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Quiet community activist dies

Stephen McManus' partner says his 'integrity was second to none'

HE NEVER MEANT TO BE AN ACTIVIST. 'He was just Steve as he was. Completely honest and above board. Very gentle,' says Fred Nicoll of his partner Stephen McManus (above), who died last weekend. McManus was a strong advocate for gay men's health and Xt Credit: David Ellingsen

¬†Stephen McManus, an ardent supporter of retaining St Paul’s Hospital in the West End and Xtra West’s 2005 Community Hero of the Year, has died at 57.

Long-time friend Glyn Townson says McManus passed away on the Jun 13 weekend.

“He was very passionate. He was a very good friend,” Townson says. “He would take time just to be with people. Those are qualities we don’t often see in our community. He was very giving.”

Townson says McManus died of concurrent health issues related to AIDS.

McManus is survived by his partner of a decade, Fred Nicoll.

Asked what he’ll remember most of McManus, Nicoll says “his bright blue eyes.”

He says he admired his partner’s “stick-to-it-iveness.”

“His integrity was second to none,” Nicoll says. “He was just Steve as he was. Completely honest and above board. Very gentle.”

The couple met at The Centre on Davie and Bute St, Nicoll says. McManus was volunteering, emptying wastebaskets.

Over the past decade, McManus gained a significant profile in the West End with his activism work.

It was his steadfast work around the hospital as well as the Proud to Quit campaign and the BC Persons with AIDS Society (BCPWA) that helped garner him the Community Hero of the Year award.

McManus was modest about his achievements. “I’m not an activist,” he told Xtra West at the time.

His childhood was spent in North Burnaby where he said he grew up with no sense of community at all.

That changed when, in 1975, he came out of the closet and found himself living a new life in Vancouver.

Times were different then, though. “We had no protection,” says McManus of 1970s Vancouver. “You could be fired for coming out. Most of us were leading double lives.”

Still, he recalled his coming-out process as “totally magical.”

He remembered entering bars (“which is where the entire gay community existed in 1975”) and “entering another world.”

Soon he found himself participating in his — and Vancouver’s — first Pride Parade.

“It was a protest march,” he explained. “We marched down Pendrell St because it was the only one we could get.”

A job in the floral department of a North Shore garden store provided a gay-positive space where McManus’ work life and social life could co-exist without fear of censure.

McManus also made it his business to work for causes that were socially significant and which directly affected his community.

When AIDS appeared in the early 1980s, McManus found a new activist calling.

“We held a meeting at the West End Community Centre,” he recalled. “I remember the shock in the audience when three people stood up and identified themselves as HIV-positive. We didn’t know if they were contagious. We didn’t know if we could get it from just being in the room with them.”

It was around that time that McManus met Townson, now chair of BCPWA, with which McManus was also involved.

Townson says McManus “always had something in his back pocket” for his brand of quiet activism.

“He had a very quiet wit about him,” Townson says. “He wasn’t a loud person, but his presence was very noted.

“I think his enthusiasm was infectious. When he took something on [he did so] wholeheartedly.”

McManus’ “forte was working quietly behind the scenes and organizing,” adds Nicoll.

McManus believed that it was activism that provided a sense of community.

“Men having sex with men in a vacuum? That’s not gay. It takes a village,” he said.

McManus worked long hours to help make gay culture healthy. In 2004, he co-founded the Save St Paul’s Coalition, a grassroots effort to stop Providence Health Care from moving the West End’s sole hospital to a new False Creek Flats location east of Main St.

The work was vital to him because West End gays, and members of the HIV-positive community in particular, rely heavily on easy access to the hospital’s services.

While a non-smoker himself, McManus was also an ardent supporter of quit-smoking campaigns specifically tailored to gay people.

His Proud to Quit campaign, which festooned the entire Davie Village with colourful advertisements, featured local celebs like drag maven Bill Monroe and DJ Dickey Doo encouraging queers to kick the habit. Nicoll says McManus was proudest of the anti-smoking campaign.

West End Residents’ Association president Brent Granby says the community has benefited from McManus’ participation and drive.

“You could always count on him,” Granby says. “He had a really subtle way about him… but he had an earnest determination.”

Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Herbert praises McManus’ involvement in community work an example to others.

“The West End and downtown is better for his having lived and been involved,” Herbert says. “Save St Paul’s and other groups were strengthened by his participation and passion.

“That is a loss,” Herbert says.