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Goodbye to lesbian pioneer Bearchell

Activist Chris Bearchell dies of kidney failure

WARRIOR FOR THE MARGINALIZED: Chris Bearchell devoted her life to supporting those who were left behind by the rest society. Credit: Capital Xtra file photo

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, 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.”

Chris moved to Lasqueti Island in the Straight of Georgia, BC, in 1995.