Back before I became a student, I had a co-worker who one day told me about why he chose to move to Vancouver. He was originally from North Carolina, and his now-husband was from Brazil. Both had grown up closeted and were rejected by their families when they came out, an all-too-common story. He said the day they got married in the Stanley Park Rose Garden, their “just married” leaving-the-wedding-vehicle-of-choice was a bicycle-pulled carriage ride along the sea wall. As they went along the sea wall in their decorated trolley, people clapped, and whooped in celebration. As he told me this story five years after the event, he became emotional. He said it felt like a miracle to live in a place where their love, which had caused them so much strife in other parts of the world, could be proudly displayed and celebrated by the community.
It is rarely thought about by Vancouverites now that this has not always been the case. There is a long and sordid history that birthed our beloved Davie Village. Long before the clubs, drag shows, pride parades, and community events, being queer was stigmatized and criminalized here just as much as in places like London and New York.
Arguably, no one knows this history better than Glenn Tkach, a Vancouver historian who leads The Really Gay History Tour, hosted by Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours.
On his tours, he chronicles events such as the bombings of Little Sister’s—a bookstore which was repeatedly targeted by domestic terrorists for daring to offer queer literature. It was also famously targeted by border guards who would block their shipments, leading to a Supreme Court Lawsuit by Little Sister’s against the Canadian Government.
Amongst the struggles, there are also moments to be celebrated. Through his extensive research, he was able to uncover it was in Vancouver where the first openly gay minister was ordained. Vancouver was also the first to medically assign a trans woman, Jamie Lee Hamilton, by her correct gender. This happened in 1969, the same year buggery, or same-gender sex, was decriminalized.
As the host of these tours, Tkach has a unique perspective on the evolution of the community. He says he finds there are many young people who seem to get a lot out of his tours because even today, being queer can still mean feeling other. Young people who go on the tour and learn about queer history describe to Tkach how knowing the history makes them feel tethered. The history gives them lineage, and roots, things that can be lost along the journey of self-discovery.
His personal ties to the queer community also make him aware of where the community still has room to grow. While gay men may be widely celebrated, lesbians, trans, and two-spirit peoples face comparatively more discrimination. Queer BIPOC have borne the brunt of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.
To acknowledge this disparity, Tkach was pleased to share that the organizers of Vancouver’s Gay pride parade put two-spirit and people of colour at the front of the last publicly held parade in 2019.
Examples of the evolution of the queer communities’ place in society can also be felt closer to home at BCIT. The president of BCIT’s LGBTQ+ Alliance, Sapphire Dumaresq, has a number of frustrations with BCIT’s relationship with the queer community—specifically when it comes to trans rights.
Although they have struggled with being misgendered by fellow students and teachers, they say they are always patient and eager to educate those willing to try, and to learn. In their seven years at BCIT, only one student stands out as flat out refusing to use their chosen pronouns.
More egregious in their opinion is the university’s refusal to equip all buildings with a gender-neutral bathroom. While the university has committed to all future buildings having gender-neutral bathrooms, for now, Dumaresq must hope their schedule allows the 20 minutes needed between classes to run to-and-from a newer building with a non-gendered washroom.
Dumaresq has also been disappointed at the university’s refusal to put their chosen name on their various diplomas and soon-to-be bachelor’s degree. The university says it must use their legal name on certificates. However, Dumaresq’s bank had no problem making the switch.
BCIT endeavours to be an open, safe, and inclusive space proudly hoisting their rainbow BCIT letters in the pride parade, but so far, their efforts are letting down members of their LGBTQ+ community.
When reflecting on the history of the queer community in Vancouver, Tkach reflected that queer rights are not just about queer people. The Gay Rights revolution was and is a victory for all people. It broke down binaries (he/she, heterosexuality, etc.). It opened a whole world of open-mindedness, fluidity, and thinking differently about what is possible for self-expression, gender identity, and sexuality. In a world of black and white, it allowed for a rainbow.