4 min

Life before Pride

Laying the foundations in the 1960s

Credit: Gareth Kirkby

In the early afternoon on most days, you’ll find Doug Chaplin sitting at the bar at the Fountainhead Pub nursing a brew. He’s a regular.

But, you don’t need to chat with him for very long before you realize he is anything but regular. In fact, this 74-year-old is a rarity in more ways than one. Not only is he a native Vancouverite, he was born in St Paul’s hospital and grew up in the West End. I remember one of our first conversations, shaking my head in amazement at his recollections of a time when the West End’s tallest buildings were a few three-storey walk-ups that dotted a landscape composed primarily of spacious single-family homes.

Single-family homes! In the West End? To me, the West End has always been a landscape of high-rises dotted by the occasional three-storey walk-up with the very few remaining large, stately homes carved up to create multiple-dwelling units. Then again, the West End I know includes many things that haven’t always been around. To me, the West End, the August long weekend and Pride are synonymous.

But, not so for Doug.

He vividly recalls the ’40s and ’50s when the nuclear family-with its core of patriarchy-was the over-idealized norm: a norm that both rigidly defined right from wrong and allowed for only slight acceptable variations on the theme.

Homosexuality was not only the antithesis of the nuclear family and therefore inherently morally wrong, it was also illegal, even in private between consenting adults. You couldn’t act on your feelings, express your love for someone physically, without engaging in criminal activity.

Well, at least they can’t arrest someone for what they think or desire. Oh, but wait: ‘Homosexuality’ itself was a diagnosable mental disorder back then. So, simply admitting to homosexual desire meant you are sick. And if you act on your desire, you are not only sick you’re criminal. When I think about what it was like back then, I marvel that anyone opened the closet door, let alone came out.

“It wasn’t easy,” recalls Chaplin, “I knew I was gay at 14 and believe me, there weren’t all that many places to meet other gay people back then.”

His options were either Lee’s Trail (my God, even back then!) or patronizing a local movie theatre ‘known’ to be frequented by homosexuals.

“Not that these places didn’t have their particular charms,” he adds with a wink and a sly smile, “but they weren’t places to go for emotional support and help in dealing with your feelings.”

As Vancouver grew, a kind of underground gay community developed. “There weren’t any gay bars back then, you just had to know where to go. Places more or less developed a reputation. Places like the Castle and the beer parlour at the Hotel Vancouver” he says. Really! The Hotel Vancouver had a gay bar? He patiently explains that back then hotels had beer parlours that allowed only men. Reading the look of incredulity in my eyes, he adds, “if a beer parlour did allow women, they had to have a male escort and were restricted to a specific area. It was very different back then. Even when a place ‘became known’ you had to act very straight, or you would be tossed out-not that I ever had any problems being butch,” he quips, with a grin and a slightly affected air.

At this point, I am thinking: so you risked being branded mentally ill by coming out and admitting your homosexual desires and you risked criminal charges if ever caught actually having sex, all just to be able to go to beer parlour to act straight or risk being tossed out on your ass.

Then Doug says that the real fun started when the beer parlours closed.

With the kind of fondness that comes only from remembering the good things, Doug tells me that the community, if you could even call it that, was so small that everyone pretty much knew everyone else and that one or another in the crowd would stand up at closing and announce “the party is at my place tonight.” It was at these weekly house parties that people were freer to be themselves. They were freer to be gay. And if you want to hear all the things about those parties that I promised him I wouldn’t put in writing, I am sure that, if you offer to buy him a beer, Doug will be happy to regale you with stories.

What I can say is that these gatherings, these places where people were free to be themselves were where real community started to develop. Indeed, talking openly with other gay people and finding strength in a common cause, led Doug and others to do something groundbreaking: in 1962 they established a society, duly registered with the government of the day in Victoria as the Association for Social Knowledge (ASK). ASK has the distinction of being the first gay activist/social organization in Canada and played a critical role in the gay liberation movement throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

When I ask about the name for the organization, Doug explains that the group’s lawyer advised something neutral and to stay away from any hint of homosexuality, since he believed they would not be granted society status if they did.

Despite the rather obtuse name, it is clear that ASK played a critical role in laying the foundation for Vancouver’s gay community as we now know it. The days of Doug’s youth are much removed from my own experience. I mean, even the very idea of segregation in bars based on gender is utterly foreign. But, in reflecting on my own coming out process, I can at least begin to understand the hurdles surmounted by Doug and other pioneers of our community. They were far greater, with far more personal risk at stake.

Standing up for what you believe is right, what is just, takes a great deal of inner strength, raw fortitude and commitment to principle. When I listen to people talk about what it was like ‘back then’, I am thankful, very thankful for the work they did. When I ask Doug how he feels when he sees a gay couple walking down the street in the middle of the afternoon he says, “back then I would have thought they were plain crazy to do something like that. Now, I guess I just feel proud.”

I am proud to know Doug. Proud to be part of a community for which he helped lay the foundation.