the student protests makes me believe that things haven’t improved at all. As a matter of fact, it’s made me reflect upon how they would have responded to us if they had the kind of weaponry that they’re using on the students. We would have been tasered, and we would have been probably pepper sprayed and tear gassed back then, but they only had their [batons] instead. So in a sense, no, I don’t see how things have improved at all. As a matter of fact, I think you have less rights to congregate and to protest now. Isn’t that correct? They’ve made it illegal.
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