3 min

The Vanport’s tough dyke crowd

They looked like Marlon Brando in The Wild Bunch

Last month, photographer Rosamond Norbury reminisced about drag queens. This month, she turns her attention to the dykes of her formative years.

I begin by asking her if she knew any older women when she was first in the life.

“The oldest old dyke I ever knew was my first girlfriend, Doreen,” Norbury answers, looking down at a black and white photograph in one of the many photo albums she has stacked on the kitchen counter of her home.

“That was back in 1969. I was 19 — a kid. My oldest friend, Keith Wallace, introduced us. She was 24 years older than me, a real estate agent. She called herself the only lesbian dope-smoking real estate agent in Vancouver. She used to say, ‘Too bad I’m not black too!’ She had a wicked sense of humour.”

A rocky first date (“We went to a Noel Coward play. Doreen had never heard of Noel Coward, and Keith and I were horrified.”) followed by silence led Rosamond to ask Keith for help.

“I went up to him and said, ‘I’m looking for a girl.’ And he said, ‘Then we’ll have to go downtown for that.’ So Keith would take me to Champagne Charlie’s every Friday. The lower Champagne Charlie’s, where Charlie the butch dyke was at the door with one of her lovely blonde girlfriends. Poor Keith.”

Then, four months after their first and only date, Doreen and Rosamond bumped into each other at Champagne Charlie’s.

Doreen fired the opening salvo. “What are you doing here, shouldn’t you be at home playing with your dolls?”

“I’m waiting for a girl to take me home.”

“Well, I’m going home…” 

“I went home with her,” says Norbury, opening another photo album. “And we were together for six years.”

During those six years, they went out to places that today are only memories for some, just names to others. Places like the Castle Pub on Granville (“our main place of entertainment on Friday night”) and the Vanport Hotel on Hastings.

“The Vanport! Murderers! Thugs!” Norbury exclaims happily. “It was great. You sat with your back to the wall. It’s a Vietnamese restaurant now. I’ve gone by and taken pictures of it.”

She picks up another photo album. “It was quite big. It was a six-story building; people lived upstairs.”

She pauses again as she tries to visualize the layout: “There were maybe three sections to the bar, three large rooms. One room where just regular people would hang out. A room at the back with the pool table where mainly all the dykes hung around… and,” she frowns a little in concentration, ‘I think you had to go down three steps and turn right to go to the bathroom, which you really didn’t want to. I mean, they were scary.”

As were the patrons: “If you looked at someone the wrong way — they probably hadn’t been out of jail for more than a week — they could very easily give you a punch. I almost got my head knocked off because two women were fighting around the pool table. They were each holding cues and I ducked! The cues went over my head. There were stabbing and shootings.”

Was she slumming, I ask? “I went there because it was exciting,” she answers. “Even today I don’t go to the Westside bars very much. I like to go to places like the Grand Union Hotel on Hastings. It’s a different way of life and way interesting people. They’re like small communities, like families. People know each other and care for each other. It’s right out there for everyone to see.”

After a moment’s reflection, Norbury says, “Certainly, it was never my life. But I never thought of the Vanport as a dyke bar. It was a place to go for an entertaining afternoon or night out. It always had the reputation as a dyke bar. But that was never my feeling about what it was. The very first place I would have considered a dyke bar would have been Queenie’s Truck Stop on Howe, but a good seven years later.”

The difference between the two amounted to a pre- and post-Stonewall sensibility and style.

“Queenie’s had a younger crowd, a more attractive crowd. Nicer shag hairdos. They wore Frye boots. 501 jeans.”

Whereas the women of the Vanport “looked like Marlon Brando in The Wild [One]: dungarees, a white tee shirt, maybe a Mac Jacket (or as they are sometimes called a Surrey dinner jacket). There would be a small number of girly girls too — back then, it was really the butch and the femme thing.” 

Another difference, says Norbury, was that “the Vanport wasn’t exclusively women. There would be gangster guys who hung around. I’d even say a higher percentage of men than women. And then there would be the odd old geezer, who probably lived upstairs.”

Norbury stacks one last photo album with a final: “They were all tough.”