During the summer of 1993, as I was settling into a short-lived stint as the first publisher and editor of Xtra! West, Vancouver’s brand-new gay and lesbian biweekly, I received an overstuffed legal-size envelope in the mail from Don Hann.
Best known as Vancouver’s first openly gay city hall daycare worker, Don Hann was a Stonewall generation LGBT activist who was also an amateur poet and self-appointed local queer historian/media archivist. I had been warned about this fellow: a few of my friends who were on his mailing list were frequent recipients of his stream-of-consciousness diatribes, all immaculately banged out on a typewriter, accompanied by photocopies of press clippings from Angles, Gay Tide and other publications dating back to the early Seventies.
The letter Don sent me at Xtra! West was not the kind of correspondence one considers for publication. Rather, it was intended for my own enlightenment as the community’s most recently appointed opinion-maker. After congratulating me on my new position, the rest of the 10,000-word letter took the form of an extended rant about the sorry state of LGBT culture, politics, and media in 1993. The reason for this malaise? The queer community’s obsession with infotainment and its complete lack of memory or historical perspective. Yes, from the lofty throne of early Baby Boomerdom, Don was informing my still 29-year-old self that contemporary queer media were guilty of constantly reporting the same old stories as if unprecedented, showing complete ignorance of pivotal moments in the gay liberation movement, failing to acknowledge the contributions of elder first generation queer activists (hint-hint), and employing clueless twinks who didn’t know their history from their assholes (hint-hint).
The letter had its good points. It also noted an error of history in our “preview” edition that I was happy to acknowledge. Don put me on his mailing list—followed, shortly afterward, by his e-mail list—and, twenty-three years later, still sends me stuff I now and then find interesting. But as I waded through the self-righteously tendentious prose of that first missive in 1993, I swore I would never become one of those cranky old queens who lecture the young about their lack of historical knowledge. Now that I have reached, um, a certain age, let’s see how I do….
Early last month, I was out of town for a few days when I went on Facebook to find that someone had posted photos from Nanaimo, B.C.’s “first” Pride parade, an event that had occurred the previous weekend. I “liked” the post but commented that, no, it wasn’t the Hub City’s first Pride parade. Then someone else posted from the Nanaimo parade, also calling it the first. Then someone else did it, followed by someone else yet again. As I began correcting one post after another, I began to feel like that poor little Dutch boy, trying to plug holes in a dyke that’s springing leaks all over. It turns out that the parade organizers, and the City of Nanaimo, were the ones who were calling it the first. That’s how it was advertised, and that’s how the media were covering it. Official approval: the badge of authenticity.
When DailyXtra! weighed in with an essay headlined: “Nanaimo’s first Pride parade marks a new era”, I thought I was having an out-of-body experience: I could have sworn that I attended Nanaimo’s first Pride parade on August 17, 1997, and that I had photos to prove it. I was equally certain that—just like the former hometown boy writing for Daily Xtra about this year’s parade—I, too, had written a hometown boy’s report for the very same newspaper a few days after the ’97 parade, and in that article had cheered the “new era” that appeared to have arrived in Nanaimo (“Hub City turns pink: Nanaimo’s first pridefest a revelation for former resident,” Xtra! West, August 21, 1997, p. 7).
So what happened? Why did this year’s parade organizers claim theirs as the first, when historical proof showed otherwise? Why was no one else speaking up about this, and was I really the only person who recalled the 1997 parade? Why would Daily Xtra, which presumably has an archive, not have done a bit of digging before approving this story angle? The truth, as always, is complicated.
It’s all about scale
One key difference between the events of 1997 and 2016 was official endorsement. The City offered no proclamation for that first event, and the local chamber of commerce didn’t support it either, so the ’97 pridefest was not widely advertised. With very little budget, organizers balked at the $4,000 bill required to shut down major intersections. So, apart from the highly visible Front Street, the parade route was limited to the harbourfront from the old Bastion to Maffeo Sutton Park (the same location where this year’s parade ended). Vehicles weren’t allowed on the seawall, so there were no floats. But the Hospital Employees’ Union had a banner, and so did Youthquest, the local gay pub, several gay-owned or gay-friendly cafes and restaurants, a gift and card shop that billed itself as Little Sisters’ ‘baby’ sister, and even a short-lived local queer newspaper. Parade marshals were necessary.
Another key difference was public support. Unlike this year’s parade, where the crowds were said to be three to five rows deep all along the route, the ’97 version was a self-contained affair: the crowd of 200 was comprised mostly of the parade participants themselves, who boldly defied local authorities simply by showing up. Straight allies were there, too, but in small numbers. For the most part, the sprinkling of local onlookers and tourists we met along the route greeted us with nervous smiles or curious looks. Even with that tepid response, I recall a feeling of euphoria that day; a sense that things might finally be changing in my hometown, that our loud and proud presence there might eventually make a difference.
“When I was an earnest and closeted 19-year-old,” I had written in Xtra! West, gay life in Nanaimo “consisted of a dingy little hole-in-the-wall called Spike’s, a graffiti-filled toilet stall in the Civic Arena parking lot, and the absolute certainty that a group of marauding Neanderthals driving a 4×4 would scream ‘faggot!’ whenever my tortured little soul happened to be wandering the streets alone at night.” The pridefest, I wrote, was a sign of real change. The City did not issue parade permits, but council approved the free use of Pioneer Square as the rallying point. Nanaimo’s school board wasn’t yet ready to join a parade, but one trustee loudly condemned the Surrey school board’s homophobic decision to ban gay-themed books. And so, all these years later, I felt robbed of the ’97 experience by finding no mention of it in DailyXtra or anywhere else that Nanaimo Pride was being discussed. It was if the ’97 parade had never occurred or was unworthy of mention. How could this happen?
Facing our past
Part of the amnesia, I suppose, can be attributed to love of the new: everyone likes to be the first to do anything, and if an entire city appears to be climbing aboard like never before (a real “parade,” after all, needs a crowd), well then, it must be the first. It was great to see the number of allies who were proud to post photos on Facebook of their presence at this year’s parade, and I can hardly blame straight folks for thinking they had attended the city’s “first”: they can only assume, after all, that we in the queer community know our own history.
And therein lies a problem. The queer community has always been prone to the reflex, especially among the young, to regard the novelty of our own experiences as historic. There’s a reason for this. The very notion of queer “community” itself is predicated on the collective sum of individual acts of “coming out,” a socio-political demographic process that regenerates queer community leadership every few years. This, and the dominance of social media over the past decade, means that history has become all the more difficult to institutionalize in the queer body politic.
The problem with forgetting about the ’97 pridefest—and its “parade,” “march,” or whatever one chooses to call it—is that such failure of memory minimizes the kind of activist work from the margins that always contributes, even when it fails, to later victories. By forgetting, we render invisible a chapter of local queer history that could provide lessons for the present. Needless to say, carrying the rainbow flag in Nanaimo—never mind holding hands or even kissing—required far more courage in ’97 than it does now. All the more reason to recognize the precedent set by that year’s parade. All the more reason to honour the efforts of those who pulled it off.
Activism is a badge of honour in the queer community. So the fact that a Pride parade held without the City’s approval has been all but forgotten raises a disturbing question: what was it about 1997 that failed to produce the momentum, the groundswell of support for LGBT rights in the Hub City, that would have guaranteed its place in history? Tellingly, the author of the Daily Xtra essay dates his life in Nanaimo back to 1999. Only two years had passed since the ’97 parade, but the hometown he describes during that period is the same cultural desert, the same backwater of bigotry, that I had recalled of the town I abandoned in 1983. Clearly, the promise of ’97 had been nothing but a brief flicker of hope before everything reverted to business as usual.
Leaving our ghosts behind
One of the sad realities of homophobic suburbia is that it’s hard to build community from the shadows. One or two personalities tend to dominate whenever things get planned. Their efforts are genuine and valued, but if they take over everything and cannot delegate for whatever reason, they often burn out and quit, leaving the movement in a vacuum. Meanwhile, gaybashing, social shunning or other forms of intimidation, can, along with political setbacks, be totally demoralizing in a conservative environment, making it harder to network, hold meetings, or gather in public. The ’97 pridefest may have been a casualty of one or more of these things.
The more I recall of the event, the more it appears that I was wearing rose-tinted glasses at the time. The euphoria of the day only obscured the fact that there had been lots of infighting leading up to it, that the community was divided about whether to even hold the event, and that festival organizers were depending a great deal on out-of-towners to boost the numbers. I was happy to oblige in an ACT UP-style occupation of Nanaimo, if only to “reclaim” my hometown for a day. But I was essentially a tourist in my own birthplace, an exile who had no idea what it was like for people still living there to be themselves, to be openly queer, on a daily basis.
I would never know, for example, the oppressive weight of living under the boorish influence of Reform MP Bob Ringma, who once infamously told a reporter he would fire or “move to the back of the shop” any gay or ethnic minority employee whose presence offended customers. Having left the country in 2000 for a while, I had no idea that half of Nanaimo City Council walked out of a council meeting that year after being asked to sign a Gay Pride Day Proclamation. Nor that councillors still refused to sign the proclamation in 2002. Nor that Mayor Gary Korpan still refused to sign in 2004 (even as the rainbow flag flew for the first time above City Hall).
For the two summers after ’97, I was curious enough to ask around about the date of Nanaimo’s next Pride parade. But no one ever knew, because there wasn’t one. Pride, it seems, was in remission.
No wonder everyone’s calling this year’s parade the “first.”