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Is Vancouver Pride really 35 this year?

Archives and witnesses say Pride events began more than 35 years ago in Vancouver

“If the Pride Society does not acknowledge that . . . they are dishonouring their past,” Don Hann says. Credit: Nathaniel Christopher
A former member of one of Vancouver’s first gay civil rights groups says the Vancouver Pride Society’s (VPS) numbering system dishonours nearly a decade of gay activism.
 
Under the events section of its website, the VPS says “2013 marks the 35th anniversary of Pride in Vancouver.”
 
But Don Hann says Pride events in Vancouver began more than 35 years ago. 
 
Vancouver’s first gay pride celebrations took place in 1972, says Hann, who was a member of the Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE), which existed from 1971 until 1980. 
 
Though the activism of the early 1970s didn’t include a march in the West End, they were public events in public spaces, and they deserve to be acknowledged, too, Hann says. 
 
Those early events laid the groundwork for the marches to come, he says. “And if the Pride Society does not acknowledge that and include those ’72 and ’73 events as the first two years of the gay pride march/week, then they are dishonouring their past, their roots, the historical context out of which the 1978 march evolved and dishonouring the entire decade of gay militancy in the 1970s, the people involved, their courage and the organizations of which they were members.”
 
Hann traces the beginning of the modern Canadian gay rights movement to the twin demonstrations of Aug 28, 1971, which took place on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and in Robson Square in Vancouver. The Ottawa demonstration was organized by Toronto Gay Action, and the Vancouver demonstration was organized by GATE.
 
“We have immense respect for the pioneers of Pride and the events they organized prior to 1978, as well as their role in shaping Vancouver Pride,” says VPS general manager Ray Lam. 
 
“The legacy of Pride in Vancouver started long before 1978,” Lam acknowledges. “Our community saw marches, festivals, rallies and demonstrations prior to that — something we are hoping to feature on vancouverpride.ca this year with our interactive Pride timeline. However, prior to 1978, they weren't regular annual events. This year we are celebrating 35 consecutive years of a march or parade leading our community to a festival.”
 
But archival records indicate, and participants in previous Pride festivals confirm, that there have been annual Pride celebrations in the Vancouver area from 1975 onwards. 
 
Ron Dutton, curator of BC's Gay and Lesbian Archives, says Vancouver’s first Gay Pride Week took place from June 30 to July 2, 1972, in Ceperley Park.
 
“That was relatively small, but thereafter it grew very rapidly,” Dutton says. 
 
“In 1973 it’s being sponsored by GATE, and that happened Aug 17 to 26. There’s a dance, a picnic in the park, an arts festival, a gay-liberation documentary on cable TV and a rally at the courthouse. It was a considerable increase in the number of events and in the number of people participating,” Dutton says. 
 
“And then there is a hiatus. They planned and cancelled an event in ’74 and reactivated it in ’75. The records that I have seem to only mention that there were a considerable number of events in the bars in 1975. I have no records for a 1976 event.”
 
Richard Dopson, who was the co-chair of the 1990 Gay Games and Cultural Festival, recalls attending Pride festivities in 1976 with a paper bag over his head.
 
“I didn’t feel comfortable being publicly gay, but I wanted to go to the event. The only way to do that was to go with a bag over my head. I was a shadow a ghost,” he says. “I observed and left. I was working for the school board and didn’t have a permanent contract, and that’s the ticket. The only thing I recall was who was out there: drag queens and the leather boys. They were at the forefront of gay pride and gay liberation and we should honour them, for sure.”
 
The August 1977 event was named Gay Unity Week and was followed by events in 1978, 1979 and 1980.
 
The Aug 2, 1978, edition of The Vancouver Sun published an article about Vancouver's second annual Gay Unity Week, which ran from Aug 2 to 6. According to the Aug 16, 1979, edition of the Westender, the third annual Gay Unity celebration, a picnic in Mission, was attended by more than 700 people. 
 
In 1980, then-Vancouver mayor Jack Volrich and council voted against a motion that would proclaim Aug 3 to 10 Gay Unity Week. 
 
“I regret that I am unable to approve such a proclamation,” Volrich wrote in a letter to Gay Unity Week secretary Stephen T Mason. “This is simply because it has been the long-standing policy of the Mayor’s Office to not approve proclamations for events, or in situations, which may draw public controversy.”
 
The first Pride parade took place in 1981. The Aug 2, 1981, edition of The Vancouver Sun estimates that 1,500 people attended Vancouver's first Gay Unity parade. "But they weren't protesting or demonstrating as much as having fun and enjoying the festivities," reads the article.
 
Future NDP premier Mike Harcourt, who was elected mayor of Vancouver in 1980, made good on a campaign promise to sign a civic proclamation declaring Aug 1 to 7, 1981, Gay Unity Week, the article notes.
 
Discrepancies in Vancouver's Pride numbering surfaced in the 1990s. In 1995, Xtra (then known as Xtra West) reported the parade as the "18th annual gay pride parade"; in 1996 it was the 19th; in 1997 it went back to the 16th parade; in 1998 both Xtra West and the VPS prominently listed it as the 20th Pride parade; and in 2008 the VPS advertised it as the 30th annual Pride parade.
 
“I talked to the Pride Society about this when they were researching in the archives about their 20th anniversary,” Dutton recalls. “It actually isn’t the 20th, but it’s all about where you are starting your count event: whether it is the first Pride event or the first Pride parade that the Pride Society counted. None of them added up to 20, but they were adamant and they have been counting ever since.”