16 min

And the nominees are…

Presenting the finalists for the 2007 Xtra West Hero Awards

It’s that time of year again. Time to honour your heroes, celebrate their contributions and salute our strengths as a community.

After hours of tallying your ballots, Xtra West is proud to present the three finalists in each category.

Winners will be announced at this year’s Xtra West Community Achievement Awards on Sun May 13 at Jupiter Café. Doors open at 4 pm, show starts at 5 pm. Tickets are just $5 at the door.

Please join us as we honour our Heroes of 2007.

Lifetime Achievement Award

Willi Zwozdesky for 25 years of proudly conducting Canada’s first gay men’s chorus, and for capping last year’s silver anniversary by artistically directing Unison 2006, Vancouver’s first pan-Canadian queer choir festival in four years.

Zwozdesky wasn’t actually supposed to conduct the Vancouver Men’s Chorus (VMC), but when it came time to perform in public for the first time, the man the VMC had hired to conduct wouldn’t take the podium. It was 1981, Zwozdesky explains, and “people were very closeted and nervous to come out publicly.” But that didn’t stop him from stepping forward and courageously lifting his baton. The rest, as they say, is history.

Zwozdesky has been at VMC’s helm ever since, seeing the chorus through the gay community’s evolution–and the AIDS crisis. By the mid-to-late-1980s, the chorus’ whole experience was coloured by the AIDS outbreak, and many of the period’s concerts were connected somehow to the crisis, often raising funds, or awareness, or both. Ultimately, the disease hit very close to home.

“Some of the guys would come [to rehearsals] visibly ill,” Zwozdesky recalls. The experience of singing with a community of gay men may have helped extend some members’ lives, he hopes.

The feeling of community that arises from singing about serious subjects together can be a very positive, empowering thing. As VMC member Michael Harper told Xtra West last year, “There is something about a group of men singing together on certain subjects [that can be] very poignant, very moving.”

By all accounts, Unison 2006 was also a great success. Hosting Unison here builds spirit at home and fosters connections to other queer choirs from across Canada, Zwozdesky told Xtra West on the eve of the festival’s opening concert. “There is a profound emotional connection to this stuff. The voice is the single most intimate expression you have, voices are extremely revealing. You can’t help but be touched. It’s completely normal for people to weep openly; for the joy to be so extreme that people will say their lives will have changed.” Zwozdesky worked tirelessly to plan the festival for the two dozen or so groups and over 500 delegates who took part last May. Then, a month after the curtain closed on Unison, he led the Vancouver Men’s Chorus to No Small Feet of its own, as the chorus celebrated its 25th birthday with a concert at the Commodore Ballroom.

The past 25 years have seen a lot of highlights for the VMC: performing Liszt’s Faust Symphony with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Chor Leoni Choir and the Vancouver Bach Choir; singing highlights from Hollywood musicals with the legendary Marni Nixon; and performing at the Gay Games in 1990. But it’s the more elemental things like brotherhood and community that keep these men going, under the unwavering guidance of their conductor, Willi Zwozdesky.

–With files from Mark Kowalk

Community Hero of the Year

Danielle Doucette for creating Vancouver’s first women’s-only sex party, the very popular WET party. The idea came to her after months of searching fruitlessly for a women’s-only sex party to attend. Though she found plenty of women’s dances, the annual women’s sex show Diva’s Den, a couple of private gatherings and a few leatherdyke play parties, she couldn’t find what she was really looking for–a sexual space for all women to safely and comfortably explore and enjoy their sexuality together. So she made her own. “I would really like to have a safe space to go to with other women to immerse myself in sexuality and sensuality–to revel in it, to play,” she told Xtra West last July. “That’s what it’s all about: playing. I want to be just accepted for that, get all hot and bothered from it, play with it, have it accepted, have it available.”

Reverend Michael Forshaw for having the courage to publicly come out as a gay, HIV-positive man while working as a member of the clergy. Forshaw made the front page of the Vancouver Sun in December 2005 when he demanded access to an experimental AIDS treatment that Health Canada had rejected. He had already called the bishop of New Westminster for permission to go public. “I would presume it’s the Holy Spirit operating in my life because I really had no intention of doing anything,” Forshaw later told Xtra West in January 2006. “All of a sudden something sort of poked at me, and I said, ‘Bishop Michael [Ingham of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of New Westminster] do you have any problems about me going public?’ He said, ‘Not at all. You have my full support.'” After much pleading and political intervention, Health Canada relented.

Michael V Smith for creating new spaces where alternative expressions of queer community can gather and grow, and for exploring what it means to be queer through a series of artistic projects, from his short film Two Peanuts to his new book of poetry, What You Can’t Have, to his brilliant, gender-blurring photo exhibit, The Tickle Trunk Project. “We’ve become more mainstream and we are allowing the mainstream to define our community,” Smith told Xtra West in January. “We lost the diversity that came when we were defining ourselves.”

“We have become consumers of queer culture, rather than creators of it,” he later added. It’s a trend that Smith has been actively bucking for years, though never so prolifically as in the last 12 months. What You Can’t Have is a collection of 42 elegant poems pondering a classic theme of emerging sensuality from an explicitly queer perspective. Two Peanuts is about having the courage to be your true flamboyant self. The Tickle Trunk Project is about “the relativity and mutability of gender and the ever-changing nature of it.”

And then there are the parties: through the ongoing Odd Ball series, which he co-created and continues to co-organize, Smith has also played an instrumental part in creating new queer gatherings, offering an alternative to the Davie Village’s take on gay culture and community. “I’m very interested in community and in building dialogue. A lot of the work that I do is about diversity; making space in the world for plural existences,” he says.

“It’s all about permission and creating permissive environments that are constructive and supportive and that encourage people to be whoever they want to be,” he continues. “It sounds really cheesy but I think that’s something we all aspire to.”

Youth Activist of the Year

The Wilde Youth of Port Alberni for getting a Pride proclamation from their City Hall for the third year in a row and for having the courage to be out and proud in a logging community where few queer adults are willing to step forward as public role models themselves.

The Black Parade for offering youth a vehicle to question and explore gender expression and identity through drag, in venues around the Lower Mainland. Founded by Rayne, the Black Parade is a new drag king troupe of performers ranging in age from 15 to 32, and featuring some of the youngest kings around. Having benefited from drag to help get them through the turbulence of their own teen years, these kings and youth workers are now pooling their skills to reach out to youth in Surrey, Abbotsford and other surrounding areas.

The Gulf Islands Secondary School’s gay-straight alliance (GSA) for developing the first student-driven anti-homophobia school district policy in BC. The policy, passed last June, commits to taking proactive steps to ensure all queer and questioning students feel welcome in school, and prohibits all forms of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It was only the fourth such policy passed by a school district in BC. Prior to its passage, there was no mention of homophobia or heterosexism at the Gulf Islands school district level. “It shows youth can make a difference within the system and youth can be social justice activists,” one education activist commented after the policy was passed. Gulf Islands GSA co-chair Clare Lannan (above).

Volunteer of the Year

The Gay Men’s Methamphetamine Working Group (GaMMa) outreach volunteers for providing condoms, lube, information and resources on crystal meth to gay men in our bars, clubs and spaces, and fuelling the dialogue on crystal meth use in the community. “The GaMMa project is rooted in a non-judgmental, harm reduction approach,” coordinator Jody Jollimore told Xtra West last May. “We are only trying to promote a healthy approach to drug use, while providing some resources for those who use.” The GaMMa volunteers are Peter Ridgway, Michael Varma and Ron Allen (above) and Dean Szoradi, Michel Morin, Ray Sullivan, Tim O’Neil, Dave Hvaal (not in the photo).

Gordon Fraser for feeding the West End’s homeless people. As organizer of The Sandwich Squad, Fraser and his team of 15-20 volunteers have made thousands and thousands of sandwiches for the hungry in the last two years. Twice a week, the 59-year-old gay man makes his rounds picking up donations for the sandwiches, then spends hours slicing bread and preparing hot chocolate, coffee and tea, and the sandwiches themselves. He also raises the funds required to purchase meat, condiments and other ingredients. “I believe that when you take your livelihood out of a community you need to give something back,” he says. Once made, the sandwiches are provided to Ellen Shonsta, or “Mom” as she’s more commonly known on the street, who distributes them nightly from her scooter-pulled cart at locations throughout the West End.

Nancy Austin for bringing nutritious meals, support and a glimmer of hope to people living with HIV/AIDS in the Vancouver area. Austin, 35, has been a driver for A Loving Spoonful for the last three years. “I was drawn to A Loving Spoonful because [its] goal of providing people with one of the basic needs, food, resonated with me. There’s no reason for people who are sick to be hungry as well,” says Austin, who also works as an emergency room doctor.

Athlete/Sports Organization of the Year

Yvon Justin Côté for winning two gold medals in track and field, plus a silver and a bronze, at the Chicago Gay Games last summer, then going on to win two more gold medals at the Montreal Outgames–on crutches! Côté was way ahead of the competition in the Outgames decathlon when he seriously injured his heel in the high jump. He thought he would have to drop out. But the next day he hobbled through the last events and won gold. Then he coached some teammates in the relay and helped them win bronze. “They did it on their own,” Côté protests. He was also instrumental in establishing the Luxy Bistro bursary to subsidize one athlete’s trip to the Outgames. Says one of his nominators, “He is a sweet man, a good sport and very involved in the community.”

Tim Beaulieu for organizing and coaching the Vancouver Heat softball team to a silver medal finish at the Montreal Outgames last summer. Under Beaulieu’s direction, the Heat also placed first in its division at the West End Slo-Pitch Association’s (WESA) Pacific Cup Tournament last September, which pitted local and visiting gay teams against one another. The outfielder also led the Heat’s fundraising activities to keep travel costs as low as possible for his teammates, and did not hesitate to make a donation to the Canadian Cancer Society when a teammate’s mother died of cancer. Beaulieu is also a 12-year WESA veteran and last year coached the Fountainhead team to a third-place finish in the regular season. And in his spare time, he plays the third position on Vancouver’s curling team The Ho-Lots, which recently won its division at the continental Outgames in Calgary.

Not So Strictly Ballroom for forging community on the ballroom dance floor and queering traditional dance norms. “From its humble beginnings, Not So Strictly Ballroom has grown from one class a week 13 years ago, lesbians only, to a mixed group of queer dance students, two classes a week, monthly dances and workshops in between. It has built a strong community of dancers, lovers, friends, and continues to grow,” writes one of the group’s many nominators. “This organization is the leader in Vancouver in bringing partner dances–traditionally relegated only to male-female partnerships with the male as lead and female as follow–to the same-sex community through lessons, social dances, and competition,” adds another. Last year, Vancouver’s only same-sex dance organization sent several dancers to compete in the Gay Games and the Outgames. This year, it will host the first-ever Canadian Same-Sex Dance Competition here in Vancouver in November 2007.

Business Citizen of the Year

The owners of 1181 for creating a new community space in the Davie Village and filling a void in Vancouver’s gay scene. Their lounge, with its window on the street, adds new variety and a splash of style to the heart of gay Vancouver. “For the most part, the gay bars in the community are bars that have existed for some time. They are great bars and they fill a requirement in the community, but they don’t necessarily represent everyone,” 1181 co-owner David Battersby told Xtra West before his lounge opened for business. “We just want to have a nice lounge where we can hang out with friends and have a nice quiet drink with good music in a cool environment,” he said, envisioning a space for people who don’t necessarily want to go to a denim and leather bar or a nightclub every time they go out. The owners of 1181 are Robert Lord (from left), Battersby, Heather Howat and Bradley Thompson.

Rhizome Café for creating a new space for queers and non-queers alike to gather and be themselves–and forging new community in the process. “Even before they opened the doors to their eastside cafe, Lisa and Vinetta worked diligently for months to establish it as a place for many communities to come together to meet, celebrate, hold political meetings, show films, bring in political and social entertainment and much, much more,” writes one nominator. “And they have succeeded, possibly beyond their wildest expectations, in less than one year since their doors opened in June 2006. Their support and concern about people and causes are well known. I am impressed by what they have accomplished both for the queer community and many other communities, and how they have brought diverse communities together. I hope they are recognized with a Hero Award for Business Citizen(s) of the Year.” Located on East Broadway near Main St, Rhizome is owned by partners Lisa Moore and Vinetta Lenavat.

The Gay and Lesbian Business Association of BC (GLBA) for launching a scholarship program to provide financial assistance and mentoring opportunities to post-secondary-bound individuals who self-identify as members of the queer community. “We think it’s important to give back to the community and we’re demonstrating social responsibility by nurturing future leaders,” says GLBA co-chair Lisa Voldeng. The GLBA’s board of directors in May 2006: Roz Shakespeare (from back left, clockwise), Lauri Preston, Geoff Pate, Ed Lee, Brent Lehmann, Lisa Voldeng, GLBA administrative executive Barry Goheen, Sandra Gibbs, Steven RodRozen, Karen Carter.

Straight Ally of the Year

Peyman Khosravi and Babak Yousefi for risking their lives to produce I Know That I Am, a documentary film about the oppression of transsexual women in Iran. “Peyman literally risked his life to bring the stories of transsexuals living in Iran to the screen,” writes one nominator. “A well-established filmmaker within the commercial film and TV industry in Iran, Peyman fled the country after authorities ransacked his home and took with them much of his footage. He smuggled the remaining footage and fled to Canada.”

“In Iran, gay equals buggery equals death. The difference is that because you are trans, the authorities see it as their right to take advantage of you,” Yousefi told Xtra West last August.

Andy Henderson for refusing to quietly accept homophobia in his midst. Henderson risked his job as a Canada Post mail sorter when he led his co-workers to refuse to deliver a piece of hate mail that blamed homosexuality for the fall of Western civilization. “I’ve never been part of anything like this before, but it felt so right,” Henderson told Xtra West last November. “I have two kids. There is just so much hate in the world already; I didn’t want to be part of propagating anymore of it. We should be past that.”

Don Johannson for standing up to the Abbotsford School Board and conservative lobby groups in the increasingly heated battle pitting gay-friendly curriculum vs “parental control.” Johannson decided to introduce his own motion for inclusive curriculum after an Abbotsford trustee suggested the school district “would not compel students to attend classes or lessons that their parents/guardians judge to be contrary to the individual needs of their children or that they find morally objectionable, subversive or offensive with respect to their religious, moral and/or cultural traditions.” Johannson is president of the Abbotsford District Teachers’ Association. “In my opinion, [the Abbotsford board is] being pressured by certain organizations, namely the Catholic Civil Rights League and the Christian Coalition of Canada,” Johannson told Xtra West in March. “I think it’s a special interest group that has come forward, claiming that they represent parents and the community of Abbotsford. I don’t necessarily agree that they do represent or have the consensus, or support the consensus of the community.”

Live Performance of the Year

Prodigal Son for its moving and often hilarious look at a gay man and his devout Catholic family, as the main character attempts to reconcile his sexuality and his religious beliefs when he learns his father is dying. Playwright Shawn Macdonald’s first full-length production is a poignant, well-acted and structured theatre piece that sheds a new light on queer realities, examining sexuality, religion, hypocrisy and the enduring effect of the family on all aspects of life.

Fit For a Queen for hitting a particularly successful note with its 2006 production. Produced by Shooting Stars Foundation’s director Kendra Sprinkling as a fundraiser for HIV/AIDS organizations, Fit For a Queen showcases the talents of local drag divas. Last year’s show featured powerful, engaging and humorous numbers by, among others, Symone (who gave the audience just what the Dr Feelgood ordered), Devana DeMille, Coco (left), Fit For a Queen newcomer Ambrosia Devour with her breathtaking genderfuck on One Night in Bangkok, and an impressive performance by Joan-E, who sang Bohemian Rhapsody in three different voices, weaving together impersonations of Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Carol Channing.

Shakespeare’s R & J for its compelling homoerotic take on the Bard’s most celebrated love story. Set in an oppressive Roman Catholic military school in the 1950s, the play focuses on four schoolboys who find a hidden copy of Romeo and Juliet and secretly begin to perform it. Jack Paterson directed the play’s Vancouver premiere last November. “Everything about the show, from the economical yet kinetic blocking to Al Friak’s stark set to the committed, impassioned performances of Josh Drebit, Jason Emanuel, Daryl King and Omari Newton is focused, clear and direct,” reviewer CE Gatchalian wrote in Xtra West at the time. “The tension between the boys’ initial, hormone-driven rambunctiousness and the gentler, more intimate modes of male interacting that they discover through reading aloud and giving life to Shakespeare’s words–modes forbidden them by the patriarchal dictates of their school–is beautifully realized. My only complaint about the show is that its run was too short; more people should have witnessed this exquisite production.”

Pink Triangle Press/Xtra West Writer of the Year

Brett Josef Grubisic for publishing his first novel, The Age of Cities, which tells the story of a small-town librarian who inadvertently stumbles upon gay subculture in 1950s Vancouver and struggles to make sense of his fascination with his new friends. Writes one nominator, “Brett has been a contributor/columnist for Xtra West for more years than I can count, but this year was a particularly amazing one for him. In addition to being an inspirational (out) English professor for UBC students, this year he published his own novel, which is winning acclaim all across North America in gay and straight reviews. He volunteered at Word on the Street and he organized and hosted the Pride UBC literary event at the Robson Theatre and had five amazing writers come in and read to UBC youth.”

Claire Robson for encouraging our community’s seniors to record their stories and giving them the tools to do so through QUIRK-E, the Queer Imaging and Riting Kollective for Elders that she helped found. “Claire has encouraged and [worked] with QUIRK-E’s queer seniors to help them bring out and creatively record the wonderful histories and memories that are valuable to all of us,” writes one of her many nominators. Many people have been drawn into writing as a result of Claire’s support and encouragement, and her ability to make people see that they have something to offer, adds another nominator. Claire has “inspired this group of older queers to find within their own story.”

Lydia Kwa for chronicling the amorphous, free-flowing sexuality of eighth century China in her novel, The Walking Boy, which tracks the journey of a hermaphrodite named Baoshi as he searches for his master’s former male lover. (His master is a hermit monk.) What unfolds is a sumptuous, passionate ghost story complete with orgies and gentle-hearted transvestites, while illuminating the corrupting effects of absolute power, writes Xtra West reviewer CE Gatchalian. “The whole idea of sexual orientation is a Western psychological construct,” says Kwa. “People get put into these categories. Way back when, in different cultures, including Chinese culture, there was no such distinction. They just slept with whoever they wanted to sleep with. Hello, goodbye.”

Drag Queen/King of the Year

Mina Mercury for doing a mesmerizing Madonna, down to the smallest details. Her solo mini-concert, performed at Celebrities Feb 1, featured SM ponies pawing the air from their knees, belly dancing and no less than three complete costume changes. Her fresh, powerful take on an unconventionally feminine gay icon is proof that drag is still vibrant in this city.

Buttah for, in the words of one nominator, performing “with a rock star appeal. [He is] androgyny explored if not personified; an embodiment, not masculinity imitated. It’s a beautiful thing.” Buttah is also active in the community, creating events for other performers and donating his talents to fundraisers.

Amanda Luv for forging a new space for drag and community to come together in Surrey. Having reigned as Imperial Crown Princess II in the Court of Surrey from 2005-2006, Amanda turned her attention to finding a new drag venue and created the community’s first monthly drag show at the Fireside Cafe on King George Hwy. The old-style drag show, called the Luv Show, immediately struck a chord with the local community. “The show has been an enormous success with entertainers from Vancouver, Surrey and the local area as guests,” writes one nominator, adding that Amanda deserves to be considered for Drag Queen of the Year for her initiatives in both entertainment and activism. Amanda is also the driving force behind Surrey’s new GLBTQ Online Centre.

Visual Artist of the Year

Amy Nugent for presenting, in the words of one nominator, an “amazing Polaroid collage piece on queer women in the community” at last year’s Pride in Art exhibit at the Roundhouse, entitled Joy along the Continuum. Nugent’s contribution featured a three-part piece composed of 49 Polaroid photos of women activists. “Its optimistic, cross-generational representation of people of all walks of life perhaps best symbolizes the exhibition’s inclusivity,” reviewer Gus Shanti wrote in Xtra West last August.

Richard Bell for capturing the most endearing coming out scene of the year on screen in his film Eighteen. The film explores and celebrates different yet equal forms of loving relationships and sexual awakenings, intertwining the characters’ touching tales with tenderness and compassion. One relationship features an adorable young gas attendant just coming out and inviting his first crush over for what seems to be candle-lit Cheez Whiz sandwiches; another features a soldier struggling to keep his wounded superior alive, and the intimate if not explicitly gay bond that emerges between them.

Toni Latour for shining a spotlight on this city’s drag kings and capturing their images on film. Her September photo exhibit entitled The Drag King Project featured portraits of drag kings, butch lesbians and transgendered men and explored the growing phenomenon of the drag king in Vancouver. Latour says she wanted “to elevate the drag kings to the level that they deserve, and just make images of drag kings that are gorgeous, seductive and sexy.”