Vancouver
5 min

Three days of Stonewall

Stonewall festival offers education, celebration and reflection

THEN & NOW. Drag queens, hustlers and leather dykes rioted at New York's Stonewall Inn on the night of Jun 27, 1969, launching a worldwide gay liberation movement. Today, many rights have been achieved and are enjoyed by new generations of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered. But today's youth will continue the work to set love free and change people's hearts as well as the law. Credit: Wendy D

Don Hann smiles as he considers the steady crawl of gay activism-and victories-since the movement’s humble beginnings in the late 1960s.



Hann, a resident of Vancouver since 1973, got involved early on with the Gay Alliance Toward Equality and was, controversially, an openly gay childcare worker at Vancouver’s city hall.



“In terms of gay sexual identity, there was no acceptance or tolerance anywhere-the church, the state, the press or the media,” Hann remembers.



His apartment in the West End-literally wallpapered with pictures from countless demonstrations and cluttered with early gay-liberation books and yellowing newsletters of Vancouver’s first gay organizations-is a testament to our community’s fight for rights and freedoms.



This year, for the first time ever, Vancouver city hall is inviting gay activists and community leaders such as Hann to share their stories in a public commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots-stories often lost to younger generations who are unaware of how people fought for their rights.



Stonewall events worldwide celebrate the Jun 27, 1969 riot at the Stonewall bar in New York City, a moment that many regard as the North American gay movement’s watershed moment. That riot, which continued for nights afterwards, was a response to a then-common police raid. It sparked a blossoming of gay groups, gay Pride, and a liberation movement throughout the developed world.



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City councillors made local history last year when they hoisted the rainbow flag over city hall for Pride, in addition to issuing the city’s usual Pride Day proclamation and marching in the parade. This year, councillors Ellen Woodsworth and Tim Stevenson want to do more.



The city hall event on Fri, Jun 25 will serve as a kick-off for a slew of events planned for the weekend.



City hall’s festivities begin with a rainbow flag raising at the front of the building. Then many longstanding leaders in the local queer community will share their stories in the council chamber-and the public is invited to participate.



“I’ve been feeling that the Pride festival is a great time of celebration and fun, but there isn’t an educational component to it,” says Stevenson. “I’m in a position as a councillor to make sure that the city itself is involved in a way that is not only supportive, but also asking people to come right to city hall, to our community, to celebrate its liberation movement.”



Adds lesbian councillor and event co-planner Ellen Woodsworth: “City hall is a house of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, as well as for everyone else in Vancouver. We want to reach out and say to everybody, ‘City hall is your building.'”



It will sure look like the gays took over city hall that day. In addition to live presentations and performances, city staffer Thomas Donovan is putting together a TV feature to screen at the event, and also air on city hall’s cable-TV program, GVTV, leading up to Pride.



“We’re going to be filming a lot of people in the community talking about their liberation journey and their involvement,” says Stevenson. “It will start talking about Stonewall in New York and liberation in Vancouver and how things have changed in the past 35 years.”



Visitors will want to check out a display from the BC Gay and Lesbian Archives tracing local queer history. Finishing off the day’s activities is an open forum following the presentations. And then a reception.



Vancouver was unique in that it built its communities without the need for riots, says Ron Dutton, co-founder and sole archivist of BC’s gay and lesbian archives.



Dutton’s files reach into the early 1960s and thoroughly trace Vancouver’s gay history through to today. He believes gay Canadians didn’t need their own Stonewall riot because the Trudeau government passed Bill C-150-which decriminalized some gay sex-in May 1969, a month before New York City’s Stonewall Riots.



“Our milestone precedes Stonewall,” Dutton smiles.



Among other things, Dutton’s archives trace the first Supreme Court of Canada cases on gay rights (which we invariably lost), the ongoing battle of Little Sister’s against Canada Customs censorship, and last summer’s legalization of gay marriage in BC.



The files are housed in Dutton’s home, in a 10-by-20-foot closet, one shelf deep. The sense of history evokes solemnity in their presence; the archives are constantly updated and growing.



Yet Dutton’s hope for equality extends beyond legal victories. “I’m always very suspicious of rights that come through the courts,” he says. “Rights can be taken away. The real challenge is we’ve got to change people’s hearts. That will make us safe.”



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This year’s celebrations will continue through the weekend, shifting in focus to the city’s East Side on Sat Jun 26 and then finishing off Sunday at the corner of Davie and Granville.



On Saturday the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) will revive the Stonewall festival in Grandview Park on Commercial Dr, from 11 am to 4 pm.



Lee Casey, the VPS board member who is planning the event, says the event will have the flavour of The Drive.



“We’re going to have 40 vendors and that will include food outlets and community organizations, and throughout the day we will have some demonstrations and entertainment from local groups,” says Casey.



“It’s basically a revival of the festival that once was,” he points out. “The Stonewall festival existed for 10 years on The Drive and was an alternative to the West End commercial kind of thing.”



Turnover among organizers and financial difficulties led to the original fair fizzling about six years ago.



This year’s revival will provide “a little more recognition for the East Side,” says Shawn Ewing, president of the VPS. “There was a lot of positive response to put it back.”



The fair at the park will be followed by an “era dance” at the WISE Hall. It will feature music from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s as well as a performance from the gay and lesbian dance organization, Not So Strictly Ballroom.



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The final event of the weekend carries the weighty label, In Appreciation: Honouring Our Elders, and is being held at the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Sunday afternoon.



Chris Morrissey, coordinator of the LGBT Generations project at The Centre, is planning a party for “elders” within the queer community-meaning those over age 70 or those recognized as elders with longstanding work and involvement.



“So it’s going to be a high tea and the Queen will pour for the elders,” laughs Morrissey. That’s right: drag legend Bill Monroe will be serving, dressed as his alter ego. (Monroe will be doing double-duty that weekend-he also has a performance at city hall on Friday.)



After witnessing the decade of steadfast activism on the tail of Stonewall from the 1970s-1980s, Monroe has his own take on how the gay community was shaped through the decades.



“One of the things that I don’t know [if] people are made aware of is that there are two things that pushed our gay liberation. One was Stonewall. And the other was AIDS,” Monroe explains. “A lot of people started to be strong in the liberation because they were afraid and they were dying.”



While Stonewall had a ripple affect across North America, AIDS called for local action and support. The community responded with organizations like the BC Persons with AIDS Society-founded by Kevin Brown, a former roommate of Monroe’s. Brown has died since.



Monroe also passionately recalls the emergence of women at this time in a movement that was very male dominated. “Women stepped forward in the ’80s for their gay man friends that were stricken with AIDS. Many of them came out of nowhere and did so much.”



City hall, the Vancouver Pride Society and the Generations Project originally planned their events separately. Now they are collaborating to make each a success.



Ewing is very happy about the attitude of the gay city councillors. “They’ve been working great with us and sharing off on ideas and concepts. As always, they’ve been tremendous to us,” she says.



She’s visibly excited by the line-up for Stonewall, a world-wide gay commemoration that hasn’t had a local celebration for years. “The three days can be summed up in three words: education, celebration and reflection,” she laughs.