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16 min

Gay footsteps through time

BIRTHPLACES OF OUR COMMUNITY: 'After years in the closet, to be dancing joyfully to a disco beat in a bar was liberating.' --Don Hann Credit: David Ellingsen photo

Though the rainbow-adorned Davie Village now beats proudly and openly as the heart of gay Vancouver, it wasn’t always so.

Bars, clubs, bathhouses and other gay spaces only began congregating on Davie St in the early 1980s. Before that, they quietly dotted the streets of the downtown core, concentrated particularly on and around Richards and Seymour Sts, between Robson and the Granville Bridge.

In was into this world that Don Hann stepped in the early 1970s.

Like many young gay men and lesbians at the time, Hann moved to Vancouver in search of others like himself. He soon settled in the nearby, residential West End, which was already emerging as Vancouver’s gay ghetto.

Finding the bars meant finding himself.

“These public spaces gave me a vision of being part of a much larger community,” he says. “This sexual orientation was not only mine.”

Until he discovered the bars, Hann lived alone, isolated and closeted. In an age when homosexuality was barely legal and society made no effort to disguise its disgust, those early gathering spaces gave him a place to openly connect with other gays and lesbians, to develop a shared sense of identity, and to celebrate rather than hide his sexuality.

They gave him a chance to be free.

To this day, Hann cherishes the memories of “growing up as a gay person” in those bars, clubs and bathhouses.

“Those public spaces were empowering in many, many ways,” he says. “I made friendships in these bars that I still have 35 years later. These friendships developed into an alternate family system for me.

“It’s sad to see that they’re all gone,” he continues. “It’s hard.”

Hann and I are standing in front of yet another shiny, new glass building on Granville St. The unadorned black door in front of us gives no hint of the historic gay space that once stood here.

Today, it’s presumably a delivery door for the snazzy salad-serving joint next door. But 35 years ago, in the cradle of Vancouver’s emerging gay community, the Castle Pub stood on this spot, a gay gathering place if ever there was one.

Not that the Castle was all that gay-friendly in the early 1970s. The straight management tried to squash all expressions of overt homosexuality; two men kissing could count on being kicked out. But that didn’t stop the gay community from claiming it as its own.

The Castle is just one of the stops along the tour you are about to take (starting on pg 20).

Of course, Vancouver’s earliest gay and lesbian spaces weren’t all concentrated downtown. There are also a few areas worth noting that fall beyond the boundaries of this map.

Gastown and Chinatown–or Skid Row as they were more openly called in the 1950s and ’60s–have their own gay and lesbian history, for example.

Lesbians in particular congregated in the straight-owned, aberrant-tolerating dives around Main and Hastings, especially in the Montreal Club at 163 E Hastings and the Vanport at 645 Main St. The area was also home to at least one gay-frequented bathhouse (Dino’s Turkish Baths on Hastings), and Vancouver’s earliest drag bar, BJ’s at 339 W Pender St.

Skid Row was the “heart of the old city, where the Vancouver townsite was located,” explains gay archivist Ron Dutton. “The bars were always wild and woolly.”

Sailors from the ships docking in the nearby port, loggers from the camps, they would all go to those bars and live in the hotels when they were in town. It was a “rough and tumble environment,” where aberration was generally more tolerated overall. “Gay people could get away with being gay down there.”

Jessie MacGregor was a “baby butch” in the Montreal Club of the 1960s and remembers the scene well: lesbians dancing in butch/femme couples, drinking “booze out of brown paper bags,” doing a few drugs–and always waiting for the lights to flash.

It was a warning, MacGregor told Xtra West two years ago. It meant the cops were coming.

Though police rarely arrested anyone in the gay-frequented bars of that era, they regularly walked in, harassed the patrons, shone flashlights in their faces, forced the butches to bare their underwear to make sure they were wearing women’s panties, and occasionally wrote down everyone’s names and threatened to publish them.

A decade later, police stepped up the pressure, smashing down the door at the Hampton Court Club and photographing everyone inside in June 1973. The following year, they raided at least a dozen more gay bars. The increasingly vocal community responded with a protest on the steps of police headquarters, Nov 23, 1974.

“Law enforcement was used as a tool to penalize me for my choice of sexuality,” MacGregor says.

Hann agrees. He too remembers the police harassment.

“It was a form of surveillance,” he says. As gays and lesbians gained visibility and claimed more space, the state dispatched the police to try to break up the growing sense of community before it grew too strong.

And the police didn’t just target the bars. Gay men cruising on the beaches and trails endured their share of surveillance and interference too.

Hann tells stories of having sex at Second Beach and ducking behind logs to avoid the police searchlights.

But that didn’t stop him.

Hann takes me to the old Fruit Loop, a semi-circular parking lot overlooking today’s AIDS Memorial at Sunset Beach, just west of the Aquatic Centre, and points with obvious pride to one of his favourite old sex spots from the 1970s.

People would come and go all night, he smiles. We were asserting our sexuality and claiming space that had never before been available to us.

Hann also has fond memories of orgies up against the western wall of the Beach Ave Aquatic Centre, cruising at Kits Wharf in Kitsilano, and of course having sex on Lee’s Trail in Stanley Park. He even has photos of himself at Wreck Beach in the 1970s.

Though the Skid Row dives of the 1950s and ’60s, the cruising zones of the ’70s, the odd gathering spots in other areas of town, and the more recent lesbian herstory of Commercial Dr all lie beyond the scope of this historical walking tour, they are all nonetheless historic venues in their own right and deserve recognition.

Together with the points of interest on the tour you’re about to take, these sites mark the birthplaces of our community. We should remember them, honour them, and visit them while there’s still some discernable trace of our roots amid the gentrification and natural evolution of the city that surrounds us.

Because it would be a shame to lose sight of these spaces, to allow them to slowly vanish from our collective memory–and with them our connection to our past and the struggles and joys and sheer persistence it took to get us where we are today.

A historical walking tour of gay Vancouver

1) The Hotel Vancouver
900 W Georgia

At first glance, it may seem strange to start a historical gay walking tour at one of the biggest, straightest hotels in town, but don’t be fooled. Like many of the venues you’re about to visit, beneath its swanky exterior beats the heart of historical gay Vancouver.

“Thank god for the Hotel Vancouver! It had a beer parlour in the basement with two sections: ladies and escorts, and men. The men’s side was strictly gay,” Terry Wallace told gay historians Robert Rothon and Myron Plett five years ago.

“It was small,” Wallace continued. “I forget what the seating capacity of it was, it couldn’t be much more than 50 or 60. If you weren’t in by six on Friday, or Saturday particularly, you just didn’t get a seat.”

Wallace was just 21 years old in the late 1940s, post-war Vancouver. Though he would go on to manage many of this city’s early gay bars, not to mention play a key part in its growing Pride celebrations, he had few gay spaces to choose from in the ’40s and ’50s.

2)The Vancouver Art Gallery
Robson St (between Hornby and Howe)

From the Hotel Vancouver, walk south on Hornby St (away from the mountains of North Vancouver) to the corner of Robson St. Turn left onto Robson and stop at the steps of what is now the Vancouver Art Gallery.

It was here, 35 years ago, that Vancouver gays and lesbians held their first demonstration on Aug 28, 1971. On that grey summer day, 20 brave homosexuals stepped forward to publicly declare their sexuality and demand an end to state discrimination.

Number one on their list of demands for the federal government: remove the terms “gross indecency” and “indecent act” from the Criminal Code, terms traditionally used to target gay men.

Other demands included establishing a uniform age of consent for homo and hetero sex acts (something we’re still fighting for today); removing all references to homosexuality from the Immigration Act; extending equal legal rights to all homosexuals, and guaranteeing equal employment opportunities at all levels of government.

3) The Castle
750 Granville St

Continue east down Robson St towards Granville St. Turn left on Granville, cross the street and stop in front of what used to be 750 Granville St, now a nondescript black door next to the Salad Loop.

In the 1960s, the Castle Pub was an important gathering place for gay men seeking community. “But the owners had no tolerance for visible homosexuality,” remembers Don Hann. “I was thrown out of it one Saturday afternoon in 1975 for kissing a gay man in the bar.”

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, the Castle struggled with its predominantly gay clientele, at times welcoming it, at times reviling it. In 1971, the Gay Liberation Front held a kiss-in in front of the pub; a year later, the Gay Alliance Toward Equality boycotted it. But the gay community always returned to claim its space, its members eager to meet other homos and make new friends.

In 1978, the Castle finally stopped fighting its destiny and hired Terry Wallace to manage the pub and embrace its gay clientele once and for all. For the next decade, the pub became an openly friendly, supportive gay space.

When the Castle finally closed in 1990, its gay patrons lovingly carried their portrait of the Queen in a now-famous procession three blocks south to 1025 Granville St. There, the Royal picked up where the Castle left off–until the gay community gradually drifted away to other bars and the Royal went straight in 2001.

4) Faces
795 Seymour St

From the old Castle site, return to Robson St, turn left and walk one block east to Seymour. Here, on the corner where Rogers now sits at the base of another glass tower, was the home of one of Vancouver’s first gay-owned and operated bars, Twiggy’s. Phillip Haines opened the bar as a private gay club in 1967. In the 1970s, it changed its name to Faces.

In those days, liquor licences were hard to come by for all bars, so Faces operated as a bottle club, where patrons brought their own booze and checked it at the bar. The bartender would tag each person’s liquor and serve it back to them on request. Faces eventually got a special liquor licence in the mid-1970s.

The club remained popular with gays and lesbians until its building was closed for demolition in 1985.

5) The 616 Club
616 Robson St

Across the street from Faces sat The 616 on Robson St, another gay and lesbian bar in the early 1970s. Terry Wallace managed this club too, and once referred to it as Vancouver’s first gay disco. Police would come and shine their flashlights into the patrons’ eyes but they never shut the place down, he told Q Magazine in 1987.

The Damron guide listed the same address as Billie’s Disco and Show Lounge in 1976.

6) The Ambassador
773 Seymour St

From Faces, walk a few steps north on Seymour to the Ambassador Pub’s old site at 773 Seymour. Like the Castle, this straight-owned hotel pub also had a sizable gay clientele dating back decades. By the 1970s, many gay men and the occasional lesbian would spend an afternoon moving between the Castle and the Ambassador, separated as they were by a mere alley.

7) The Corral Club
887 Seymour St

Retrace your steps to Robson St, cross Robson and continue south a few steps to 887 Seymour. Now the lobby of the Orpheum, this was a gay male club called the Bullring from 1970-73. It then became the Corral Club, before gradually shifting to a straight clientele in the late 1970s.

8) The Playpen Central
856 Seymour St

Cross the street and stand in front of the old Playpen Central, whose building hasn’t changed a bit, says Don Hann. The bar was upstairs on the second floor, he says, pointing to the window that’s still there. This was a busy place on Saturday nights, he recalls.

Back in the 1970s, you could do “the bar tour,” he continues, referring to the Playpen, the nearby Castle and the Ambassador, all within just a few blocks of each other.

Before it became the Playpen, the building housed a gay bar in the early 1970s called the Thunderbird.

9) The Shaggy Horse
818 Richards St

Cut across the parking lot next to the Playpen and emerge onto Richards St, facing the site of the old Shaggy Horse. It, too, is now a parking lot. But in its day, it was a very popular leather and levis/Western bar. It was also home to the Zodiacs Fraternal Society.

“I spent a lot of time at the Shaggy Horse,” says Don Hann. “And it actually was a shaggy horse–it had shag carpets on the walls!”

Before it became the Shaggy Horse in 1972, it was a gay and lesbian club called the August Club, which opened in 1968.

10) The Women’s Centre
804 Richards St

Next door to the parking lot that once held the Shaggy Horse, stands a brand new glass building. But the site used to house a funky old wooden building, remembers Pat Hogan. It was the Women’s Centre’s first home in Vancouver, which opened in 1974 and burned down six years later. In subsequent years, the centre would move around a lot, but from 1974 to 1980 it lived on Richards St, where it maintained a bookstore, hosted a lesbian drop-in night (Wednesdays at 8 pm in 1979), and housed the Lesbian Information Line (LIL). It was an important place to come for information and to socialize, says Hogan.

11) The Quadra
1055 Homer St

From the Women’s Centre, walk past the old Shaggy Horse site and south on Richards two blocks to Nelson St. Cross Nelson, turn left and walk one block east to Homer St. Turn right on Homer St and walk south about half a block to 1055 Homer, now a chichi new apartment/townhouse development.

On Jul 6, 1979, the Quadra opened on this spot, Vancouver’s first–and to this day only–completely lesbian-owned and lesbian-oriented club.

Owned by Suzan Krieger and Heather Farquahar, the Quadra (re-named Lucy’s by its regulars in its latter days) was extremely popular in the 18 months that it was open. From its pre-drag king acts to its after-hours action in the parking lot next door, the Quadra, perched atop a postal sorting station, left an indelible mark on Vancouver’s gay and lesbian history.

12) The Dufferin
900 Seymour St

From the Quadra, backtrack to Nelson St, then turn left on Nelson and walk west two blocks back to Seymour St. At the southeast corner, you’ll find the Dufferin Pub, still serving the gay community today, even as its new owners aim for a wealthier, tapas-consuming clientele.

The Duff has been serving the gay and lesbian community since the early 1980s, though back then its pub was called Streets. “People still rave” about Streets, says manager Cary Grant. “It was a pretty nice bar.” Walking into the pub was like walking down an actual street with fake storefronts and lighting and everything, he recalls. The dance floor was flanked by two stone lions about three feet tall, he adds, noting those lions now sit outside The Red Lion Inn in Victoria.

13) Hampton Court Club
1066 Seymour

From the Dufferin, walk south down Seymour St to what used to be 1066 Seymour, briefly home to the Hampton Court Club before police raided it on Jun 30, 1973. Archival reports say officers smashed down the door and photographed all the customers inside. The club closed shortly thereafter.

The space remained gay, however, and soon became home to the lesbian-frequented Mrs Goguen’s Pool Parlour and its neighbour, the gay-frequented Music Room, both of which survived until 1975, writes historian and environmental planner Gordon Brent Ingram in his 1998 book Vancouver (as queer)scape.

Today, 1066 Seymour no longer exists, apparently squeezed out by the new townhouses on either side at 1060 and 1068 Seymour St.

14) Gay Alliance Toward Equality
1131 Richards St

Continue south down Seymour St to the corner of Helmcken, then turn left and walk a block east to Richards St. The Gay Alliance Toward Equality’s (GATE) first office opened here, on the southwest corner of Richards and Helmcken, in June 1971.

GATE was part of an “international, militant civil rights movement, organizing gays to come out and fight back,” says former member Don Hann. Throughout the 1970s, GATE organized protest after protest, pulling gays and lesbians into the streets to not only protest state harassment and discrimination, but to build a sense of community identity in the process. It also published its own newspaper, GayTide. The group disbanded in June 1980.

15) Richards St Service Club
1169 Richards St

Continue a few steps south on Richards then pause for a rest in Emery Barnes Park. There is no trace of the old buildings that once stood on this spot, but a piece of gay bathhouse history was torn down to make way for this patch of green space among the townhouses four years ago. The Richards St Service Club had been a fixture at 1169 Richards St since 1960.

“Thousands of gay men must have passed through there over its history,” says Don Hann. “It was a vitally important space.”

16) Champagne Charlie’s
612 Davie St

When you’re ready to continue, proceed south on Richards St until Davie, cross Davie, then turn right and walk a block west on Davie to Seymour St. Cross Seymour so you’re standing on the southwest corner, in front of what is now the Atlantic Trap & Gill restaurant. This was the home of Champagne Charlie’s, a lesbian and gay bar in the 1960s and early 1970s.

“It was such a great place,” says Suzan Krieger. She remembers Charlie, who ran the bar, as a “tough, very large butch woman” with slicked back hair and boots. The bar, which was located down a flight of inside stairs, was popular with lesbians and drag queens, Krieger says.

Upstairs saw a couple of establishments come and go over the years, she adds, referring first to Chez Victor, then to the Canvas Company, then to Sisters.

17) The Centre
1244 Seymour St

From Champagne Charlie’s, continue south on Seymour St half a block, cross to the east side of the street and stop in front of the swanky townhouse that now sits at 1244 Seymour St.

After several years of planning, envisioning and fundraising, Vancouver’s gay community opened its own community centre on this site in August 1981. The organizing committee had been seeking feedback since 1979. A blurb in a 1980 community guide says: “Our own Gay Community Centre can be what we in the community feel it should be, providing a flexible range of services and functions. Basic services such as counselling, legal advice, medical information, and a crisis intervention line can be supplemented by meeting rooms and facilities for coming out groups, sexuality workshops, film nights, religious groups, gay alcoholics anonymous, gay youth, gay seniors, gay parents, and anything else for which interest is expressed.”

The Centre shared its new Seymour St digs with the Society for Education, Action, Research and Counselling on Homosexuality (SEARCH), the Metropolitan Community Church and, on the ground floor, Top Man Leather.

In 1984, the Centre moved to 1340 Burrard St and a year later it moved to its current site at 1170 Bute St.

18) Luv-A-Fair
1275 Seymour St

Across the street from the Centre’s first site, the Luv-A-Fair was a gay and lesbian disco in the mid-1970s until it turned straight (yet alternative) in 1979. The site is now under construction, and will soon be home to another new condo development.

19) Playpen South
1369 Richards St

Walk to the corner of Seymour and Drake St, turn left on Drake and walk one block east to Richards St, turn right and proceed to what was 1369 Richards. Though the address no longer exists (squeezed out once again by another new condo development), it once housed the very popular Playpen South.

“It was a fuck and suck bar,” says Don Hann. “Everybody went there for backroom sex.”

Hann remembers going to the after-hours Playpen (which only served soft drinks and snacks) after the nearby Gandydancer closed at 2 am. The Playpen South “was a sex bar,” he says, reminiscing about the days when he’d find about 50 guys in the backroom at a time–“everybody doing everybody else.”

Before it became the Playpen South, this space housed another gay club called Betwixt and Between from the 1960s to 1972, writes historian and environmental planner Gordon Brent Ingram in his 1998 book Vancouver (as queer)scape.

20) The Gandydancer
1222 Hamilton St

Retrace your steps to Drake St, turn right and walk east down Drake to Hamilton St, then turn left and walk north to what is now Bar None in the heart of trendy Yaletown. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Gandydancer stood here, a gay oasis in the middle of a barren stretch of parking lots and empty warehouses.

Advertised as “a men’s bar and disco” in one gay guide from 1980, the Gandy was in many ways a typical ’80s bar, with its ever-puffing smoke machine and brass and wood motif. Home to a preppy, alligator-shirt crowd, it had a spacious dance floor surrounded by mirrors in front and seating in back. In the early ’80s, the Gandy struggled with the question of whether to admit lesbians.

21) Queenie’s Truck Stop
1135 Howe St

From the old Gandydancer, proceed north to Davie St, turn left and walk up five blocks to Howe St, then turn right. The popular women’s club Queenie’s Truck Stop lived above a strip bar at 1135 Howe St around 1975. It was “fantastic,” says Suzan Krieger. “Oh my god, it was packed all the time!”

Today, a brick underground parking lot stands approximately on the spot where Queenie’s once thrived.

22) The Garden Baths
1233 Hornby St

Retrace your steps to Davie St, cross Davie and stop at the southwest corner of Davie and Howe to note the Odyssey (in the old house adjacent to the building with the billboard). This popular gay club has been going strong at 1251 Howe St since 1987.

Proceed west one block up Davie St to Hornby St and turn left. Partway down the block, hidden behind a plain, white wooden enclosure, is an empty lot that once housed another early gay bathhouse. The Garden Baths stood here at 1233 Hornby St throughout the 1970s and ’80s, until it burned down around 1990.

In its earlier incarnation, it was known as the El Toro Bath, or the Taurus Baths, depending who you ask. A 1978 gay guide described the El Toro Bath as “Vancouver’s largest and most complete bath facilities.”

23) Buddy’s
1018 Burnaby St

Again retrace your steps to Davie St, then turn left and continue up Davie to Burrard, cross Burrard and turn left again. Walk south one block to Burnaby St and cross to the southwest corner. Before you, looms yet another condo tower, this one called the Ellington. But this spot once housed Buddy’s, a popular gay lounge in the 1980s.

Many people have fond memories of Buddy’s; some say it was the last 1970s-style denim cruising bar in Vancouver. Its two-storey building was torn down to make way for the Ellington in 1991. To this day, many Buddy’s regulars have bittersweet memories of the bar’s farewell party.

Before it became Buddy’s in 1981, the site housed another gay space called the Boom Boom Room.

24) Little Sister’s first site
1221 Thurlow St

Return to Davie St, turn left and enter the heart of what is today Vancouver’s gay village.

Walk under the rainbows one block west to Thurlow St, pausing to note Celebrities on your left at 1022 Davie St, which has been around since the mid-1980s, despite a five-year hiatus for renovations from 1999 to 2004. When Celebrities first opened, it allegedly attracted part of the crowd from the popular gay bar Neighbours, several blocks off this map at 1337 Robson St, between Jervis and Broughton.

Just a few doors past Celebrities, at 1042 Davie St, you’ll also find Numbers, the granddaddy of Davie Village gay bars, which opened its doors Jan 29, 1980.

Once at Thurlow St, cross Davie, turn left and stop in front of what is now a computer shop above a Korean restaurant. This is 1221 Thurlow St, the first home of Little Sister’s, Vancouver’s famous, Customs-battling bookstore. Little Sister’s opened its doors here on Apr 28, 1983. Canada Customs started seizing its book shipments three years later.

With the help of the BC Civil Liberties Association, Little Sister’s filed its first legal complaint against Canada’s border guards in May 1987. The battle over what counts as obscenity, and how much authority border guards should have to determine that, continues to this day.

In December 1987, someone threw a bomb into the empty staircase leading up to the bookstore’s second-floor space. No one was hurt. Two months later, someone bombed the building again. Again, no one was hurt. A third bomb shook the building and blew the stairs apart in January 1992. The bookstore held its ground. No one was ever arrested.

Little Sister’s moved to its present location, a few blocks west at 1238 Davie St, on Jul 6, 1996. It had run out of space at its Thurlow St location and needed to expand.