Last month, David Myers reminisced about his involvement with the Vancouver Gay Liberation Front (GLF) from 1971 to 1973. This month, Gordon Hardy takes us back a year earlier to the GLF’s beginnings.
The youth revolution of the 1960s, the first manifestation of the baby boom’s nascent political power, was beginning to change Vancouver —anyone remember how 4th Ave was called Canada’s Haight Ashbury?
The city’s gay community was changing as well, with young, leftwing activists beginning to compete with bar owners and business people for influence. Gordon Hardy was one such activist. Together with George Smith, a former teacher at SFU, he founded the GLF.
“George and I had first conceived of GLF over drinks one quiet night at a tiny gay bar on Seymour St called Faces. Faces was a bottle club, ie. members brought their own booze. It was a great place although it was so tucked away behind double doors that you almost needed someone to take you there.
“We were both surprised when so many people showed up at Pink Cheeks, a run-down little hippy commune on Vancouver’s Eastside where our early GLF meetings were held, and how quickly they wanted to move from talk to action.
“Our first political action took place at the Castle Hotel beer parlour on Granville St, a straight-owned and -operated gay pub that strictly enforced a no-touch rule, ie. if bar patrons of the same sex so much as touched, let alone kissed, each other they were ejected. A bunch of us, straight and gay, packed the bar one night and held a public, very wet “kiss-in” to protest the no-touch policy of the bar. We had a ball.
“We ignored the waiters’ demands to stop. Management called the police. My favourite recollection of the kiss-in was the reaction of the young police officers who walked into the bar and then walked out again as soon as they could, looking acutely embarrassed and arresting no one.
“We only called it quits when the waiters started to beat on people. Then, as a group, we left, drunk and happy.”
The Castle kiss-in was typical of GLF political action according to Hardy. “It combined theatre, acting out against an absurd anti-gay regulation, and fun. While we took gay oppression seriously, we made it the subject of non-violent ridicule and political ambush.”
Vancouver’s gay community also received the GLF treatment.
“As young gay socialists, we were determined to challenge the corrupt and corrupting nature of the gay scene in which we found ourselves,” Hardy says. “We saw it as sexually predatory and exploitative. And we naively thought we could change it. As quaint as it may sound today, socialist sexual morality for us meant rejecting promiscuity, the sexual objectification of others, and avoiding unsocialist depravity such as public sex and bathhouses.”
There was, however, “some backsliding,” he acknowledges. “We weren’t angels, after all.”
Unlike many leftist movements of the time, the GLF had a flexible approach to politics.
“Those of us from highly political backgrounds also rejected rigid structure and party doctrine,” says Hardy. “We were sick of the orthodoxies of the left, and embraced political diversity instead. As long as people accepted the general idea of gay liberation —linked to all the other liberation movements of the time —we welcomed everyone regardless of their political views. There was strength in numbers, and we needed everyone.”
This flexibility was also evident in the way the GLF operated. The group had no particular structure, recalls Hardy.
“Nobody and everybody spoke for GLF. GLF did not claim to speak on behalf of the gay community. The idea of any unelected person or group claiming to speak on behalf of an entire community would have struck us as absurd and undemocratic,” he insists, while admitting that its lack of structure and loose membership resulted in its disappearance and its replacement by smaller, tighter and, from his perspective, more doctrinaire organizations like the Gay Alliance Towards Equality (GATE).
“We always found GATE far too grim and dogmatic for our tastes,” Hardy says.
In many ways, the GLF was typical of 1960s counterculture, reflects Hardy. “GLF stood for joy through leftwing anarchy. Its playfulness was directly inspired by the Youth International Party. The kiss-in was one, best example of that.”
Would the GLF still be as critical of the gay community today as it was decades ago, when it demanded that the Georgia Straight drop its gay columnist, QQ, because of what it considered to be an insulting focus on drag queen gossip in his writing?
“I believe that many of us would be appalled at the sexual smuttiness, political intolerance and self-indulgence that have become standard fare in today’s ‘queer culture’ in Vancouver,” states Hardy.
“The gay community is in the grip of self-appointed leaders who uphold a grim and joyless orthodoxy, paranoid and prone to hysteria. If the GLF existed today, we would throw rotten eggs at them. We would mock the empty fetishism that surrounds the rainbow banners,” he says.
“The saddest irony is that —for all our lip service to diversity —we have become a community of bullies.”