3 min

Becoming lesbian

A tribute to dykes on the Drive

Space molds us: our closets make us square, bathhouse cubicles alienate us, and housing co-ops make us dramatic à la Coronation Street.

We shape the Drive as much as it shapes us; in this sense, I have become lesbian.

I need not pander to this audience; they do not need my flattery. But let me tell you about the East Side lesbians I have known (and thus toboggan joyfully down the slippery slope of generalizations).

As immigrants often do, lesbians drifted east by necessity, not choice, once Kitsilano and other alternative neighbourhoods became gentrified by the late 1970s.

In the book Queers in Space (1997), Anne-Marie Bouthielle tells us that North American fags gather traditionally around consumption, sexual opportunity and entertainment, while lesbians gather around labour, reconstructed families, and inexpensive housing.

With the advent of marriage and other nods to freedom, such tradition might be changing. Plus, the Drive is getting gentrified hard, but I don’t think all lesbians have dispersed. In the Dyke March on Aug 4, I saw an energetic motley bunch, some of the old guard, and a whole new crop.

I grew up in kitchens, in a women’s world, amidst the steam of vegetables, the raw scent of meat, spices, and gossip. Even in the midst of a staunch Chilean military dictatorship, my world was feminine, overprotected by my mother, a forceful illiterate live-in servant in middle-class households.

Now that she loses her memory to Alzheimer’s, I worry about remembering what I learned from women in boots about love, and from men in boots about sex (and I see a fabulous gay shrink).

I did not expect lesbians to play quite the queer vital role for me as an immigrant in Canada. Neither surrogate mothers nor father figures, they are friends.

On the Drive butch was queen, and I had arrived from a Latino culture that, even today, is machista and misogynist, where even gay men of my generation still look at lesbians with reticence. Paradoxically, Latino societies are staunch matriarchies where mothers are ambiguously feral to their offspring: they erect themselves as victors and victims.

In any case, the presence of dykes in my new Canadian ‘hood was one of the most interesting discoveries for me as a young settler. They became central to my scene and in many ways this would impact my life.

My dear friend Suzanne, a long time Eastside resident, saw me through thick and thin at Simon Fraser University, Faculty of Education, that dreadfully hetero-normative bunker where I was disciplined for 10 years.

My artist friend Laiwan led me to work at Goddard College in Vermont where lesbians rock!

There are so many Eastside lezzies you would recognize and I can’t list here. You can see these creatures daily with their politics tattooed on their skin, laughing raucously at places like Avanti’s after touring the world with a circus or building a house in the islands, raising hell in some housing co-op meeting, zipping down the road in station wagons packed with children and dogs, holding hands tightly through a pack of goofy soccer players idle on the sidewalk, choosing a whatnot at Beckwoman’s (a most mystifying eternal clutter shop on the strip), donning Mohawks on skateboards, or sensually licking their fingers made sticky by the delicious pullout ribs in the new cool musical eatery Timbre on Commercial and 4th.

Watching them, I am reminded not to be a sissy about the important shit, to open my mouth big —not only to suck but to speak —to do what needs to be done without violence. Any butch I may be, I owe to lesbians on the Drive.

If you are wondering whether I buy into all that feminist stuff like empowerment, voice, etc, the answer is yes, wholesale. Such political education makes me persnickety about social justice (Canadian affluence affords us the luxury to be indignant about such things) but it also gives me pink lenses to see the world from both sides now.

Lesbians made me vocal (whereas men had made me oral and silent), the queen of process, and proud of having some moments in my life where my dick does not lead the way.

I learned about friendship, loyalty, and family at times that were difficult for gay men. Inoculated with the fear of HIV, subject to apartheid by serostatus, I could not be family to gay men. I was nearly left an orphan to AIDS.

Before I met my wonderful man with whom I have built family, it was dykes on the Drive that gave me model and hope.

To the cliché tune of “we are family, I got all my sisters and me” during the 1980s, Commercial Dr lesbians were central among the friends who dragged me out of my harrowing bedding into the light of day, to dry my bitterness with belly mirth and home cookery, back and forth from emergency rooms, chemotherapy infusions, and shopping trips. Lesbians count amongst my heroes in the AIDS movement.

I see how incredibly different gay men and dykes are —at least within my age bracket —the way we react and live differently about open relationships, jealousy, communication, sex, monogamy, and foreplay. I cherish the distinction and the diversity.

And then there is dyke fashion on the Drive, that cheap shot that one can so easily fire! With a quivering finger on the trigger, I will only say that in this respect I have remained very absolutely impervious to learning, compassion, and alternative values.