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5 min

Have we grown since Celebration ’90?

Bittersweet memories on eve of the Outgames

Athletes enter BC Place for the opening ceremonies of Celebration '90. Credit: James Loewen

For the first time in her life, former Olympian Betty Baxter felt completely welcome in Vancouver.

The year was 1990 and the third Gay Games were in full swing. Baxter, a director and spokesperson for the Games at the time, says the city and police force had expressed concern about a possible backlash and violence. In the end, their worries proved unfounded. 

“It was the right kind of celebration. It was about pride and fun at the right time,” she recalls. “People realized that instead of being some scary kind of monsters to lots of communities, we were the kids next door.”

Historian Ron Dutton, of the BC Gay and Lesbian Archives, agrees Celebration ’90 marked an important turning point.

“For many gays and lesbians it was a coming of age for the city; a recognition that they belonged to a bigger community. After that, you couldn’t not take the gay community seriously,” Dutton says. “I think that maybe this was the event that had to happen here in order to bring the community together.”

Baxter says the flood of 15,000 openly gay and lesbian visitors from around the world gave many of her friends the courage to publicly come out after spending years in the closet.

“The Games turned it from being only something for activists into being something that everybody could be part of,” she says.

Community activist Jamie Lee Hamilton also has fond memories of the Gay Games. “There was this whole sense of our community becoming alive. We were at the forefront of gay rights here in this city. The Gay Games culminated all that work that had been done in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s. It was a celebration of all that history.”

Like others, Hamilton opened her home and her heart to athletes from around the world. She recalls taking a bus at the time, looking around at other Games participants, identifiable by the tags they wore, and feeling an intense spirit of shared community.

Now, 21 years after the Gay Games marked a pivotal moment in Vancouver’s gay history, the city is once again poised to host another major athletic event: the 2011 Vancouver Outgames.

For Hamilton, the memory of the Gay Games is somewhat bittersweet. Despite all the progress our community has made since 1990, she maintains that some momentum has been lost.

“I don’t know what’s happened, but something’s happened,” she says, referring to what she considers a “backslide since the Gay Games.”

“We were saying we needed an accessible community centre that was all-inclusive. That hasn’t happened. During the Gay Games there was a lesbian centre on Commercial Dr. That’s nonexistent now, and also the Dyke March is struggling to stay alive. During the Gay Games, we had a host of gay bars, and what do we have now? Maybe three or four,” she points out.

“I’m not sure what we’re supposed to be celebrating now, when people are being left behind,” she continues. “I don’t think that’s cause for celebration.”

Openly gay Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert, now serving a second term, is encouraged by the progress the gay community has made in the political arena.

“We used to be on the outside looking in. Well, we are in power in so many places,” he says.

Not only is the community well represented on Vancouver city council, but there are more openly gay MLAs in Victoria and MPs in Ottawa than we’ve ever had before, he notes.

“I think we can start to flex our muscles and show some pride in our strength. But I think because we’ve been on the outside for so long, some people either give up or get complacent,” he says. “In the end it comes down to who organizes and who takes the fight on.”

Chandra Herbert feels frustrated when he hears others say the fight for equality is finished.

“Look at the number of hate crimes brought on our community. Look at our schools, where queer kids are bullied at massive rates, and our provincial government continues to ignore that. Look at the number of homeless folks on our streets who are disproportionately GLBT. Consider the number of communities in BC and in Canada where you might not feel safe walking down the street holding each other’s hands.

“Just because it’s in the law doesn’t mean that everyone follows that law or recognizes that law.”

Taylor Basso, a 21-year-old gay writer and activist, knows that the queer community’s struggle for equality is still a work in progress but doesn’t believe that any needed changes will come from events that he sees as increasingly corporate.

“I think if the community does go in a different direction, it will no longer be something like the Outgames that spurs that,” he says. “Where once the Outgames might have been more about empowerment — it’s got a different cachet than it once had.”

“It’s kind of a sad catch-22,” Basso continues. “As the struggle for equal rights gains traction in the mainstream, it becomes harder and harder to resist commodification.

“I say this with full awareness as someone who posed for an ad for Telus, and so I am achingly aware of the irony of what I’m about to say, and the hypocrisy of what I’m about to say,” he hastens to add. “But I think we should be resisting. If we want to effect a positive change, it needs to come from somewhere else, somewhere more grassroots.”

As the countdown to the opening ceremonies grows ever closer and excitement around the Outgames begins to build, the possibilities of what is still to come are endless.

For all her concerns about the direction the community has taken, Hamilton is surprisingly optimistic about what the future might hold. When asked what she thinks could make a difference, she responds without hesitation.

“I’d say we have to have a place [where] we can all congregate, where different facets of our communities can congregate, a place that can be the heart and soul of our community’s strength.”

To that end, she’ll be volunteering with OUR Spaces to help work toward the creation of a dedicated queer community centre

Chandra Herbert hopes for a more vocal and active community.

“I think it’s time that we take our place at the table of democracy — that it’s no longer that we are saying please acknowledge us or know that we exist,” he says.

“Let’s get beyond our borders and engage other communities and work with other communities to help them in their struggles,” he continues. “If we want to ensure that recent immigrants to our country are accepting and supportive of us, we need to do the same for them.”

Basso, now recently graduated from the University of British Columbia, would like to see a return to the grassroots activism that got us where we are today.

“Maybe we get a bit of our stubborn-ness back, maybe we get a bit of our resistance to that gentrification,” he says wistfully. “Maybe we get more of our mettle back.”

Baxter hopes the future sees a stronger, more connected community.

“Success would mean for people to understand — not just downtown and not just in the West End or not just in little pockets of ghettos — that it’s about us being together everywhere.

“I would like [the future] to be about community and people understanding that the only reason it can be such a success is because we’re in it together,” she says.