When we last met Max Dexall and George Hill they were living on Vancouver’s west side and building the family shoe business in the years before gay sex was decriminalized in Canada. How did a gay couple navigate the many social and legal pitfalls of post-war Vancouver?
“In their conversations, there was always in the background the threat of being busted on a morals charge,” their younger friend Paul Hancock remembers.
Nonetheless, they presented themselves as a couple.
“They were always invited together as a couple. I saw pictures of them together at the synagogue, at functions,” says Hancock. “I would go out for lunch with them on South Granville and anyone of their age group who’s a Vancouverite would stop and talk to them, and you could tell that there were some very fond connections there. A friend of mine told her uncle about Max and George, and he said: ‘They’re just a lovely gay couple. They really changed my attitude towards gay people because they’re just such gentlemen.’”
In the late 1940s Vancouver was a provincial city, with most of Dexall and Hill’s peers not openly identifying as gay. “Most men preferred to get straight trade,” says Hancock, “it was somehow more okay to do straight guys than to be identified as a homosexual with a lover.”
But the couple had their place in the social pyramid. “They fit somewhere in the middle between the wealthy gays and the working class gays. They went to house parties, to some clubs that were a bit more outrageous. In their 40s they tended to spend a lot of time at the beach in the West End, hanging out with their friends.”
With homosexuality being illegal in Canada, some outings were more fraught than others: “In the ’50s, they were going to a gay party in West Vancouver. They were in drag. Their car got pulled over for speeding just before they went across the Lions Gate bridge. And Max said they were terrified because you could be arrested and thrown into jail for wearing an article of clothing of the opposite sex, but the officer addressed him as ‘ma’am’ as he gave him the speeding ticket and he just let him go.”
“Max used to talk about which parts of the Hotel Vancouver the gay men congregated in,” Hancock remembers. “They showed me a photograph of a man with bleached blond hair, a white dog and a huge touring car going down Granville St, who was always getting into trouble for being outrageous.
“That took a great deal of courage,” Hancock says. “I can remember straight men getting beaten up in the ’60s just for having long hair. They would talk about Henry, the chauffeur of a prominent Vancouver family, who lived in the family estate’s gatehouse, and who had big, loud parties for the gay cops.”
“They never spoke disparagingly of gay liberation,” Hancock reflects. “I think they were happy that we, the younger generation, had more freedom. But they remained discreet.” The couple’s discretion persisted well beyond 1969: “During the 1990 Gay Games I approached Max and George to organize a fundraiser in their home,” Hancock recounts. “‘We’ll invite the wealthier gays,’ I told them. Their answer was a flat refusal.
“‘We’ll write you a check,’ they said ‘but we won’t do that.’ George later told me, ‘I don’t want it to appear in the newspaper: South Granville merchant charged in vice raid!’
“And it just floored me. But they were convinced that any kind of gay party could be raided, especially something that was public, which they perceived a fundraiser to be.
“They had their own moral code, as we all do, and their own risk assessment, and there were things they just would not do. But you’d think somebody who was afraid to have a gay fundraiser would not be driving across the Lions Gate Bridge in drag. I never figured that one out.”
To this day, Hancock is grateful to Dexall and Hill for their friendship and support, and for helping him find community.
“I remember when I told my mother that I was gay. She told me that there weren’t any gay people. And if there were gay people, well, they were very bad or that was a long time ago in history. But George and Max’s stories told me that there were hundreds and hundreds of gay men and women in Vancouver who were doing the best that they could, often in very trying circumstances. Max and George were just really decent human beings who lived as well as they could. I think they changed people’s attitudes and made a difference in their community.”
This is my last column. Many thanks to Gareth Kirkby, Matt Mills and Robin Perelle of Xtra West. Special thanks to those readers who stopped me on the street to comment on a column in the last four years.