News
3 min

Goodbye to a queer pioneer

Chris Bearchell dies surrounded by her chosen family

WARRIOR FOR THE MARGINALIZED: Chris Bearchell devoted her life to supporting those who were left behind by the rest society. She died in hospital in Vancouver, Feb 18. She was 53. Credit: Xtra West

In the early ’70s when it seemed as if homosexuals would never be accepted as equals, Chris Bearchell worked tirelessly to change perceptions and prejudices; not just for gays but for everyone.

Strippers, hookers, street kids, transgendered people, people with HIV/AIDS, people battling mental illness — anyone who was reviled or ignored by society at large — could count on Chris for backup. You felt that if Chris was behind you, you couldn’t possibly lose.

She grew up in Edmonton where, like everywhere else in Canada, gender roles were strictly enforced. Any girl who dared to wear slacks to school, even on the coldest day of a prairie winter, would be sent home in disgrace. Chris’ younger brother Dave remembers, “It wasn’t easy to grow up in Chris’ shadow. She fought to change the dress code. It took her three years, but she did it. Of course, she was the captain of the debate team.”

In 1975 Chris began writing for The Body Politic, then Canada’s most influential gay newspaper. As an activist, she seemed to be everywhere at once. She co-founded the Lesbian Organization of Toronto (LOOT) and was a leader in the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario (CGRO).

She planned and led demonstrations, toured small towns giving interviews, and even appeared in a Globe and Mail photo spread entitled All These People are Homosexuals. She could usually be found in the thick of whatever controversy was erupting at the moment.

Gerald Hannon has fond memories of working with Chris at The Body Politic.

“For many men in the early gay movement, she was the only lesbian on the planet; a bit of an exaggeration of course, but her willingness to work and play with men for the greater good of both sexes was unusual at a time when lesbian separatism was a significant force,” he remembers. “She was a hard, committed worker on The Body Politic collective. She was an astute analyst of contemporary culture, and the best rabble-rouser we ever had. I can still see her at the corner of Yonge and Wellesley Sts in Toronto the night of the huge demo after the bathhouse raids. She whipped the crowd into a frenzy and soon had them chanting, ‘No more shit!’ the phrase that became the community’s iconic vocal response to the police outrage.”

At her home on Toronto’s Walnut St you never knew who or what to expect; strippers editing their own movies, hookers planning conferences, cutting-edge artists and writers. Countless people were drawn to her and found themselves instantly connected to allies, lovers and friends for life. She was the first to listen and the last to judge; no wonder she was described as a dyke dynamo.

Always ahead of her time, Chris was one of the founders of Maggie’s, a drop-in center for street prostitutes; probably the first of its type in Canada. The police began to call on Chris at home and harass the outreach workers who were on the street giving out free condoms and educational materials. An advisory to the outreach workers from the time is telling: “If anyone gets arrested, call Chris. She will contact a lawyer and generally raise the alarm…”

In 1995, when Chris moved to BC, it was if the very heart of the gay rights movement in Canada had shifted to the West. She lived in a beautiful cabin with her lover, the writer Irit Shimrat, and her influence continued. She wrote, edited and appeared in a film and corresponded with her many friends.

When the island where she lived came under RCMP surveillance for supposedly being a marijuana growers’ paradise, her neighbors were amazed at her ability to voice their concerns, but those who knew her well were hardly surprised.

Her bog-side home, which she affectionately called Camp Swampy, became a sanctuary for migrating trumpeter swans and hummingbirds as well as ex-hookers and Radical Faeries.

In the moments after her death from kidney failure, Feb 18, Chris’ family and friends stood in awe of all that she had accomplished. We remembered the days when homosexuality was synonymous with loneliness, and when lovers were dismissed from their dying partners’ bedsides to make way for estranged biological relatives.

Penny, an older woman friend (not a lover) who helped to care for Chris during her final days, recalled a funny incident: Penny had been soothing Chris by gently rubbing her tummy. A nurse popped her head between the green hospital curtains, “Oh… you are making love. I’ll come back later,” she said. That wasn’t at all what was going on, but it showed respect; a respect that would not have been extended but for a few exceptionally brave pioneers like Chris Bearchell.