“The only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.”
The lyrics of Fred Small’s “Everything Possible” reverberated through St Andrew’s-Wesley United Church Sept 27 as the Vancouver Men’s Chorus captured both the loss and gratitude of mourning community members who filled the pews to say farewell to Jim Deva, whose passion for freedom of expression and community empowerment moved a generation.
Still in disbelief almost a week after Deva fell to his death at his Haro Street home, filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman said she never imagined she’d be called upon to eulogize her “dear and wise friend.”
“Here we are, together, to celebrate Jim’s life, and we need to do that for him and for each other,” she told the crowd, who lined up for a block outside the church to pay their respects.
Every speaker remembered Deva as a passionate leader who loved his community and was deeply committed to freedom of speech, the Davie Village, and building bridges, both with city hall and the Vancouver Police Department, to foster greater respect for the LGBT community and our culture.
The presence of a police honour guard, a number of senior officers and the stirring bagpipe rendition of “Going Home” by Constable Tim Fanning that opened Deva’s Celebration of Life were testimony to how far that relationship has progressed.
Police Chief Jim Chu, who was out of the country, sent a personal tribute read out by Councillor Tim Stevenson. In his message, Chu said he last saw Deva at this year’s Pride parade, where Deva was dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
“I tweeted we weren’t in Kansas anymore,” Chu wrote.
But, Chu acknowledged, Vancouver was closer to Kansas in the 1980s, when Canada Customs seized shipment after shipment of gay books bound for Little Sister’s bookstore, which Deva and his partner, Bruce Smyth, opened in 1983. Little Sister’s refused to accept Customs’ censorship and took the border agency all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where it won a partial victory.
Having honed his activism in the fight for free expression, Deva turned to city hall and the police department, where he also sought recognition for the community’s presence and needs.
“Over the last few decades, Jim provided the police with ideas and advice, and at times criticism, to make us better,” Chu said.
Every so often in the global LGBT community, a Harvey Milk–like leader emerges from within, Stevenson said. “Jim Deva was Vancouver’s Harvey Milk. At the very heart of what Harvey Milk and Jim Deva were about was community.”
Stevenson remembers rushing to Little Sister’s when it first opened. The bookstore soon became a community oasis and centre and Deva a much-sought-after adviser, he said. “His compassion, his gentleness, his warmth, his humorous nature allowed many people to confide in him.”
While Deva always had his eye on the liberation of LGBT people everywhere, he was particularly focused on changing Vancouver, Stevenson noted. “To do that, he had to take on the powers-that-be at city hall. Over time, Jim went from fighting with city hall to working with city hall.”
A visibly moved Mayor Gregor Robertson was among several politicians, including MP Libby Davies, MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert and several municipal representatives, who attended the celebration of Deva’s life.
“It’s impossible to imagine what our city would be like today if it had not been for Jim,” said Robertson, who called Deva a trailblazer who knew how to fight and, even more, how to love. “All of us here and so many who could not be here today — countless people — are really a testimony to Jim’s work,” he said.
Robertson remembered Deva’s “direct and forceful cross-examination” of him when he first ran for mayor. Deva tested him on several levels, he recalled, as he grilled him about homophobic attacks, how best to police the West End, and the need to reinvigorate its gay village.
“Jim is a city builder, someone who has built an incredibly powerful culture of love and understanding, of fighting for justice, of creating a city of leaders who look after each other,” Robertson said.
Without revealing specifics, Robertson said he plans to introduce a motion in council calling for Deva to be memorialized in the Davie Village. “I look forward to having strong support from council,” he said.
Invoking her family’s Jewish traditions, Weissman said it’s common to say “May their memory be a blessing” when someone has died.
“It’s hard for us to find that place right now,” she acknowledged. But someday, she said, “we will remember him in those moments of self-realization as we read the stories we have imagined, as we write our histories and dream the poetry of our deepest desires, free from shame, free from hypocrisy and free from censorship.”
Deva’s memory will also be honoured in moments of exuberance and excess, Weissman said. She remembered the time Deva lip-synched his heart out as Cher in a tight red dress and “a truly unique wig.”
“We honour his memory when we live out and proud and always fabulous,” Weissman said. “We will remember him, whether we’re with our partner on the Number 6 Davie bus or standing in front of our country’s highest court.”
She urged the community to speak truth to power, “as Jim did,” to call out homophobia, racism and misogyny and to end legal discrimination against anyone in the community.
Weissman said Deva’s refusal to give censorship and injustice a pass was not fuelled by bitterness or hatred for his adversaries, but for love of his community and from a profound belief that the struggle was necessary for his own well being and for the dignity of LGBT people everywhere.
“When he left this Earth, he had nothing in his life to hide or regret,” Weissman said. “He was a man of honour, who lived the days that were given to him with courage and integrity.”
Deva was “not a churchy kind of guy,” Reverend Gary Paterson acknowledged, “but he was a man of spirit,” who understood the holy in a number of different ways — in the natural world, in literature, in community, in sex and eroticism, and love and relationship.
Paterson hailed the love between Deva and his partner of 42 years, Bruce Smyth, who held a single yellow rose throughout the celebration.
“Bruce said that Jim often proclaimed that the poet Auden saved his life,” Paterson said. “It was books that opened up worlds for him and led to opening up a bookstore that opened up worlds for so many of us.”
Paterson also saw Deva as an advocate of ethical spirituality, one that emphasizes action, compassion, making a difference, and even engaging with opponents to find common ground.
“We give thanks for the life and love for this incredible guy: a friend, a mentor, a leader, this crazy, wonderful, laughing man, who was taken far too soon,” Paterson said.
“And we’re here,” he added. “We won’t let the legacy go.”