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One of Vancouver’s ‘great unsung heroes’ dies

John Stevenson was the force behind many early gay and lesbian clubs

John Stevenson's "early support for the women in our community, and his helping hand to countless drag queens is legendary," says Kevin Dale McKeown. Credit: facebook.com

The pioneer behind many of Vancouver’s earliest gay clubs, John Stevenson, died June 1 in a Burnaby care home. He was 87.

Today’s clubgoers would know Stevenson as the co-owner, with business partner of 34 years Don Whittaker, of Club 23 West, home to Sin City as well as various gay parties, drag king competitions and nudist nights. But Stevenson’s legacy in Vancouver’s gay community goes back decades.

 
Many of those he touched or helped say he was a compassionate, good-humoured and courageous man who will be sorely missed.
 
He was one of the driving forces behind such venues as Champagne Charlie’s on Davie St, Jonathan’s on Granville, Talk of the Town, Basin Street, The Cruel Elephant, The Hungry Eye, Whittakers, The Bunkhouse, Queenie’s Truck Stop and John Barley’s, among others.
 
Former Pride Society vice-president Laura McDiarmid says she met Stevenson when she came out in the late 1970s. His venues offered people a place to be themselves without judgment, she says. “I don’t know if people are even aware of what he did. He gave us a place to be when no one else did. You just felt safe and at home wherever he had a place. He was like our dad.”
 
What’s more, McDiarmid says, Stevenson put out the welcome mat for the transsexual community when few others would. “He’d talk to the trannies or drag queens when they were bullied,” she recalls.
 
Positive Living advocate Suzan Krieger chuckles at a similar memory. He would give lesbians advice on love, she says. “He acted as this one woman’s beard for years.”
 
Krieger even finds some solace in the time of his passing. “When he passed, it was 2:30 in the morning. Last call. That’s when he left.”
 
Krieger says she met Stevenson four decades ago at Champagne Charlie’s. She too credits Stevenson with giving lesbians places of their own in the city. “I liked him right away,” Krieger says. “He was the uncle or the dad I never had. He’d hand you $20 when you needed it or give you a job.”
 
In his later life, he made space available for drag kings and for alternative musicians and artists. “He welcomed all of those new adventures,” Krieger says. “No one else would let you in the door.”
 
Kevin Dale McKeown was one of Vancouver’s early gay journalists. While Stevenson took umbrage at a column McKeown had written for The Georgia Straight in 1969, the two soon became friends, McKeown writes on a Facebook page dedicated to Stevenson’s memory.
 
“His early support for the women in our community, and his helping hand to countless drag queens is legendary,” McKeown says. “John never sought the limelight and always stepped back to let others take centre stage, which is probably why he remained to the end one of our gay community’s great unsung heroes.”
 
Promoter Isaac Terpstra knew and worked with Stevenson for 15 years promoting events and encouraging the growth of alternative culture and nightlife in Vancouver.
 
“John and his partner Don were one of the few club owners always happy to welcome in the alternative community to their venues, less concerned about the almighty dollar than they were with supporting communities of people whose company they personally enjoyed, and giving many communities a home in Vancouver they might otherwise not be able to find in a city otherwise dominated by mainstream culture,” Terpstra says.
 
Plans for a memorial service have yet to be announced.