3 min

Plaques for Pride

Time to commemorate our historic gay spaces

“It’s tragic,” says Don Hann, staring at the parking lot where the Shaggy Horse used to be.

In preparation for Pride, Hann and I are doing a march of a different kind. It’s more of a walk, really. A proud, moving, memorable walk back through time.

Back to a time when gays and lesbians were just gathering the courage to step from their closets, to connect with each other and openly own and celebrate their sexuality. Back to a time when gay gathering spaces quietly dotted the downtown core, offering our pioneers places to meet, to share, and to gradually forge the community too many of us take for granted today.

Those spaces–the early bars, clubs, bathhouses and other gathering points of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s–became the bedrock upon which our community was built.

They are our birthplaces.

And they’ve been disappearing before our eyes.

The Shaggy Horse, once a popular leather and levis bar in the 1970s and ’80s, is now a parking lot on Richards St.

The Quadra, to this day Vancouver’s only entirely lesbian-owned and -run club, is now a chichi townhouse development on Homer St.

The Playpen South, the Castle, Faces, Buddies, the Hampton Court Club, the Garden Baths, Queenie’s Truck Stop–all gone.

In fact, a full 15 of the 27 spaces Hann and I visited on our walking tour (see pg 18) are gone, replaced by new townhouses, condos, commercial towers or empty lots.

We need to commemorate our surviving sites before it’s too late.

Commemorative plaques would help preserve our memories and give us a sense of history as a community, says Hann. Not just for us, but for our future generations as well.

Visible, identifiable sites are rare for us, he notes. So we need to cherish the ones we have–and point them out for all to see.

We can’t just let them vanish without a trace.

“Public sites that identify where we came together would help us strengthen our sense of the past and of our community belongingness and connectedness,” he continues. “That history needs to be recalled and embedded in our memory in every possible way.”

Other communities have already learned this, he points out. Chinese communities, Irish communities, black communities–they all capture their history and bring their kids to visit it. It’s time we did the same.

Pat Hogan agrees.

Hogan and I are driving past the Teamsters Union building on East Broadway, where the lesbian Pensioners’ Balls once took place. We’ve just left the Russian hall in Kits, briefly home to the Association for Social Knowledge in the late 1960s and regular women’s dances a few years later, and are now heading for the Drive, eager to record more lesbian history.

“The queer community is a culture unto itself,” she says. And that culture and its history need to be recorded and honoured. “Because it’s history, or herstory, and it’s so easy to forget.”

Plaques would “tell others and tell ourselves of a time in our lives–all the stories, all the struggles and the joys of claiming your sexual orientation and identity, particularly in an era when it was not always safe to do,” she continues.

Historical plaques wouldn’t be unprecedented in the downtown core, I note as I walk from what was once the Gandydancer to the old Playpen South site. The City of Vancouver put up a plaque in 1986 on the wall of the Electric Power Equipment building at 1285 Homer St to commemorate the location where the city’s Great Fire of 1886 first spread out of control, fanned by sudden winds from the southwest.

Apparently, some city councillors understand that history of all kinds is worth commemorating.

Now it’s time they helped us commemorate ours.

It’s time we marked our early gay and lesbian gathering sites, the places in which our community was forged. A simple plaque on each site, noting its original name and its importance to our community’s emergence and development, would do.

Because now more than ever it’s important for us to know where we come from, especially as we move ever forward to take our rightful places in the world.