Facing constant uncertainty. Adapting to adversity. Not knowing who might be a threat. Seeking out safe spaces. Being unable to see your loved ones in person before they die. Working with others to overcome obstacles. Sound familiar? Although these are common experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re also true of many LGBT lives. Numerous parallels exist between the two, and, as Vancouver heads into its first-ever virtual Vancouver Pride Week from Monday (July 27) to August 2, this is an opportune time to reflect upon what those similarities may teach us as we struggle to advance into an ambiguous future.
Vancouver activist and archivist Ron Dutton, who is 72 years old, knows a thing or two about local LGBT history.
Dutton began collecting material—photos, articles, posters, audio and video recordings, and more—documenting what was known as Vancouver’s gay liberation movement in the 1970s, creating the B.C. Gay and Lesbian Archives in 1976. Then in 2017, he donated the sprawling collection of more than 750,000 items to the City of Vancouver archives.
On the line with the Georgia Straight, Dutton recalled living in a world where antiqueer discrimination was the norm.
“We were all criminals,” he said about how the Canadian Criminal Code deemed homosexuals prior to 1969. “The queer people of the era had to devise their own strategies sometimes to be able to live normal lives in that kind of toxic environment.”
With shades of today's pandemic experiences, he explained that queer people had to find people could be socially safe with and had to protect one another to “try to live lives as normally as circumstances permitted”, or else risk losing friends, family, or employment.
“The consequences were enormous, as enormous as going out without a mask into a crowd at the beach is today,” he said.
Yet he was “gobsmacked” at how old queer people at bars spun stories about surviving even more intensely homophobic and transphobic times than his own. He later realized that these “survivors” developed skills, including a “massive sense of humour”, to use against adversaries and bad experiences and “had somehow come through it with a sense of who they were”—something that British Columbians could keep in mind amid these difficult times.
To change things for the better, Dutton said, activists needed to find commonality despite not everyone agreeing with everything—in the same way that everyone doing their part, despite differences, is essential during the pandemic.
“The queer community…understood that its own best interests were served by acting collectively,” he said.
A “crucial” lesson Dutton feels that queer activists of that time learned was how to transform anger into action.
“There’s nothing that teaches you faster than I actually can do something: I’m not alone; I’m not weak; I have skills; I have a voice,” he said. “And until you exercise all of those, you don’t actually own them.”
Although he said anger works effectively as motivation, he added that “once you’re mobilized, it needs to be replaced by something other than that” by “turning that energy toward resolving the problems”.
A prime example was how advocates responded to the AIDS Crisis that began in the 1980s, and the ongoing HIV pandemic, which decimated LGBT communities and social networks. Dutton said activists and organizations, such as AIDS Vancouver, worked to get media and governements on their side and created enlarged coalitions that could influence government and public opinion.
For current examples, Dutton said that the examples of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the climate-action movement among youth “gladdens my old gay-liberation heart”.
Yet when it comes to Pride and BLM, police participation in Pride has been a contentious and divisive issue for years.
Dutton's view is that Vancouver had a “unique” relationship and mutual understanding between police and queer communities, dating back to 1960s, and involved gay bar owners forming the Police Gay Liaison Committee, which met monthly to share information for 30 years.
With no fights in gay bars, which kept a low-profile, compared to straight bars, he opined that queer establishments were the “least problematic” for police and it was therefore to their mutual benefit to cooperate to keep things that way. In contrast, he felt that Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax police had a history of “poisonous”, distrustful, and antagonistic relationships with LGBT communities.
While he mourns the deterioration of relationships between police and queer communities, he believes and understands the desire for change among Black people and people of colour, even though he hasn’t personally experienced what they have.
“I’m hopeful that what comes out of that is a greater degree of understanding and willingness to move forward in a better way,” he said. “I wish we could find ways within the community to make our voices heard without it turning into a fight.”
Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) executive director Andrea Arnot said she constantly receives questions about how Pride can be inclusive if they are banning groups like the police from the parade.
“I say that the Vancouver Pride parade is about LGTBQ2SAI+ folks feeling included, safe, and the sense of belonging in Canadian society,” she explained by phone. “It is not just about inviting anyone into our parade….It’s about furthering the rights of queer and trans folks and the sense of belonging in community. So if our QTBIPOC [queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and people of colour] folks don’t feel safe with police participating in the parade, it’s the one day of the year they should feel safe to be exactly who they are and celebrate that.”
However, the lack of police presence at the parade may not be as visible this year as the event goes virtual.
When B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced on April 18 that large-scale events wouldn’t be held this year, Vancouver Pride had to undergo change and a steep learning curve.
While Arnot said they’re used to producing large-scale public shows in person, they have since had to learn how to become digital-content producers (including creating a recording studio in their office), partnering with organizations to create shows, and bringing in people with tech expertise.
Thanks to all that hard work, the VPS will livestream four hours of programming, kicking off at noon on August 2 with a history of Pride spanning more than 40 years. Arnot explained that all parade applicants submitted digital entries, either photos or videos along with messages, that will be edited together with an accompanying soundtrack for a virtual Vancouver Pride parade, and it’ll all be viewable on Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube.
Among the numerous events in this year’s Vancouver Pride Week lineup (starting on July 27) are some unique collaborations, including a partnership with the Vancouver Writers Festival to present cocktail-hour readings showcasing queer authors and another with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for Symphonic Pride, featuring eight VSO members alongside queer performers and musicians. There’s also a Pride Art Walk until August 3, involving five locations downtown and in the West End that participants can visit using instructions and a map on the Vancouver Pride app.
The online format of the festivities means that Vancouver Pride 2020 can potentially reach a worldwide audience, Arnot pointed out.
That may include those who may not be fully out and who may feel uncomfortable being seen in public at such events—now they can view the fun from home.
“If someone is feeling isolated and they’re in a situation that’s not safe, I’m hoping that by tuning into Pride celebrations or remembering that it’s Pride that they will have that spark of courage to reach out to someone or to an organization that can help them,” she said, adding that Pride often inspires many people of all ages each year to come out of the closet—an expanding, or even bursting, of the bubble, if you will.
Despite all the challenges the pandemic has created, an upside has been that Arnot, who is a board member of the national Pride organization Fierté Canada Pride, has seen Canadian Pride organizations, which previously competed for the same sponsors and government funding, helping each other out more than ever.
“Queer and trans folks…have faced other crises in the past throughout the years and different issues that have come up where we’ve needed to pull together and advocate, and I think there’s a sense of resilience, and finding one another for support for resources for working together, and I think those qualities have come out during this pandemic,” she said. “Pride is in all of us, and all of us coming together, encouraging people, donating to queer-serving organizations, having a little viewing party in your backyard or flying a Pride flag from your apartment window—those are all expression of Pride…it’s not just a week of events that we put on every year.”