5 min

Year of massive progress

Groundwork for huge change laid in 2002

Credit: David Ellingsen

The cautious can call it “the year we laid the groundwork.” An optimist might prefer “the year the gay community came into its own.”

Either way, 2002 was a watershed year for Vancouver’s gay and lesbian community-in policing, in education, in political involvement, and in claiming our geographic space.

It was the year we built on the anger of the previous November’s murder of Aaron Webster in Stanley Park. Just a day after Webster’s death, up to 2,000 people, overwhelmingly gay men, marched peacefully and in dignity down Davie Street. They were there to pay respect to one of our own and to make a statement that the community will no longer take it.

At a rally after the procession, Little Sister’s co-owner Jim Deva spoke of the terrorism with which gays have lived for too long in Vancouver. The crowd loudly applauded.

Deva demanded that policing be overhauled to better address violence and to involve the gay community in setting police priorities. He called on MLA Lorne Mayencourt to spearhead changes at the provincial government level to make schools gay-friendly. The crowd loudly endorsed Deva’s demands, along with calls for the federal government to abolish the “homosexual panic defence” available to gay-bashing murderers.

Police were at that rally. And they turned out, as a couple of hundred gays and lesbians did, for a community meeting weeks later. There, the community told the cops they expected to be involved in setting priorities for our own policing. And they made it clear that police were not to try and discourage park sex, but to make the parks, and everywhere else in Vancouver, safe for gays.

The community response to Webster’s murder has perhaps done more than anything in Vancouver history to convince doubters that there really is a gay community in this city-and it will act in its interests.

In the past year, there has been substantial progress on all the issues raised at the rally. And a great start has been made on a whole series of other matters of importance to lesbians and gays.

Consider these, chronologically listed:

• Our community raised over $11,000 as a reward for information leading to the arrest of Webster’s killers and changed the way the police board deals with communities regarding rewards;

• A coalition of activists, led by our youth and hand in hand with gay teachers, successfully lobbied the Vancouver school board to add ‘gay realities’ to the curriculum and take the homophobia behind gay-bashing more seriously. When they met resistance to the idea for a queer-issues advisory committee to the NPA-dominated board, the youth got political. They expect more progress from the new COPE-dominated school board;

• Gay park sex got much positive coverage, including favourable comments from cops, in mainstream local and national media, after Webster’s murder;

• When Jim Deva realized that the place to begin changing the way our community is policed is to join the local Davie Community Policing Centre, he did just that. And he convinced enough other gays to join the organization to get two men on the board-Deva and Ron Strandberg. Though progress on setting new policing priorities is slow, Deva remains optimistic;

• The PumpJack pub and producers of leather events challenged city hall’s approach to dealing with the gay community’s bars and parties. In the civic election, the winning COPE party promised to overhaul application of liquor laws and licensing processes;

• Local gay entrepreneurs, the Pride Society and Tourism Vancouver began brainstorming about new ways of promoting Davie Village as an international tourism destination;

• Police began compiling the license plates from cars whose occupants shout homophobic comments. Cops paid a visit to the drivers. The “plates fight hate” campaign originated at the Grandview-Woodland Community Policing Centre;

• Police brass worked with the 911 dispatch managers and staff to ensure faster response to physical bashings. Verbal bashings remained a low 911 priority, but Insp Dave Jones ignited a national police campaign to make them a crime;

• The SM community developed a consensus demanding police and city hall come to understand their sex culture and stop harassing them. Much work remains to do;

• The community demanded that the next police liaison officer to our community be gay or lesbian. It’s unclear whether we’ve been listened to;

• After months of public embarrassment, the VPD set up a recruitment table at the Pride festivities, though they still take a pass on advertising in the city’s homegrown gay paper;

• A provincial commission, headed by gay MLA Lorne Mayencourt, was formed to investigate school violence and bullying after an Xtra West special report about school homophobia driving a Prince George student to commit suicide;

• Gay business owners spoke out about the need for city hall to consult the gay community about major developments affecting Davie Village, after Xtra West revealed plans for a 40-storey hospital tower at the corner of Davie and Burrard;

• VanCity credit union advertised far and wide that it loves and respects its gay customers and the gay community;

• When the BC Film Classification Office tried to shut down the opening gala film of the Out on Screen film festival-a documentary about Canada Customs’ harassment of Little Sister’s bookstore, by acclaimed director Aerlyn Weissman-the outcry by gays and lesbians, civil libertarians and local media caused them to reverse their stand. But the classification office remains open, despite slashing of social programs by the provincial Liberals who claim they want to save money;

• A turnover on the Davie Village Business Improvement Association (BIA) resulted in a large rump of gays and lesbians on the board of directors. Future recognition of Davie Village as the capital city of gay Vancouver takes a giant potential leap forward;

• A community meeting was called after transgendered fetish activist Velvet Steel is gay-bashed and then accuses cops of mistreating her at the scene. It drew about 60 people unhappy with policing in Vancouver and concerned that the force has difficulty apologizing for and disciplining misbehaving cops;

• A record number of gay candidates ran for three civic parties in the municipal election. COPE council candidates Tim Stevenson and Ellen Woodsworth are elected, with Woodsworth becoming the first out lesbian city councillor. Bisexual Jane Bouey is elected to school board and lesbian Lyndsay Poaps to parks board. COPE presented a sophisticated gay platform in the campaign (including promises to implement genuine community policing) and met with queer community leaders. The gay community exercised its power, more than doubling its turnout of the 1999 civic election;

• Kim Hoath sold calendars to raise funds for a memorial shelter near where his friend, Aaron Webster, was killed. The gay community called for phones, but definitely not lighting, in cruising areas of Stanley Park;

• It is announced that the defunct Bashline will merge with The Centre’s Prideline, a resource, referral and crisis line. The merger will give the community independent statistics on gay-bashing and the quality of police response;

• Little Sister’s headed back to court against Canada Customs, hopeful that the censor-happy bureaucracy will finally be tamed. Early glimpses at the federal government’s proposed sex-crime registry suggest the cabinet will avoid targeting gay men charged with having consensual sex. But critics warned that planned changes to limit the artistic merit defence in child pornography cases would be twisted to use against gays.

Perhaps never before has the local gay community seen such rapid progress in the span of a year. From exercising our voting power, to asserting ourselves with the police and the Davie merchant community; from driving back the film censors, to preparing for a perhaps final showdown with Canada Customs; from the promise of action to create safe schools from the province and the school board, to the acceptance of the country’s biggest credit union; from getting a police nod for park sex, to challenging city hall’s anti-booze and anti-sex licence and planning rules-on front after front we pushed back the homophobes, the dinosaurs, the social conservatives and laid the groundwork for even greater progress in the months and years to come.