With 15 Vancouver LGBT organizations celebrating milestone anniversaries, it’s time for all of us to salute their achievements
Fifteen Vancouver organizations that serve the LGBT community are celebrating big anniversaries, which is why this has been dubbed the Year of the Queer.
Sometimes the best ideas are hatched over drinks. And so it is with Year of the Queer, which is the City of Vancouver’s recently announced initiative to celebrate significant anniversaries of 15 organizations that serve the city’s LGBT community.
It started a few months ago when the executive director of Out on Screen, Stephanie Goodwin, was sitting in the Irish Heather with the heads of two other arts organizations: SD Holman of the Queer Arts Festival and Fay Nass of the Frank Theatre Company.
The conversation turned to the groups’ anniversaries—the 30th for Out on Screen and the 10th for the two other groups.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Goodwin recalled that she then blurted out: “It needs to be declared the year of the queer!”
Then it dawned on them that it was the 40th anniversary of the Vancouver Pride Society’s Pride parade.
“So, literally, as we were drinking whisky I emailed [councillor] Tim Stevenson from my phone and said, ‘Hey, Tim, I think we should get together and talk. We have this really great idea,’ ” Goodwin recalled. “Tim was really responsive to us.”
Stevenson told the Straight by phone that he recalled saying it was a “fabulous idea” and encouraged them to speak to the Vancouver Pride Society. After more discussions with city staff and a lot more research, it turned out that 15 organizations that serve the LGBT community are having either their 10th, 15th, 20th, 30th, 35th, or 40th anniversary.
They include AIDS Vancouver and Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium, which have turned 35, and Qmunity, which is 40. Groups turning 20 include Pride in Art Festival, Rainbow Refugee Society, and Monsoon—asian Lesbians, Bisexuals and Trans in Vancouver.
On May 15, city council unanimously passed a staff recommendation for the city to launch “2018— Year of the Queer” with a proclamation and to support a one-time event at Vancouver City Hall next Wednesday (May 23). That’s when huge Pride and trans flags will be raised on the north lawn until August 19 in recognition of the anniversaries.
“Collectively these organizations have provided 330 years of service to the city’s LGBTQ community, and continue to make significant contributions to the social, cultural, and artistic landscape of Vancouver,” a city staff report states.
Stevenson offered credit to the staff for all the work that they’ve done to make this the Year of the Queer.
“We will still, obviously, have the Pride parade, and we’ll still have a proclamation for Pride, as we have always done,” he said. “I can read that as the deputy mayor if Gregor [Robertson] is not able to make it.”
> CHARLIE SMITH
Consider, if you will, what the acronym 2
LGBT and its numerous variations convey: there isn’t just one community—it’s an amalgamation of diverse groups. So how do umbrella organizations bring together multiple communities with different, sometimes conflicting needs and identities while being inclusive and accessible to everyone?
That’s something that the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) has faced with increasing frequency during its 40-year history.
VPS community partnerships coordinator Kaschelle Thiessen, who has been researching the organization’s history, told the Georgia Straight by phone that nascent local marches and movements in the 1970s and ’80s (which sometimes sparked the distribution of hate-filled flyers in opposition) tended to use the word gay in their names, like Gay Unity ’81 or Gay Liberation. But over the years, more groups began to be recognized, precipitating change and expansion.
“The reason that the community started to come together was because as a coalition, as a group, we can only be stronger and we can enact better political change and policy change if we band together and stand together,” Thiessen said.
Accordingly, VPS executive director Andrea Arnot, in a conference call, said that they’re now prioritizing the “most marginalized voices” within LGBT communities and actively seek them out “because often they’re people who wouldn’t normally engage with Pride”.
Thiessen explained that because LGBT communities are not a “homogenous group”, they’re now looking at ways to shift attention to those who have been previously neglected or excluded.
What has also helped, in a diverse region like Metro Vancouver, is other events, movements, and organizations that have arisen to address specific groups and offer alternatives.
In her separate role as social-media coordinator for the Vancouver Dyke March and Festival (VDMF), Thiessen pointed out that the VDMF can appeal to women and nonbinary individuals, including bisexual, trans, and other people who don’t feel represented by or who don’t identify with other events.
Although the first VDMF happened in 1981, it hasn’t always been held annually, as it is a volunteer-driven effort with minimal funding.
Through sheer dedication, the event has continued despite challenges, and in an email to the Straight, VDMF board of directors president Claire Ens said that the 15th march and festival, to be held on August 4, will “focus on the generational contributions, evolutions, and progressions made throughout the years”, with an eye on the future.
Further alternatives, considering Vancouver’s multicultural composition, include LGBT ethnic and linguistic groups, which help to give voice and presence in unprecedented ways.
One example is that the Surrey-based South Asian LGBT group—which celebrated its 10thanniversary gala on April 22—marched for its first time in both Vancouver’s and Surrey’s Vaisakhi parades in 2017.
The organization, founded by Alex Sangha, has grown from an online group to an incorporated nonprofit society and offers everything from school outreach workshops, counselling, and immigrant assistance to peer support and social events.
Other examples include the Asian lesbian, bisexual, and trans group Monsoon and the LGBT refugee advocacy group Rainbow Refugee Society, both of which are celebrating their 20th anniversary.
Yet now that LGBT rights and acceptance have been gained in many areas, are such organizations’ events still needed?
Definitely, according to both Arnot and
As testimony to its own success, the Vancouver Pride parade (which will be held on August 5) has evolved from an event in which some participants wore bags over their heads for fear of losing their jobs if outed to becoming one of the premier summer attractions in the city, one that draws thousands of spectators.
However, Arnot pointed out that even if some LGBT legislation has passed, there is still work to be done.
“Societal change often follows a little bit behind laws,” Thiessen explained, citing the fresh example of the April SOGI 123 protest against diverse sexual orientation and gender expression in schools.
Thiessen added that although everyone has a different perception of what Pride is, and even if it appears celebratory, the activism that got things going still underscores the present-day incarnation.
“I think anytime that you have a group that is shutting down half the city for a day and carving out space to be unabashedly and unapologetically queer and trans in a homophobic and transphobic society, that is inherently political,” she said.
> CRAIG TAKEUCHI
It’s a landmark year for queer arts in Vancouver. 2 Pride in Art Society turns 20, and its Queer Arts Festival has been around for 10 years.
Performance companies Zee Zee Theatre and the Frank Theatre are also celebrating their decades.
“It’s just such an important reminder of where we are and where we’ve been and where we are going,” Frank Theatre artistic director Fay Nass said by phone.
Each organization has plans for how to mark the occasion. The Frank is producing Camera Obscura, a play inspired by B.C. artist Paul Wong’s audio-visual work, as part of the Queer Arts Festival this summer.
Zee Zee Theatre is continuing its national run of My Funny Valentine, a play that tackles the 2008 killing of gay U.S. teenager Lawrence King. Pride in Art is celebrating with DECADENCE, the 10th annual Queer Arts Festival. The 2018 festival promises to celebrate and honour “our community of trailblazing queer ancestors”, according to a news release.
“I think we have made a space in Vancouver for other organizations to do more queer work and so many more things,” Queer Arts Festival artistic director SD Holman said by phone.
She cited the festival’s dates as one example: back in 1998, art showcases happened during Pride week at the end of July, as there were no other activities being held. However, as more art events sprung up around the parade in the late ‘00s, the festival moved to mid-june to create space for new organizations.
The Frank’s history also goes back more than 10 years. Originally founded as Screaming Weenie in 1996, the company changed its name in 2008. Nass said the organization wanted to signal a decision to have honest dialogue around queer issues and the arts.
Zee Zee Theatre started out as a dream. “I didn’t think we’d really do more than maybe three shows,” Zee Zee artistic director Cameron Mackenzie said by phone.
The 10-year anniversaries have provided ample opportunities for the organizations to consider the role of queer arts spaces, both in society today and in the future.
This year saw Pride in Arts open its own gallery, Sum. Its inaugural exhibition, Queersum by Karin Lee, opened on May 12.
“Our role is to keep pushing and supporting, making interesting, thought-provoking, avantgarde, incendiary work,” Holman said.
In another 10 years, she said, she’d like the festival to be even bigger, more international, and with a more solid structure supporting the event.
For Zee Zee Theatre, queer art matters now more than ever. “We all should feel like we exist and we are seen and we have work that is for us,” Mackenzie said.
The Frank’s plans for the future involve improving the diversity and intersectionality of its output.
“While it [queer] is one word, there are lots of other paradigms underneath it,” Nass said. “Moving forward, it would be great to bring in more female, nonbinary, trans playwrights…[and] more stories by immigrants and refugees whose experiences of being queer outside of our culture have been very different.”
It’s been a good 10 years for queer arts organizations in Vancouver. Here’s to the next decade.
> V.S. WELLS
Don Wilson knows he has big shoes to fill and an important legacy to uphold as the owner and self-described captain of Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium. That’s because the retail store at 1238 Davie Street has been an anchor of Vancouver’s LGBT community since it opened in 1983 in the upstairs of a home at 1221 Thurlow Street. The cofounders, Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth, turned it into a gathering place for the queer community by selling imported reading material that regularly drew the ire of Canadian customs officials.
In 1990, Janine Fuller joined the staff; six years later, the shop moved to its much larger location on Davie Street, where the irrepressibly cheerful Deva and the caring Fuller continued offering advice and support to the community. It was Little Sister’s that helped mobilize a strong police response after a gay photographer named Aaron Webster was beaten to death in Stanley Park in 2001. Deva, a former teacher, passed away in 2014, and Fuller is on medical leave, but the store is still going strong, celebrating its 35th anniversary.
Wilson, who has extensive retail experience on Davie Street, stepped in to keep it going, and in October 2016 he bought Smyth’s share in the company.
“Little Sister’s is iconic in the Lower Mainland, for sure, and really all over B.C.,” Wilson told the Straight by phone. “It was always heavily involved in the Pride organization and any community projects.”
Over the years, the LGBT community has dispersed from the West End to other neighbourhoods, which has led to Little Sister’s becoming a regional destination. Wilson said he has diversified the product line with more clothing, gifts, and novelty items while still stocking a great deal of Priderelated content and adult products.
“We carry a full range of flags, whether it be trans to bisexual to leather to bear,” he said. “We probably have 20 different flags that are related to LGBTQ in all sizes and shapes.”
Another cultural institution that’s celebrating a landmark anniversary is Out on Screen’s Vancouver Queer Film Festival. Executive director Stephanie Goodwin told the Straight by phone that it began 30 years ago when Vancouver was hosting the Gay Games. A small group of people decided to screen some LGBT films by projecting them on a wall in a Main Street studio and using milk crates as chairs.
“Back in the ’80s, there was almost no queer film,” she said.
Nowadays, the Vancouver Queer Film Festival receives 900 to 1,000 submissions per year and will run for 11 days, from August 9 to 19.
“This year, there is going to be a trans women spotlight because there is a sufficient number of films,” Goodwin noted.
The Vancouver Queer Film Festival will also feature multidisciplinary performances, as well as workshops for screenwriters—a sign of how it’s evolving under new artistic directors Amber Dawn and Anoushka Ratnarajah. There’s also a growing number of high-quality international films.
“Representation matters,” Goodwin said. “Visibility matters. When we see ourselves represented in complex and beautiful ways on the big screen, it’s a transformative experience.”
> CHARLIE SMITH HEALTH
Something was mysteriously 2
making gay men fatally ill in the 1980s. Some called it gay-related immune deficiency (GRID). Others called it the “gay cancer”. The epidemic was eventually called acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
It’s rare to hear that term used these days.
It still exists, but as AIDS Vancouver executive director Brian Chittock explained by phone to the Georgia Straight, that’s because medical advances such as antiretroviral drugs have largely prevented the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) from advancing to the AIDS stage of infection.
Chittock said they have considered changing their organization’s name. However, their identity is an ongoing reminder of the tragic historical circumstances from which the agency arose. In a period of decimation, desperation, and discrimination, the success and continuation of the organization remains an example of what Vancouverites can achieve when spurred into humanitarian action.
On its 30th anniversary in 2013, the agency chronicled its storied and intriguing history in a series of videos (3030.aidsvancouver.org/ ). In one such video, Chittock noted that some of the challenges they face today remain the same as those in their early years.
“We’re still serving the poorest of the poor in Vancouver,” he said, adding that some clients aren’t on medication, and some are still dying of AIDS.
Ironically, the achievements of the HIV movement have resulted in new challenges.
“Part of the problem with being so successful with the treatment is that people think AIDS and HIV is not an issue anymore and nobody’s getting it, and that hurts us,” he said. He went on to say that even though they’re still serving more than 3,000 people in Vancouver, they’re facing cuts in donations and decreased funding due to misperceptions about the state of HIV.
Nonetheless, Chittock draws encouragement from initiatives such as their Hiv–prevention program, which targets at-risk individuals and has only had one of about 250 clients become Hiv–positive over the program’s four-year run.
While the organization will mark its 35th anniversary with a Red Ribbon Gala on November 15, its celebrations included its new $2,000 Kenneth Lackner scholarship, which was given to its inaugural recipient, Henry Tran, at the LOUD Foundation’s awards gala on May 10. Chittock said the scholarship was created in memory of former AIDS Vancouver employee Kenneth Lackner, who bequeathed his life-insurance policy to the organization, which turned it into an endowment fund after his death last year.
While queer male health was preoccupied with AIDS and HIV during the past few decades, medical and social advances have allowed other organizations to arise to address previously overlooked or unexplored areas of health. One such example is the Community-based Research Centre for Gay Men’s Health (CBRC), which launched in 1999 and runs the annual Gay Men’s Health Summit in Vancouver; it expanded to the national level during the past year.
Another example is Health Initiative for Men (HIM), which takes a multifaceted approach by viewing mental, physical, social, and sexual aspects of health as interrelated.
Arising from the gay men’s resource exchange Gayway, the first HIM clinic opened on Davie Street in 2008, and it has since expanded to a total of five health centres across the Lower Mainland. Their comprehensive range of services and programs covers everything from counselling, sexual-health testing, and workshops to yoga, soup-making, and life-drawing sessions, as well as health-awareness campaigns.
Although many local LGBT health initiatives may have arisen out of dire and heartbreaking situations, they have developed into organizations that will help ensure LGBT people go beyond mere survival and secure an even playing field upon which they can thrive well into the future.
> CRAIG TAKEUCHI
(Left to right) The Vancouver Dyke March’s Claire Ens, Vancouver Pride Society’s Andrea Arnot, Out on Screen’s Stephanie Goodwin, Pride in Art’s SD Holman, and Frank Theatre Company’s Fay Nass. Tim Matheson photo.