About 150 people packed a meeting room at the Robert Lee YMCA Jan 17 to watch Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry distribute 30 Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medals to a cross-section of community contributors, philanthropists and pioneering drag queens.
Among the honoured were long-time HIV/AIDS activist and Empress of Canada ted northe; drag pioneer Bill Monroe; popular drag diva and philanthropist Joan-E (Robert Kaiser); Little Sister’s manager and housing rights activist Janine Fuller; volunteer St John Ambulance responder Julia Zoetewey; and lesbian lawyer barbara findlay, who was out of town on personal matters and could not attend the ceremony.
“I’m absolutely honoured and I love it,” says northe, now 75. “It’s the pinnacle of all the other pins, and I’ve received some great ones.”
Northe says he has dedicated his life to defending and demanding gay rights. In 1964 he founded the Imperial Court System in Canada. He became Empress of Canada in 1967 and used his reign to raise money for HIV/AIDS organizations.
“Back in the ’80s we had the first cheque for AIDS Vancouver: $150,000 from the federal government. I think that was my proudest moment because that was when we were in the doldrums with AIDS,” he tells Xtra.
“It’s just so absolutely amazing that so many gay people have been honoured tonight, and I’m really, really proud of that,” he says. “It’s important to me because even now we’re still fighting for the cause, and I think it’s very, very important that the gay community stays in the front.”
Monroe agrees. He thinks it’s especially important for older gay people to be recognized for their contributions.
“Generally, most of the people who get recognized in our community are young and attractive, but when you can still manage to hold your head up and have so much support from all the other drag queens in town . . . I think I’m a part of it and I enjoy doing it,” the 79-year-old says.
Best known for his impersonation of Queen Elizabeth, he says too often older gay people fall into the shadows and are left marginalized and unrecognized. But for Monroe, who briefly considered retiring from performing at 60, hiding wasn’t an option.
“There were no seniors doing anything,” he explains. “And as the most senior of the seniors, I think that you have to stay in the spotlight, or else you become the forgotten ones.”
“I’ll probably [perform] until I’m 90,” he laughs.
Joan-E’s career has spanned nearly 25 years; she has earned such titles as Entertainer of the Year and XXVIII Empress of Vancouver. The host of Vancouver’s longest-running drag show and many other community events has devoted countless hours to philanthropy, particularly for people living with HIV/AIDS. Bingo for Life, which she hosts, has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars for Friends for Life, for example.
“I feel exceptionally honoured, especially to be among such other incredible recipients,” Zoetewey tells Xtra. “It’s incredible. I hardly feel worthy.”
“It means so much to me to see that our community’s represented here and represented well,” the 30-year-old volunteer says. “There are a lot of recipients here that are LGBT, and they’ve done so much for us over the years. We wouldn’t have the freedoms that we do if it wasn’t for them. They’ve paved the way for me, and I’m grateful.”
One of those trailblazers is Fuller, who earned an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University in 2004 for her leading role in Little Sister’s historic battle against censorship in Canada.
Fry awarded Fuller the Queen’s medal for her work in combating censorship and her steadfast determination in the fight for human rights.
“In her fight against censorship, decriminalization and marginalization of the LGBTQ community, Janine Fuller unwittingly became an international advocate for international change,” Fry told the room.
“Janine Fuller is one of those unsung heroes who have fought for woman’s rights, LGBT rights and human rights in Canada,” Fry said. “She is tough and committed, but her greatest triumph is found in her determination to have Canadian law apply equally in regard to access to literature, regardless of community affiliation.”
“It’s honouring so many people who are a part of what our struggle of our lives has been about,” Fuller says. “It’s honouring them and their memory and the history in our community, and many of them are not here, so we remembered the ones who weren’t with a deep affection and a loss and sadness.”
David Holtzman was honoured posthumously for his many contributions to community. His partner, Peter Regier, accepted the medal in his memory.
Holtzman, who died suddenly of a heart attack last April, was the executive director of A Loving Spoonful from 1996 to 2001. He also directed Leadership Vancouver from 2001 to 2006 and, in the last 25 years, spent time working with Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion tour, the Canadian Council on Learning, the World University Service of Canada, and Positive Living BC’s Red Ribbon Advisory Council. More recently, he worked at Out on Screen as director of operations.
“David Holtzman was transformative,” Fry said. “He used his own experience as an HIV-positive man and a victim of gaybashing and courageously shared both his vulnerability and his learning with his community. His untimely passing has left a void.”