“I really just heard the music from the street and came down,” smiles 26-year-old Leah Burnham on the grass in the middle of Grandview Park.
“I remember hearing about the dates but I think it’s nicer to just get drawn into the park by the event. I think a lot of the neighbourhood is just coming ’round.”
The Stonewall Festival, in its second year after an eight-year hiatus, is back in swing. The East Van park is full of residents, couples and families circling the booths, taking in the stage or chasing their kids and dogs around the park.
“I think people here know how to hug with a leash in one hand,” laughs Burnham as her dog tries to pull her away. “Having an event like this in the east side, especially in the park with a different feel, is good. It takes away from the focus on Pride Weekend as the only time that we can come together.”
“Today it means coming out and listening to good music. It seems a lot more casual and I think I like it better,” says Sharon Taylor, a local poet, with her eyes on the concert stage. “I’ve lived here since I was five and I’m in my 50s now and it’s changed quite a bit.”
Oliv, a resident of Vancouver since 1976 and a former Empress of the Dogwood Court, describes the past festivals excitedly. “This festival used to be packed to the rafters and for some reason it got stopped. There were so many people, literally you could not move. You’d turn around and you’d see someone then turn around and run into someone else! It would be awesome because these would be friends you’d see only once a year, like Pride today.”
The idyllic park scene is a far cry from the events they commemorate. The Stonewall riots were violent conflicts between queers and the New York City police. The first night began on Fri Jun 27, 1969 at 1:20 am when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar; it was one of the first times a group of gays resisted arrest. It is now seen as a turning point for the modern gay rights movement.
“Before 1971, if you were on the street and a car full of guys with baseball bats chased you, you never ran to the cops because the cops were likely to do more damage than the guys in the car,” says Oliv. “You learned to look out for each other. Didn’t matter if you liked each other-you looked out for one another. There’s still bashing, but back then it was rampant.
“It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t be in a very public place without a lot of ridicule and arrests,” says Shawn Ewing, president of the Vancouver Pride Society which organized this year’s Jun 25 Stonewall festival. “We have gone so far but we haven’t gone quite far enough.”
A political undertone echoed in many of the performances, as the words of Stephen Emery, the Raging Grannies and many more resounded throughout the park. The event took place on the eve of the decision to legalize gay marriage nationally. Several festival booths offered tips on wedding planning and almost every booth carried a petition to pass Bill C-38. The bill passed three days later.
Oliv notes just how far we’ve come. “We’ve moved to a point where we can have open dialogue with rational-minded people about equal access to equal marriage and about equal historical treatment of queers in public education.”
Still, she says, there is a lot more room to grow. “In this province there are still no rights for trans or gender-queer people. There are no protections.”
“I guess I’m a bit detached from Stonewall now, but we see the results of the fight every day,” says Burnham. “It’s why we can have communities like this and nowadays a lot of things are easier for me because of it.”
An Honour the Elders event the next day would take a look back at the work of individuals in our community and give thanks.
“It’s also really about remembering some of the struggles that gay people have had everywhere,” Taylor reflects.
“It takes awhile to develop a sense of identity and history within a community,” says Oliv. “It’s important for queer youth to start taking interest in their own history. It will happen eventually for all of them.”