Most mornings I have breakfast in the Red Umbrella Café at the corner of Davie and Bidwell, and often find myself gazing at the banners that adorn that particular stretch of our high street. They have both puzzled and annoyed me.
Their most prominent feature is the letters “WEBIA” blazoned across the top. At a glance, that’s all you take in and it seems a very cryptic message.
Upon closer examination, you discover that in smallish letters below “WEBIA” is the phrase “at English Bay.” A bit further down, “in our BIA neighbourhood” and, at the very bottom, the words “West End Business Improvement Association.”
What the hell does that all mean?
What does the acronym “WEBIA” in big, bold letters tell anyone about the neighbourhood, its history, or its residents?
About the time I’d deciphered these banners, and decided that they were a really annoying waste of public space, we denizens of English Bay began to hear rumblings from our neighbours up the hill, in Davie Village, that the rainbow banners that had decorated that enclave for years were about to disappear.
Outrage, consternation, and quotable quotes ensued, the most quotable of which was “that bloody flag,” a remarkably insensitive turn of phrase attributed to WEBIA executive director Lyn Hellyar.
So I decided to check it out, and trekked up to the Village to have a visit with Ms Hellyar who, contrary to some accusations, is not a foaming-at-the-mouth homophobe. If anything, she is a well-meaning administrator who is in over her head in dealing with the nuances of gay community politics.
She is also a former teacher and guidance counsellor with a compelling story to tell about the time she talked a distraught gay teenager out of suicide. I’ll bet that kid would dispute the vile characterizations now being thrown at her.
She is also feeling more than a little beat up on. Have you received any death threats recently? She has, and that’s appalling.
The first point that Ms Hellyar wanted to make when we met was that “people need to understand that the BIAs aren’t responsible to the public, and we don’t have to consult with the public about those banners.”
She’s right about that. A BIA (Business Improvement Association) is an association of businesses, bent on improving business. The BIA pays for all the hardware, banners and maintenance. Not the City, not the taxpayer, not you or me.
The point that Ms Hellyar seems to be missing is that while the BIA doesn’t need to consult with the public about anything, doing things that are going to piss off the neighbours is not likely to improve business. In fact it could be retail suicide.
There is a whole lot of “she-said-we-said-they-said” going around on this issue, and a person could go nuts trying to sort it all out. I’ll pass.
Ms Hellyar doesn’t seem certain herself whether she referred to the rainbow as “that bloody flag.” If she were sure, she’d probably apologize. But she doesn’t think it sounds like something she’d say, so she won’t.
I do know that Ms Hellyar told me, by phone before our meeting, that she had written Xtra West’s publisher to ask for copies of the tape and notes, and then told me at our meeting that she was going to ask for the tape and notes and asked me how she should go about doing that. So I’m inclined to think that Ms Hellyar is a little confused by the storyline herself.
I say let’s embrace the epithet. It is a bloody flag and we all know the roll call of victims whose blood has made it so. It’s our bloody flag!
But WEBIA, in the person of Ms Hellyar, has been a source of much conflicting information about the flag, bloody or not.
In 2005 Ms Hellyar told Xtra West that the banners were there to stay. Then she said that the banners would be coming down for a short while, to make way for the triathlon banners.
Then she admitted that there was no plan to return the banners, but that a whole new fleet of banners was in the works, uniting all three sectors of the West End business community.
And then she threw out the bone that Davie Village would soon sport a host of proper rainbow flags, snapping in the breeze from proper flagpoles.
“After all,” she said to me, “they were designed to be flags, not banners.”
But these new rainbow flags are a mere glimmer in Ms Hellyar’s eye. They have not been approved by anyone, including the WEBIA board of directors, City staff or City council —all of whom get a kick at the can before any flags can be flown anywhere.
So at the time of my meeting with Ms Hellyar it was definite that the rainbow banners were coming down, and problematic, if not downright iffy, that there would someday be rainbow flags in compensation.
“A pig in a poke,” I think was my grandmother’s expression.
Then there are the local pundits and letter writers who have been asking where the queers get off thinking they own Davie St, and isn’t that rainbow flag thing getting pretty tired anyway? Don’t they know that they share the public space with others?
Well, yes, we know.
But for those of us old enough to remember when gay sex was a criminal act in Canada, and after 30-plus years of struggle for any kind of breathing room, it’s a bit thick to be asked to put our little flags away, grow up and join the rest of the world.
By the time you read this a new WEBIA board will have met for the first time and much may have changed. Events have a way of overtaking opinions.
But I say it’s time to rally ’round that bloody flag, and let the businesses we do business with know that there ain’t no business in forgetting that we’re queer and here, and that Davie Village is where we take our stand.