5 min

BC’s first gay premier probably wasn’t gay

Challenging the myth of Premier Alexander Davie, supposed namesake of Vancouver’s Davie Village

Alexander Edmund Batson Davie was premier of British Columbia from 1887 to 1889, more than a century before rainbow banners dotted the Davie Village.  Credit: Indiana Joel/Daily Xtra

Who hasn’t seen the charming Mike McCardell report on CTV resurrecting the perennial story that BC’s eighth premier, Alexander Davie, was our first “openly homosexual politician” and celebrating the fact that our beloved Davie Village is dedicated to the memory of such a pioneering queer?

McCardell isn’t the first to make some hay with this story, nor is he the first to do so without any sort of historical evidence to show for his claims.

Consider the times.

Davie was premier from 1887 to 1889.

In 1835, only a decade before Davie’s birth, James Pratt and John Smith became the last two men in England to be executed, by hanging, for sodomy.

In 1885, when Davie was 38, deep in the thick of a rather checkered political career and only four years away from his untimely death from a long illness, the British Parliament enacted section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which prohibited gross indecency between males. (The vague wording of the Act was later interpreted broadly to apply to any consensual same-sex acts between adults.)

In 1895, six year’s after Davie’s death, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour, for said gross indecency.

That will give you some idea as to the tenor of the times.

Historical context aside, consider the sources. Or rather the lack of sources.

Meet the real Premier Alexander Davie.
Wikipedia/Public Domain

One version of the story, as reported in an undated online source, has it that Davie was married “late in life” to a “homely” and much older woman, and that they had no children — which the author considered to be suggestive. Actually, Davie was married in 1874, to Constance Langford Skinner. He was 27 (hipsters will be interested to know that 27 is “late in life”), she was 32, and they had seven children. Which of course is also suggestive, though of course not definitive.

A few hours spent with Ron Dutton of the BC Gay and Lesbian Archives led us to very few printed sources, and none earlier than 1992.

That was the year that Vancouver journalist Guy Bennett told this story in his Guy’s Guide To The Flip Side (Arsenal Pulp Press / 1992), later repeating it in an article in the West Ender newspaper. This is the earliest instance we can trace telling the story of the “openly homosexual” Davie and adding the tasty detail that Davie and some of his gay friends in Vancouver started a private club up on Davie, away from the hustle and bustle of Gastown, and thus planted “the seed of what is now Vancouver’s gay community.”

Premier Davie married an older woman “late in life.” He was 27 and she was 32.
Indiana Joel/Daily Xtra

Another version of the story, appearing in an article by Sandra Thomas in the Vancouver Courier in 2005, tells basically the same tale as Bennett, with the variation that the club on Davie Street was launched by his friends after Davie’s death, as a sort of memorial.

In his own book Haunting Vancouver: A Mostly True History (Harbour Publishing / 2013) McCardell goes so far as to almost give an address for the club, noting that it was located “across the street and a little to the west of where Celebrities nightclub is now.” He goes on to say about Celebrities: “The club was the first openly gay nightspot in British Columbia. Davie would fit right in.” 

Do you detect a clue as to McCardell’s historical accuracy in that last sentence? Celebrities opened in the early 1980s — after Faces, Champagne Charlie’s, and BJ’s, just to name a few of the gay clubs that thrived here in the 1970s. I suppose McCardell sort of lets himself off the hook with the subtitle of his book: “A Mostly True History.”

But a few actual, historical facts would be helpful here.

There is little evidence of Davie having spent much time in Vancouver, being a resident of first the Cowichan Valley and later Victoria, and elected MLA first for the Cariboo, where he had briefly practiced law, and later for Lillooet, where he was a carpetbagger seeking a safe seat.

Water lines weren’t installed down Davie Street until 1889, which would mean that any “clubhouse” built there before that year wouldn’t have had water for the gentlemen’s whiskey, never mind the loo. And except for a few early houses, development didn’t really take off in that part of the West End until the Rogers family built their famous Gabriola mansion in 1901.

The story of the first gay politician in town keeps showing up, however, and nobody knows where it came from. It has popped up in the publications mentioned, The Ubyssey, VanCity Buzz, Vancouver Observer, and on various tourism and business websites, and our own editor Robin Perelle fell for it in a report in Xtra West back when she was a cub reporter.

Digging a little deeper, I reached out to as many of these “source” authors as I could find, and many of the folks in Vancouver who know a great deal more than I do about our history.

McCardell and I had a friendly exchange of emails and, after checking his files, he finally informed me that he had no notes, no references, and no idea where he had first read or heard the story. Sandra Thomas likewise responded that she couldn’t remember her source, but said she’d let me know if she came up with anything. Nothing so far. Guy Bennett, the earliest reference we could find, has been a challenge to track down. No former colleagues seem to have kept in touch, and his publisher has no idea where he’s ended up. 

Premier Davie and some of his gay friends supposedly started a private club up on Davie Street.
Indiana Joel/Daily Xtra

A good place to start when seeking information on Vancouver history is author and City of Vancouver Heritage Award winner John Atkin. He’d never heard the story.

Heritage architectural consultant Donald Luxton? Never heard of it. Tom Snyders, author of Namely Vancouver: A Hidden History of Vancouver Place Names (Arsenal Pulp Press / 2001)? Drew a blank. Author and artist Michael Kluckner, who writes (and illustrates) extensively on Vancouver’s heritage and history? Ditto. City of Vancouver archivist Heather Gordon? News to her. Public history events producer Jolene Cumming? Nada.

For the tall tale of our first openly gay politician and Davie Street namesake to have any basis in fact, there would have to be something on the record. Something written during Davie’s lifetime or shortly thereafter. Correspondence between himself and an intimate friend, or two friends gossiping about him. Entries in his or some contemporary’s diary. An interview he gave or a speech he made. Some little hint or nugget of rumour, be it ever so veiled in the euphemisms of the day.

It’s easy to see how such a fantasy might take hold in the imagination. Davie’s Byronic good looks, as shown in the available photos, and those puppy-dog eyes, could make for wishful thinking.

But no real evidence seems to exist.

Maybe the elusive Guy Bennett, who seems to have started all this nearly 25 years ago, will turn up someday and reveal impeccable historic sources we’ve been unable to trace.

But until something like that comes along, I suggest we give up this silly urban myth.

We have too many real heroes and pioneers, living and recently passed, to have to borrow someone from the distant past; someone who would likely be scandalized to find his name associated with the love that dare not speak its name.

Kevin Dale McKeown was Vancouver’s first out gay columnist, penning “QQ Writes... Page 69” for the Georgia Straight through the early 1970s. His Still QQ column for Daily Xtra runs biweekly. Contact him at stillqq@dailyxtra.com.


Editor’s note, Oct 28, 2016: The last line of this story was corrected to more accurately reflect Oscar Wilde’s famous quip.

This story is filed under News & Ideas, History, Vancouver, Opinion
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