In a small recreation room at the YWCA, Clasina van Bemmel quietly observes images of the co-ed club, unimpressed.
It’s 1979 and the men in the slideshow are leading groups of lagging women on various hikes. At camp, the women cook, while the men set up.
“I wanted to start a club where women would set up the tents, do the campfires and decide which route to take,” she recalls.
For van Bemmel, it seemed a logical addition to the YWCA roster, since the organization’s mandate is to instill confidence in women. But her female boss refused repeatedly, saying it would never work. No outdoor club existed exclusively for women in Canada back then.
“Thirty years ago, things weren’t the same as now. We seem to forget very quickly what was accepted and what wasn’t,” van Bemmel says. “As far as they were concerned, they had a co-ed club so why bother? They couldn’t see the need to have women become self-confident in those kinds of skills.”
But the former Club Med employee wouldn’t take no for an answer. She tirelessly volunteered her time and raised funds so that women could explore the outdoors without the protection of men. In a non-competitive environment, the women would become familiar with activities like hiking, scuba diving, sailing, kayaking, and a myriad of winter sports, van Bemmel believed.
She was right. This month, van Bemmel’s Outdoor Club for Women turns 30.
Initially, the club wasn’t primarily a lesbian organization. Gradually, the heterosexual members left after they felt comfortable with their outdoor skills and joined other clubs to meet men.
In the early 1980s, the club’s lesbian members found a rare acceptance. “There’s far more acceptance now,” van Bemmel reflects. “If women knew how things were 30 years ago, they might just be a little surprised. We had lots of teachers, nurses — teachers couldn’t come out and say they were gay because they were afraid to lose their jobs. I was afraid of losing my job at the YWCA for being so vocal.”
The club, initially limited to 50 members due to a lack of experienced leaders, has now grown to almost three times the size.
Van Bemmel, now 64, is still an honourary member. She says the club has broadened its repertoire of activities over the years. “They started including a lot of other things that I hadn’t included to be more social, like playing pool at Joe’s on Friday nights, going to a club, or meeting for dinner.”
Recently, they’ve added events like the Slow Food Agassiz Cycle Tour, Bike the Blossoms, baseball, golf tournaments, rock-climbing and winter moonlight snowshoe hikes on the North Shore Mountains.
Binny van Bergen, who joined the Vancouver Outdoor Club for Women after moving to Vancouver from New Jersey a year and half ago, says a lot people join when they’re new to the city. “It’s a wonderful way to meet people because you’re actually out doing things that you enjoy. While there’s lots of clubs in Vancouver, this is the only one that I know is for lesbians.”
Van Bergen says the club offers an alternative to the bar scene while giving women the opportunity to learn new skills in an encouraging and supportive environment.
It’s not just a club for jocks, she notes. “There are some adventurous backpacking trips but there are easier hikes and social events. There’s something for everyone.”
Members vary in age from 20 to 60, with most members being over 30. Jacquelyn Brioux, 25, is one of the younger members and joined the club after she moved here from Toronto. “If you’re interested in putting yourself out there, and developing a community for yourself, you have to join clubs in Vancouver,” she says. “They’re not going to come to you like they do in Toronto.”
Since joining, Brioux says she’s enjoyed the meaningful conversations and communal cooking on trips. “They didn’t just talk about the weather, they talked about their coming-out stories and it was fascinating to hear the range of generations,” she says. The members are very supportive, good at listening and very welcoming.
The club, which is always looking for new members of all ages, meets the first Wed of each month at the Sitka Women’s Housing Coop (1550 Woodland St) to discuss and plan upcoming activities. It will celebrate its 30th and van Bemmel’s 65th birthday on Oct 24.