Opinion
3 min

The custodian of our memories

Archivist Ron Dutton lives and breathes BC’s queer history

Every inch of possible space in archivist Ron Dutton’s bedroom carefully houses 40 years worth of meticulously filed clippings, posters, flyers and other ephemera, including scribbles on the backs of after-hours-club napkins. Credit: Janet Rerecich

Last month we launched a conversation on the future of “queer identity” and I promised to report back. Things happen, and we’re taking longer than planned to get that organized. We’ll pick it up again next month, but today let’s take a diversion to visit the custodian of our community’s memory.

“We need to own and control our own history.”

That sums up Ron Dutton’s organizing principle when it comes to his life work, the BC Gay and Lesbian Archives.

The first time I visit the home-based archives I expect to find a small West End apartment jammed with boxes, piles of paper, overflowing file cabinets and walls of old photos and posters. Similar to my own little den. 

Somehow I missed the memo about Dutton being a trained and experienced librarian/archivist, so his spacious, uncluttered home is a bit of a surprise. As we have a getting-to-know-you chat over coffee I keep glancing around, admiring his collection of folkloric masks and artwork, wondering where the heck he could have stashed the stuff!

“Let me show you around,” Dutton invites, leading me into his equally spacious bedroom, with burled wood panelling along three walls — the sort of panels that slide open to reveal built-in closet space. Except that when Dutton opens his closets, he reveals rows and rows and boxes and boxes of meticulously filed, labelled and cross-indexed . . . well, just about everything! Forty years worth of clippings, posters, flyers, newsletters, bar tokens, photos, postcards, bulletin board postings and scribbles on the backs of after-hours club napkins. 

You name it: if it records, or even hints at, the life of the gay, lesbian and trans community in British Columbia, Dutton has it. Sometimes in duplicate.

I’ve no idea where he keeps his clothes (“Let’s just say it’s a good thing I’m no fashion plate,” he says), but every square inch of possible storage space is devoted to what now runs to about three-quarters of a million carefully catalogued individual items.

“When I arrived here from Regina in ’75, Vancouver was a political stew of women’s movements, gay collectives, subversive publications and street theatre demonstrations. I was a radical librarian, and I just jumped right in. It was a hopeful time, unlike today, and there was a palpable sense that we were changing the world . . . that history was in the making.”

And of course, wherever history is being made, someone needs to be collecting the evidence. Dutton realized that nobody else was documenting this amazing era and, applying his professional skills, started doing just that.

“From the beginning I’ve been collecting backward as well as forward,” he explains. Tracking down souvenirs from the 1930s and ’40s, of course, but also combing academic records for such things as intimations of two-spirit persons among BC’s aboriginal people at the time of the Spanish arrival on the BC coast.

“I pull things from hidden and reluctant records,” he enthuses, “and reclaim them for our story.”

Recent additions include 20 photo scrapbooks documenting the career of Adrian De Vander Vogue, Empress IX, and a box of VHS tapes recording Dogwood Monarchist Society events through the 1970s and ’80s. More drag than you can shake a sceptre at! 

“No archive is ever complete,” Dutton says, with an acquisitive gleam in his eye. “There is so much material, past, present and about to be created tomorrow. I live in downtown Vancouver, and that is largely what I see. But beyond my horizons there are treasures to be found as nearby as Surrey and Victoria and as far afield as the smallest communities in rural BC, where courageous gays and lesbians have been reclaiming their own stories.

“We also need more material from women’s and ethnic groups to counter-balance our media’s tendency to be male, middle class and middle aged,” he adds.

Which brings us to the pitch. Dutton is our collector-in-chief, and we are fortunate to have a meticulous and knowledgeable professional keeping our treasures intact. But we are the primary sources. That box of old party photos under the bed, the souvenirs from AIDS fundraisers in the early days of the crisis, the ledger with the scribbled minutes of your long-disbanded consciousness-raising group, a copy of the poster you put up at Little Sister’s yesterday. “I’m the last stop before the dumpster!” Dutton says.

We need this stuff and we need to get it safely into Ron Dutton’s hands. It’s pretty easy to do. Call him at 604-669-5978 or email him at rondutton@shaw.ca.