Ron Dutton knows a lot about Vancouver’s gay history.
He’s been collecting artifacts, documents, posters —anything he could get his hands on, really —since the mid-1970s.
Dutton runs BC’s Gay and Lesbian Archives out of his West End condo.
But history is more than a collection of papers, documents and photos. It’s about people and their lives. A photo doesn’t always capture what’s going through your head the moment you took the picture.
That’s where the Queer History Project comes in.
“The overall project is crucial,” Dutton explains. “What needs to be understood is until about the 1970s, there was very, very little documentation of the gay community and its life.”
What little documentation there was, doesn’t really tell the story well. Mainstream newspapers at the time considered themselves ‘family’ papers and wouldn’t touch the subject, Dutton says. And most government documents on the subject come from the justice system, which was antagonistic towards homosexuality.
The Queer History Project was created by Vancouver’s queer film festival through government and corporate grants. Now in its third year, the project has taken on a life of its own after two successful film commissions, another set for next year’s film festival, and now a new website.
The website is a pilot project for now, operating on a shoestring budget. Drew Dennis is executive director of Out on Screen, which runs the film fest and its history project.
Dennis says the project is open for community input and the sky’s the limit as far as where the project goes.
“Everything is open source software right now,” Dennis notes. “People can post a video clip and that’s hosted through Youtube. Or they can post photos but they’re hosted through Flikr. So there’s not a permanency to the site right now.”
The project’s longevity will depend on what the community wants. Dennis hopes people with memories of Vancouver’s queer past will go onto the website and add their own memories.
Eventually the project is meant to inspire community art projects to coincide with Vancouver’s 125th anniversary.
“Imagine you’re walking down Davie St or Commercial Dr and there’s quotes that are stenciled on storefront windows —which are quotes from what some of these people had to say,” Dennis suggests.
Many of the contributors are getting on in years, so Dennis hopes queer seniors will join in on the project before their memories begin to fail.
“We’ve got to remember our history is so vulnerable,” says David Myers, who has been an activist in Vancouver’s gay community since its early days. Myers has already contributed several pieces to the online project and is working on more.
His interest in recording community history was piqued during a contentious discussion at a community meeting about Vancouver’s first Gay Pride parade.
“I was sitting there in the audience saying, ‘Jesus I was there. What year was it?’ I resolved at that point to dig out some of my records and I found it,” Myers recalls.
His first contribution to the site chronicles his involvement with the Gay Liberation Front.
Much of what the Gay Liberation Front did was never recorded, says Myers, so it’s up to the remaining former members to tell their stories of what it was like to be seen as a pervert and social pariah by the general public.
“In order to prevent history from repeating itself, you have to make sure you know what history is,” he says.
The Queer History Project is important because it helps make that possible, he adds.
But it’s not all serious. The project also aims to capture and help us see what daily life was like for people.
Myers’ next contribution will be a list of bars, baths, clubs, and other noteworthy gay/lesbian spaces of yesteryear.
The list, he explains, is meant to stimulate people’s memories.
“We want anything that gives you a sense of the colour and feel of what those places were like because those are the kinds of details that don’t remain in the public record usually.”
No detail is too trivial, he insists. The point is to gather a wealth of knowledge on the website and have people comment and add to the stories so we can gather a better understanding of what being queer was like when our community was less visible.
Many people are choosing to post narratives about their personal family history.
Marsha Ablowitz’s sweet narrative about her gay uncle Max Dexall who owned a shoe store on Granville St is a prime example:
But as the years passed and Max did not marry, the family became aware that he was gay. My dad came home from helping Max at Max’s shoe store one evening and was laughing nervously and complaining to my mom.
“Well did anyone touch you, or do anything to you?” asked my mom.
“No,” said my dad. “But I was nervous down there with Max and all those guys. They are all fairies.”
I got very excited imagining tiny blond fairies flying on cellophane wings.
“Dad, did you really see a fairy? Is uncle Max really a fairy?”
“Not that kind of fairy, a different kind, you know, a homo.”
“Don’t say that word,” said my mother.
“Well what word should I use?” asked my dad.
Recently one cousin told me:
“We didn’t like him much. He was sort of feminine. We didn’t include him much in our family celebrations. It must have been hard on him. He was very good at decorating though, we used to ask his advice if we needed an interior decorator. And he sure knew how to order ladies shoes.
Max was making his own way. He charmed his customers and his business flourished in his store to South Granville at 10th. He attended the Share Tsedeck Synagogue on Oak Street, and found he could cruise for gay Jewish men, in the men’s section of the Synagogue. But most of them married to hide their gay orientation.
“Certainly there are endless, marvelous, funny, heartbreaking stories out there that speak to how we survived,” says Dutton.