Vancouver
10 min

Pride and prejudices

The brave and sometimes crisis-bound history of Pride

HEROES OF RECENT HISTORY. 'We party because others have worked so hard,' Xtra West noted when we first ran this photo for Pride 1997. Above are some of the key organizers of Pride over the past two decades (clockwise from top left): Gary Penny, Peter Kinlock, Terry Wallace (who died this year), Karen Bitz and Stan Weese-Pride marshals in the 1997 parade. Missing is martial Jim Deva. Credit: Tom Bowen

Pity the poor Pride organizer: reviled by some, denounced by others and appreciated by so few. While it is true that the parade attracts its share of criticism, most is mere sport, expressing affection for an event that, for better or for worse, has become our best and most enjoyable show of community.



Organizers, on the other hand, have a rougher time of it. As lifetime Pride member and former grand parade marshal Gary Penny puts it: “You don’t win any popularity contests doing this kind of work.” Much of the criticism directed towards Pride organizers is fuelled, I believe, by the unacknowledged fear that, with the fate of the city’s largest parade resting on the shoulders of a handful of individuals, Pride as an institution is slated for collapse at regular intervals.



Do we know enough of Pride’s history and circumstances to give constructive criticism? My guess is most of the estimated 150,000 parade attendees would fail a Vancouver Pride quiz: Name the last four chairs of the Vancouver Pride Society. What was Pride Solidarity Week? Who was Malcolm Crane? So, in a spirit of helping readers pass such a quiz with flying colors, here is a brief history of Pride up to 1996.



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THE EARLY YEARS

Pride celebrations-not just the parade-can be traced back to 1972. From Jun 30 to Jul 2, celebrations included a debate between Reverend Bob Sirico and an anti-homosexual minister, a dance, and a rally in Ceperly Park.



After that, the historical record becomes vague or occasionally uncertain, in part because sources for that period are mainly oral. In addition, the Malcolm F Crane Pride Archives at the City Archives, the main source of written information for this feature, contain little material relevant to Pride prior to 1984.



Nonetheless, a likely chronology of Pride in its many incarnations up to 1994 would look like this: Between 1972 and 1984, Pride was organized by various ad hoc committees. The 1984 Pride Week Coordinating Committee, through the auspices of the Gay Business Association, founded the Pride Festival Association (PFA). In 1990, either the Pride Community Foundation (PCF) subsumed the PFA or ran parallel to it for reasons now unknown. In 1993, Malcolm Crane died and the PCF collapsed. That year, an ad hoc committee organized the parade and in 1994 incorporated as the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS).



What was Pride like in its infancy? “The earlier years were more grassroots,” comments Penny. “When I joined the board, I knew everybody. It was a small community. One [of us] was a cab driver, another a truck driver. They were more philosophical about who we were, where we wanted to go. They were influenced by gay liberation.”



As chair of the Pride Festival Association, Malcolm Crane observed in 1984: “Is there a gay consciousness? No, but there is a gay liberation consciousness.”



The earlier years then, were political. But to the dismay of activists, Pride evolved into a celebration, changing its mandate and structure. In a brief document entitled ‘Pride Festival Association History, 1978-1984’, Crane wrote: “The celebration was somewhat haphazard. No community group had responsibility for ensuring that it took place, and that it did was the result of a lot of scrambling by an ad hoc committee that effectively started from scratch.”



In 1984, that year’s ad hoc committee formed the Pride Festival Association and changed their mandate from: “Merely ensuring that some kind of celebration took place to making the festival instrumental to the growth and development of the gay and lesbian community and culture.”



In 1984, Pride was a 10-day long festival with 29 events, including Gay Games, an art show, religious services, the parade, a reading by David Watmough, an exhibit on the history of Pride by Stan Weese and a recital of art songs by gay composers. The following year was similar, and in 1986, Pride ran for a staggering 17 days.



In the opinion of Richard Dopson, the 1990 Gay Games co-chair, such a lengthy menu was due to the fact that Pride lacked an articulated vision. Dopson, who in previous years had represented sporting groups at Pride, feels that throughout the ’80s, “What vision there was, was not shared. People had a reason for getting involved in Pride. They joined so they could influence the organization.”



Jim Deva of Little Sister’s remembers the end of the ad hoc committees coming in 1982 when the organizing committee acquiesced to a last-minute demand by city hall for an earlier start to the parade. Not surprisingly, many people missed the parade.



In response, angry community activists formed the Pride Festival Association (PFA). On Feb 6, 1984, Malcolm Crane was elected chair of the board at the founding meeting at Gordon Neighborhood House.



In 1982, parade attendance was 1,500.



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L’ÉTAT, C’EST MOI

Crane had a vision for an event with broad appeal: “What we’re aiming for is a cross between the PNE parade and the Walk for Peace.” For the next nine years, he worked doggedly at realizing his objective, aided by a small group of loyal supporters, including his partner Stan Weese (to whom we owe the Malcolm F Crane Pride Archives).



Inevitably, there were political dramas along the way, notably in 1987 when Jim Deva and Edmund Robichaud left the PFA after a sharp disagreement over the future direction of Pride. Despite this parting of the ways, Deva acknowledges that “Malcolm put in a tremendous amount of time, and he did an amazing job. His work internationally [with the International Association of Gay and Lesbian Pride Coordinators] was really significant. He put Vancouver on the map. If he hadn’t died, I suspect he would still be president.”



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1993: THE YEAR PRIDE NEARLY DIED

Under Crane, Pride had pretty much been a one-man show, agrees Penny. “I was involved two years before Malcolm died. It was Malcolm’s trip. He was a bit controlling because he started things.”



Not entirely surprising, then, that the PCF collapsed with Crane gone, and an ad hoc committee reminiscent of pre-1984 days had to be constituted to salvage that year’s parade.



That particular story has been told in previous editions of Xtra West, but it is worth reminding readers that had it not been for Gary Penny’s (“Over my dead body”) determination, the parade would have been cancelled. It was not, and the experience prompted the ad hoc committee members to sit down and try, once again, to put Pride on a solid footing.



A fitting summary of the Malcolm Crane years comes from Penny: “No one is indispensable in this world. But the people who got involved [in Pride] left their mark on the city.”



In 1993, parade attendance was 17,000.



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DOES A NEW BROOM SWEEP CLEAN?

The 1993 ad hoc committee, chaired by Robb Atkinson could not find a copy of the constitution and the statutes (although a draft copy of the PCF constitution dated 1993 exists in the Malcolm Crane F Archives). The committee had to start over again from scratch.



How was the new Vancouver Pride Society different from its predecessors? According to Atkinson, long-time host of Co-op Radio’s Coming Out Show, three new approaches to the organizing of the parade-gender parity, community representation and financial planning-were adopted and codified in the first VPS constitution.



“A common and oft repeated criticism of past parade/marches organizations here in Vancouver and other major cities was the preponderance of gay men making all the decisions,” he says. “Gender parity was an earnest attempt to instill interest and enthusiasm within lesbian organizations for the parade and festival while at the same time put the lie to tokenism by making female board members visible and responsible. In hindsight, we may have [been] a bit naïve in thinking how long it would take to ‘win over’ lesbians and convince them it was their parade too. And, I think we should have delayed codifying the parity concept in the constitution.



“The other new approach tried to answer another common criticism: namely that past parade organizers (whoever they were) did not consult with other community groups-the implication being the parade was not truly a community organization, just a bunch of guys calling the shots. So, the first VPS constitution provided for two board chairs to be filled by a sitting board member of another community organization. Participation would be one year.



“We laid down the principle that the new organization would make all decisions on the basis that the parade and associated festival would have to pay for itself. Up until 1993, fundraising for the parade was almost exclusively done in the various gay/lesbian bars, and, often, any shortfalls were covered by bar owners/managers with a corporate donation or two from the beer companies.



This meant casting a wider net for corporate and community sponsorship and funding.”



Did new ways of doing things entail new people doing them? Not at first, says Atkinson. “I joined the Pride Community Foundation in 1990 primarily to be a board representative of the television wing of the foundation’s various community involvements. The others on the board who at that time constituted the ‘core’ group around parade activities were: Malcolm Crane, Terry Wallace, Gary Penny, Peter Kinloch, Teresa Pals [and] Karen Bitz. This group [had been] operative since at least the mid to late 1980’s and continued to be involved up to the creation of the Vancouver Pride Society and shortly beyond.



“Malcolm’s death did precipitate a change in the leadership and responsibility in putting on the parade. Changes in who could be considered a “major player” began in 1994 after the new Vancouver Pride Society came into existence and all core members began to recruit new people with useful talents. Most if not all of the core group had left the VPS by 1996. For the most part, I believe the departures were the result of burnout. It’s very serious business creating a fun-filled day and week. Many of the departing core remained on hand to be consulted, or, at times, assume some special task or responsibility for which they either had expertise or the right contacts.”



These changes to make Pride more sustainable drew approval from the veteran Penny. “You have to run Pride as a business,” he says. “Your mandate is to create of week of events and a parade and you have to budget accordingly. [We] got a lot more input from business people, politicians and younger people.”



But the lack of organizational continuity created its own set of problems, notes 1995-1996 VPS chair Alan Herbert. “Those original years were largely just history rather than a foundation relevant to the Pride plan of the day. It was often noted that the original parade has been just a few people who spontaneously commandeered a sidewalk to make a statement. In many cases we were inventing the wheel with no practical experience in staging or coordinating the number of events and event ideas.



“The problem was that people approached us with ideas, but no business plan. It felt a little like being in that famous Andy Hardy movie: ‘… yeah, and my dad has a barn … and golly, from there it’s … it’s Broadway!’ There was a lot of enthusiasm but when the chair turned ideas back to the board for volunteers to take on the latest project, those who responded were always those who were already working.



“In my term as chair, the questions that surfaced were with regard for the parade route and the day of the event. Why, people asked, had Monday been chosen and why had the parade been started from Stanley Park. Malcolm’s name was cited then. Those who had been around in those ‘first’ days cited the reasons and it was largely agreed that the original reasons no longer worked or pertained.”



By the time Herbert left Pride for Vancouver city council, attendance had risen to 50,000.



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WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND

Some problems never go away, they simply become facts of life. As early as 1984, Malcolm Crane wondered how to market the event to the broader community and attract tourists from outside Vancouver. He hoped to structure the board to encourage community representation. He dreamed of corporate sponsorship-“Bundles of bucks!” He was frustrated by the lack of volunteers.



Volunteers remain in perennial shortage. Volunteers are a useful indicator of whether the audience has bought into the event or not. If the parade can attract an estimated audience of 150,000, why can’t it draw enough volunteers?



Opinions differ. Deva feels that potential volunteers have divided allegiances on that day, and are probably marching in the parade instead. Penny claims that the volunteer pool, drawn mostly from the hospitality industry, is limited, while Herbert observes that, during his time, because Pride organizers went on vacation immediately after the event, the VPS neglected to recruit while enthusiasm still ran high. For whatever reason, the practical consequences are such that in 2002, paid stand-ins had to be brought in, and the following year a VPS volunteer meeting drew seven people where 40 had been expected.



Over the years, Pride has tried to meet this, and other challenges, by institutionalizing patterns of response; in other words, over its 32-year history, Pride has remained true to a certain way of doing things. One example is the working (or volunteer) board. The working board, where directors do the work instead of paid staff, is typical of small or beginning not-for-profits. This is seen by Deva as a guarantor of authenticity: “It’s not about the number of people who come to the event, it’s about community. Our parade is the most community oriented of all. I really hope that the parade stays community driven, community based and reflects the scope and scale of our community organizations.”



But the working board has its drawbacks, observes Herbert. “[The] problem is how to draw up a business/fundraising plan that is timely. Sadly, by the time a board that is elected in the fall actually is ready to seek funding, it is often too late. The result: the board must fall back on spontaneous and often dubious fundraising schemes. We placed ‘loonie jars’ all over the West End; we tried to get a few bucks from people at the doors of the various gay clubs, that sort of thing. It is a lot of effort for little return.



“I’m sorry to say that I saw this problem still plaguing the 2002-03 board and, just as in my day, there was a good plan produced that, I’m told, will work. If Pride could afford to hire a paid executive coordinator who would be there for several years, this might be resolved.”



As anyone familiar with its history might have predicted, in 2002 Pride experienced one of its recurring crises, and once again, a new board rode to the rescue. By March of 2004, it had retired the Society’s $106,000 debt, negotiated a sponsorship deal with Labatt Breweries and experimented with new formats and events such as the Davie Street Fair.



Will further efforts lead it to devise and implement a longterm organizational development strategy? This remains to be seen. But for now, as members of the Vancouver Pride Society attempt to balance innovation with continuity, and reality with our expectations, here’s to them, and to all their predecessors who have toiled at a such a daunting task: Happy Pride!



* Oral historian Robert Rothon is a coorganizer of Tides of Men (www.tidesofmen.org), a website collecting the history of gay men in BC. He spent dozens and dozens of hours in the Vancouver Archives researching this historical report, as well as interviewing important figures in the history of Pride.