3 min

To Jim Deva, the man who empowered so many of us

Deva was not only a compassionate community builder, but a brilliant strategist

Jim Deva was a mentor to so many; he touched so many lives. I’m just one of the many people lucky enough to have crossed and recrossed his path. Credit: Janet Rerecich

“I do have trouble with the word hero. I sort of view myself as a conduit, empowering people to be active. We have so many brilliant, accomplished people in our community, and once in a while they just need to be empowered.”
— Jim Deva, on receiving Xtra’s Community Hero of the Year award in 2002

“It’s Jim from Sister’s,” he said without preamble when I picked up the phone. “We need to go to Prince George.”

It was a May morning in 2002. As Xtra’s rookie reporter, I’d already worn a tread from our office to Little Sister’s a few blocks west on Davie Street, where I could often be found interviewing the bookstore’s co-owner Jim Deva. But it still seemed odd that he’d suddenly call to propose a road trip.

Not a road trip, he explained. A young gay man was dead. Just weeks after coming out to his family, he’d hung himself because he couldn’t take the harassment that his school refused to address. He was 18.

Jim was adamant. We need to tell Jamie’s story, he insisted. We need to go up north and investigate and challenge the school and every school district in BC.

Three hours later, we were in his old brown van heading north.

Over the next four days, Jim and his partner, Bruce Smyth, drove more than 22 hours, at their own expense, to give voice to Prince George’s nascent gay community, to empower its members to demand accountability and to mourn a gay life lost.

To claim Jim Deva as my courageous, principled, irreverent mentor would be presumptuous. He was a mentor to so many; he touched so many lives. I’m just one of the many people lucky enough to have crossed and recrossed his path.

The trip to Prince George changed me, gave me more confidence to tell our stories with courage, and compassion. Twelve years later, I’m still learning and still grateful to Jim and to Bruce (and their special cookies).

When I first met Jim shortly after arriving in Vancouver in 2001, I saw only bits of the picture: the fight against censorship, the refusal to accept gaybashing. Only as time went on did I begin to see the bigger picture that he was trying to show me. Jim was more than a compassionate leader who could make people feel welcome and knit us into a community. He was also a very intelligent man who always had a strategy to strengthen us over the long term and ultimately change the world.

When Canada Customs seized shipment after shipment of gay and lesbian books at the border, Jim and Bruce fought back. They not only defended our stories, but valued them and empowered us to tell more, both to ourselves and to society.

When our stories made us more visible and therefore targets of anti-gay violence, Jim harnessed our outrage to demand better police protection and a reality free from homophobic “terrorism,” as he called it.

In the wake of Aaron Webster’s murder in 2001, Jim simultaneously sought more gay representation on both the board of the Davie Village business association and its community policing office and, with others, met repeatedly with the Vancouver Police Department to push for arrests and sensitize the force. “That we’d been isolated for too long was readily apparent,” he told me 10 years later.

The fact that police sent an honour guard to his funeral and the mayor delivered a eulogy praising him as a “city builder” shows how far he got with his strategy to strengthen our political standing as a community of note in this city.

That Mayor Gregor Robertson even recognized the “incredibly powerful culture of love” that Jim built shows that he never strayed far from the core of his strategy: to foster a community founded on love and the freedom to openly express that love and embrace our desire.

I stopped by the store two days after Jim gleefully celebrated masturbation and urged us all to be sexually honest at Xtra’s Sept 9 town hall. He was cheerfully outfitting a customer in what seemed to be the man’s first leather chaps, insisting on getting them hemmed before he’d accept any money. He told me how much he’d enjoyed delivering that speech, and I laughed and left him to uplift yet another individual on his coming-out continuum.

“Go do your thing,” I told him. “I’ll see you soon.”

If only that could be true.

Jim Deva died Sept 21. He was 63 years old.