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Bearing witness over the years

Gay senior recalls Vancouver's first Pride parade and its twists and turns since 1978

LAYING IT ON THE LINE. "People knew they were putting various degrees of their reputation on the line by appearing in public," says Bob Woodward, 78 (left, with late partner Jim McPhail), who's been to virtually every Pride parade since 1978. Credit: Courtesy of Plum Living Home Health Care Services

In 1978, dozens of people lined a few blocks of the West End to watch an equal number of people in Vancouver’s first Pride Parade.

Among those spectators was West Vancouver’s Bob Woodward, now 78.

“It was very small and there were a lot of protest and religious signs,” he recalls. “People knew they were putting various degrees of their reputation on the line by appearing in public.

“It was a small crowd but it was a beginning,” he adds.

This year, Woodward will be among hundreds of thousands of people jamming the West End to watch thousands march in the city’s largest celebratory event. And Woodward has been to virtually every parade since that first courageous event that covered a few blocks on Denman at English Bay going north.

Woodward says the first Pride parade was preceded by a queer contingent in the old Pacific National Exhibition Parade.

“That received a very mixed reaction from the crowd,” he says. “Some clapped, some kind of booed. We thought they were very brave to do it.”

He says the parades back then were more of a civil rights event than the celebratory vehicles they are now.

And, he adds, the nature of the parade has taken some twists and turns over the years since 1978.

“The tone was mostly campy,” he remembers. “In the early ones, there wasn’t much of a display of flesh. Then, it became raunchier, and then it toned down as it became more popular.”

But, he says, it’s always been important to have people out there pushing for the rights of the community, something he says the parade continues to do while it now has a much more celebratory tone than the civil rights feel of the early days.

And, he says, there’s nothing wrong with it being more of a celebration than a protest.

“I actually think that’s quite wonderful,” he says. “It is evolving simply into a celebration as a Caribbean festival is a celebration. Anything that is celebratory is good. I like the wide range of the people.”

Then he chuckles.

“I like it when the little old ladies are planning to go to Gay Pride,” he says. “It’s one of their favourite events of the year.”
This year’s parade will have special resonance for Woodward. It’ll be the first time he’ll be doing it without his partner of 58 years, Jim MacPhail, who passed away last November. The couple celebrated the evolution of queer rights when they married after same-sex marriage was legalized.

After McPhail’s death, Woodward was on his own.

He continues to live in their West Vancouver home, but with support from Vancouver’s only organization to offer home care, personal support, and nursing care specifically intended for the queer community.

And it will be a member of that organization, Plum Living Home Health Care Services, that will help him get a front-row centre seat for this year’s parade.

“There is no way I would be here in my home today without them, and I sure wouldn’t be going to the parade,” he says.

Vancouver Pride president Ken Coolen says there are a number of people who have been to almost all the parades.

When told Woodward would be watching from near the parade’s start, his response was simply, “Excellent.”