Vancouver travel influencers Lez See the World had a problem.
The COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted their normal globe-trotting plans, right when they wanted to expand into longer-form video content. So the pair decided it was time to get back to their roots—less Lez See the World, more Lez See Vancouver.
“If you ask someone around the city, ‘where’s the gay scene,’ they say Davie Street and Celebrities,” Steph Burlton tells the Straight over Zoom. “We wanted to dig in and find the other stories.”
Steph and her wife Katie Burlton are in New York when we talk. The trip was being documented on Lez See the World, the queer travel Instagram account they jointly run which has racked up 100,000 followers in six years. But we’re here to talk about Queer Vancouver: Past, Present and Future, a six-episode docuseries the couple made this year that’s releasing on Telus Optik TV on November 15, and for free on YouTube starting November 29.
Katie says that queer women, trans and non-binary people, and people of colour are routinely left out of accounts of Canada’s gay activism. Much ‘LGBTQ2S+ history’ focuses on cisgender white gay men, which glosses over huge swathes of the community.
“We both identify as lesbians, and we’ve been out and been a couple in the city for more than 10 years,” Katie says. “We felt like we don’t even know these things, we don’t know our own history.”
Combining Steph’s background in film with a grant from Telus StoryHive’s Voices program, they set about interviewing dozens of guests, from proud lesbian activists of the ‘70s to non-binary Zillennials running queer art collectives.
There’s DEI consultants, DJs, musicians, drag performers, students, writers, models; people from Indigenous and Black and South Asian and East Asian and immigrant backgrounds; trans femmes and trans mascs and bisexuals and sapphics. For a short series made on a tight time limit, there was a lot of thought put into trying to represent a wide range of perspectives beyond Steph and Katie’s own experience as cis white lesbians.
“It’s such an expansive community made up of so many different types of people,” Steph says. “Our experience is only a very, very small part of the community. What we were trying to do with this project is get away from having such a narrow approach to the telling of the community.”
The series walks a line between insider and outsider: Katie calls it both “a celebration of our community for our community,” but also “an entry point for people to be able to watch and hopefully learn a little bit.”
And while so many queer documentaries focuses on the struggle and trauma, Katie says Queer Vancouver is about “queer and trans joy that we wanted to platform.”
That’s not to say that the series downplays the issues faced by the broader queer community. One episode touches on the HIV/AIDS crisis, and how cisgender queer women cared for the cis gay men and transgender women who were worst affected by the devastating public health crisis. There’s frequent discussions of racism within the community and the need for intersectional spaces. Accessibility, both physical and financial, crops up as event organizers discuss how to reduce barriers to participation.
Looming behind everything is the sense that queer women and trans people have less resources than the cis gay community; less money to spend on renting space for the community to come together.
“Other than the gay bars on Davie Street that has been around for decades, because they can afford them, there has never been a permanent long-standing space for queer women and other marginalized folks in the community,” Katie says.
Real world venues for queer women and trans people have a spotty history around North America. Vancouver and its soaring rents is no exception. Lick, Vancouver’s last dedicated lesbian bar, closed in 2011. And the Warehouse at Eastside Studios, the current hub of Vancouver’s queer-as-in-fuck-you events, is scheduled for demolition as part of St. Paul’s Hospital expansion.
Steph says that sense of perseverance is a core part of Vancouver’s queer scene.
“There was such a common story of, a space was created out of nothing,” she says. “And then six months later, it was shut down because a building was changing or rents went up. And then a group got together again, to create a new space.”
Over the course of three hours, the Burltons tackle a wide array of topics. There’s too much Vancouver, and too much queer, to adequately cover in six episodes. But the series has already been greenlit for a second season. Katie says it’ll centre local “artists, athletes and activists,” three ways that queer and trans people can find community.
One episode focuses on how social media can help build connection—but diminishes the necessity of real-world meeting spots. It’s an interesting tension to explore, especially with the couple’s prominent social media platform.
“We actually really found a lot of community through the online space,” Steph says. “At the time, this was like 10 years ago, we didn’t even feel like we really had a place in the in-person community.”
She says that Vancouver’s queer scene has changed a lot since then, and notes how events often rely on social media to get the word out.
“In creating this future where of course, we’re going to have online space, and of course, we need personal in-person space. It’s just a matter of finding how those two can work together,” she adds.
The people with the most knowledge of how to mesh digital and analogue lives, as ever, are young people.
“It was cool talking to people who are younger than us too. Gen Z, they’ve grown up with [social media],” Katie says. “That’s been their whole experience and how that impacts their connection to the queer community. That was something just really interesting for us to explore.”
Despite the huge social progress of the last two decades, the need for specific queer community remains. Queer or trans identities are something people have to come to understand for themselves as they age. Finding other people who’ve done that same self-reflection is an intense bonding experience.
And, as Steph points out, queer people are often the ones just making the coolest shit.
“As a queer person, I’ve had the opportunity to really understand and get to know myself and do the work of discovering who I am,” Steph says. “When we create from that, it’s like we are trying to express ourselves because we know ourselves so well.
“Or we’re maybe expressing ourselves through art because we’re trying to know ourselves.”
The docuseries, overall, has a simple thesis. Being queer is great. Having spaces to be queer is essential. Keep Vancouver queer.
Queer Vancouver premiers at the Warehouse on November 13. Tickets are on sale here.