5 min

If you rest, you rust

Denise Sheppard celebrates a decade of Rock for Choice

Credit: David Ellingsen

Michael Venus: So this is a landmark year for Rock for Choice. Can you let us in on who will be performing and tell us all a little bit more about this amazing fest.

Denise Sheppard: Whew … seven nights of shows over 10 days makes for a long list! We’re pretty psyched: for our 10-year anniversary we’ve worked extra hard to make it something special.

Headlining our three Vancouver East Cultural Centre nights we’ve got Sarah Harmer, Hayden and Kinnie Starr. There’s also folks like Rae Spoon, Veda Hille, Carolyn Mark, Skinjobs, Barley Wik, End This Week With Knives, Che Chapter 127 and Black Rice playing through the week. That’s only about one-third of the bands, so you all can get the whole she-bang on our website: (

I am also really excited about our second annual conference. Once again, we’re at Harbour Centre (Feb 7), and have a totally full day of seminars-everything from trans workshops to self-defence for women to art and revolution-type stuff. We’ve also got some great films on that day, including the Vancouver premiere of By Hook or By Crook, a butch buddy film produced by and starring Silas from Tribe 8. The whole conference is admission-by-donation, by the way.

MV: Okay, so for the totally clueless, what exactly is Rock for Choice all about? How did it come to be, and how did you get involved?

DS: Meegan Maultsaid gets full props for starting Rock for Choice back in 1994. The second year, I asked her if I could get involved after being really incensed by the sniper-style shooting of Dr Garson Romalis when he was attacked at his Vancouver breakfast table solely because he performed abortions. Since I was a music journalist who knew both bands and local media, I figured I could maybe help make it grow. We did it as a duo until last year, when we turned it into an unstoppable collective. Yay team!

As for what it is about-well, the clinics we raise money for are not just appreciative of the funds donated, they are also very moved by the show of support.

MV: Have there been any major obstacles over the years putting on a fundraiser of this magnitude? (Cuz kids, it’s huge.)

DS: The only “bad” thing is that we frequently sell out (albeit happily) before the day of the show and folks can get pretty grumpy when they can’t get in. This year is gonna be no exception so please everyone buy your tickets early to avoid crankiness.

MV: Why is it so important for this event to happen and what are some of your main goals?

DS: We try to have all-ages shows as often as possible because we want the youth to become inspired to think politically. We try and plant seeds of activism and then hope those affected go on to sprout seeds of their own.

MV: What do you get out of putting this show on?

DS: Wow! So much. I get inspired, and that is worth all the work.

MV: Share with us some key moments from throughout the years.

DS: This event has always been spine-tingle city for me; how to choose? Well, a couple of years back, one of the most touching moments was Bif Naked weeping onstage over a woman who had just been gang-raped in Surrey while taking out her garbage. I remember thinking the 14-year-old boys in this room are seeing a hero of theirs cry over the rape of a woman she has never met and I was hoping that they will remember how much that affected her. Bif has been so inspiring, I am honoured to call her my friend.

What else? Mecca Normal’s Jean Smith walking through the balcony singing I Walk Alone a cappella to a totally silent audience. Holly McNarland in a tight bodysuit, eight months pregnant, singing her heart out. Sleater Kinney kicking ass and everyone in the room smiling.

Last year, we had our first-ever conference; I was so scared no one would show up, and then so many did! We brought performance artist/activist Nomy Lamm up from Chicago to do her Badass Fatass workshop and when she finished, there were 90 people squished into this tiny room, listening to this incredible woman talk about empowerment. I sat in the corner crying like a baby, so thrilled that people were there listening, learning from, and respecting her. Last year’s conference was truly one of the top 10 days of my life.

MV: Can I have a condensed version of the story of Denise from baby to now?

DS: Hmm, let’s see: teeny weenie preemie fights to live, then in her teen years fights parents, fights sister, fights system. Becomes self-employed writer who spends 10 years having an amazing time writing for Rolling Stone, Details, Bust and a bunch of other places-oh yeah, including Xtra West. Kissed a few babies, kissed a few rock stars, have loved strongly, lived passionately and am unquestionably a work in progress.

MV: Who keeps you sane? Who inspires you? Who pisses you off?

DS: Anyone who knows me knows how important chosen family is to me, and honestly those are frequently the same people who inspire me. I am very lucky that way. My Dad has fought through crazy illness and is the personification of the will to live. He is pretty inspiring as both a man and a father.

What’s the last part? Oh yeah, who pisses me off? Everyone from the legal system to supposed allies like Rape Relief being closed-minded to sex trade workers and trans folk. So much moralizing by organizations which are in positions to do so much good and to help heal.

MV: What are your top five favourite places in Vancouver?

DS: Okay, in no particular order, let’s say 1) Bif (Naked)’s kitchen table, because the conversation and laughter there is always so great; 2) the women’s section of Olympic Gym because being there feels so good for my brain and body; 3) Liquid Amber Tattoo shop; 4) my bathtub when the room is lit up with candles. Michael I don’t want to give out all my favourite secret spots! Okay, I’ll also say 5) the rock overlooking Deep Cove at the top of Baden Powell trail.

MV: What makes you hot and bothered?

DS: Venus, you cheeky monkey! The easy answer is my baseball team-the Something Naked crew from the Mabel League. The more honest answer is, well, so many things really. Let’s start with scholars and floggers and kissing, oh my!

MV: Oh my! So if you had three wishes, what would they be?

DS: First and foremost, I would wish for peace. Externally, peace from war in every country. And on a more individual level, so many people I love are survivors of sexual abuse, I regularly wish and hope for their peace internally.

Secondly, I wish for unending strength within people of integrity so that they can keep standing up for what they believe in. Wish number three, a selfish one if the fates allow, I would love to someday find a mate and start a family.

MV: What can we expect from you in the next decade?

DS: I’ve been self-employed for 10 years as a writer/editor and I am ready to find a home outside of my home office. I’d love to work for a non-profit or some kind of activist cause. What else? Oh, Ivan Coyote and I are starting to work on a keeping-it-in-the-family anthology we call Grandpa Wore A Dress, which was inspired by my queer great-uncle and Ivan’s queer aunt. Also, Trish Kelly and I are starting to work on something we might be calling Trans-Action; it will be a money and support-raiser for the legal defence fund of Kimberly Nixon as she fights the Rape Relief ruling.

More than anything, I don’t want to look back on my life as someone who coulda-shoulda-woulda. Now more than ever it is clear to me that I need to stand up and be counted when I see injustice happening. It isn’t going to be the smoothest ride, but when I finally go for the big dirt nap, I’ll at least respect my journey.

MV: Any lasting impressions, my dear? Words to the wise?

DS: I don’t know how wise they are, but here are some phrases that make me tick: Silence equals acceptance; Aspire for higher; my theme for last year, which was Challenge your preconception of self; and one more, If you rest, you rust.


Jan 29 – Feb 27.

Tix: 604.682.3269, box 8471.