3 min

They hated us, they really really hated us

Civic politics and the queer community in 1980

The wonderful thing about municipal politics is that almost anyone can get elected to city council, even cretins. And of all levels of government in Canada, it is the city that has had the longest, most intimate involvement with gays and lesbians.

This month, In Hindsight takes a look at Vancouver City Council circa 1980 as it grappled with the “homosexual problem,” much to the discomfiture of certain city fathers and mothers, but much to the amusement of Sean Rossiter, whose Twelfth & Cambie column, published in the September 1980 issue of Vancouver Magazine, was plundered for this edition of In Hindsight.

In 1980, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) under independent mayor Jack Volrich-a somewhat Nixonian character-dominated city council. Two NPA aldermen were big-C Christians: former city clerk Doug Little and the Reverend Bernice Gerard. On Jul 22, council debated a motion by The Electors Action Movement alderman Darlene Marzari to issue a civic proclamation of Gay Unity Week.

It was an ugly, nasty debate as Little and Gerard “trucked in their own peanut gallery of grass-eaters and know-nothings to listen to it all with their mouths hanging open…” David Myers of the Coming Out Radio Show on Co-Op Radio was there, and remembers: “You could see the hatred in these fundamentalist groups.”
“Words like infiltrate and covert were used to by the NPA aldermen to describe the insidious effects of harboring homosexuals among us” writes Rossiter. “What every NPA alderman…said in his or her incoherent way is that you can turn gay, just like that, just by being around gays. They have this trick. Nobody knows what it is, but it’s there. It’s a well-known fact. And…watch out for our children. They really like little children.”

Doug Little stated that, “If carried to an extreme [homosexuality] would depopulate society…. As long as I’m a member of this council, I shall do what I can to keep the City of Vancouver from becoming another San Francisco.” Gerard complained that, “What is most abhorrent about the moving forward of the gays is that they…are somehow forcing us to dee-fine the community in terms of their sexual preferences.”

In case anyone is wondering about the spelling of dee-fine, the Reverend Gerard-herself the object of much is-she-or-is-she-not-a-lesbian gossip because of her close relationship with fellow evangelist Velma Chapman-was notorious for her booming baritone voice (“Generally my low voice has been an asset.”) and her way of garnishing words like seck-shooal with a fine spray of saliva.

Years later, Gerard attributed her decision to run for city council to her concern that “They were always quoting unbelievers in the newspapers, people like Harry Rankin, who was quite well known, and very colourful.”

But even the colourful Rankin, a pillar of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), sided with the NPA in expressing his dislike for homosexuals, although he generously conceded that homosexual teachers did not present a greater danger to children than their heterosexual colleagues: “I don’t care who teaches my children as long as they’re good teachers. I don’t want teachers interfering with my children.”

A low, a very low, point in the debate came when a speaker invited by Gerard to address council on the issue, Poldi Meindl, “Described the act of anal intercourse in graphically explicit terms before being interrupted by the mayor who rebuked him…for arguing against the gay case in terms of his own sexual preferences. Meindl went on to say that Marzari…should offer her resignation ‘and her immediate departure from the city'” for bringing the motion to council.

The motion went down to defeat by a vote of eight to three. The much-maligned Marzari moved on to provincial politics soon afterwards. She eventually become an NDP cabinet minister, leaving her former colleagues Little, Gerard and Volrich to run and lose in the Nov 15 municipal elections.

Things were beginning to look up at Twelfth and Cambie.

City Hall eventually redeemed itself, as recounted in the Sep 1981 issue of VGCC News [Vancouver Gay Community Centre]: “Gay Unity Week ’81 was a fine celebration with many firsts for Vancouver. Beginning with the first gay and lesbian parade, unity was evident in the participation of gay businesses, many gay organizations and a large and colourful contingent from the lesbian community. A sizeable turnout of straight supporters under the banner of Parents and Friends of Gays swelled the ranks to what has been estimated at being between 800 and 1500 people. A significant first came in the form of Mayor Mike Harcourt’s proclamation of Gay Unity Week, as read to the jubilant crowd in Alexandra Park by Harcourt’s aide, Jane MacDonald.”