Kevin Dale McKeown: Fifty years of Vancouver's gay scene, from club life to a family in crisis to a new landscape

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      By Kevin Dale McKeown

      How quickly a half-century flies by, whether you’re having fun or not.

      Fifty years ago, in May of 1970, a geeky, bearded wannabe hippie from South Vancouver showed up at the Powell Street offices of the Georgia Straight, Vancouver’s three-year-old underground newspaper, and pitched the idea of a weekly column covering the local gay scene.

      “Are you gay?” was the first question editor Dan McLeod asked. That was easy, and maybe even fairly obvious from my puffy-sleeved turquoise pirate shirt.

      “Do you know the gay scene?” That was less certain, so I lied: “Oh, yes, of course!” 

      Well, I’d been to Faces a couple of times, had a few clandestine beers at the Castle (the legal drinking age was still 21), and drag diva Sandy St. Peters, who I’d met one afternoon at Faces, had invited me to take in my first drag show at Champagne Charlie’s the week before. And I’d heard about the August, and the B&B, and Cheiro’s, so that was a start.

      “Okay. $20 a week. Have your first column in next Monday.”

      And so, on June 3, 1970, what was to be my very chequered career was launched, and I plunged into the hectic nightlife of a gay scene that was just about to explode. New clubs, pubs, steam baths, political movements, the drag court, the gay business guild, and other developments that would bring us to where we are today were the centre of my world for the next five years.

      During those years, I would often find myself hanging out at three in the morning at the Granville Street White Lunch, where the night was crashing to a close for some and the party was in full swing for others. The drag queens, the tea-room queens, the speed queens, the chicken hawks, the whole darn family were there waiting for the dawn and a cab home.

      The clubs had sent their revellers home for the night, but those who were too stoned to sleep, or had no place to sleep, joined others of the demimonde to compare notes about the tricks, the drugs, the rip-offs, and the assorted scandals of the preceding evening.

      Sitting in a corner booth, it was my job to write it all down for my new column, “QQ Writes…Page 69” .  Don’t you just love the camp logo someone (we don’t remember who) came up with for me?

      And I covered it all in my eagerness to explore this liberated new “community” I’d discovered. The drag shows, the Gay Liberation Front meetings, the boycotts, and the hair-pullings, the late nights at the after-hours booze cans and assorted steam rooms, and those early mornings at the White Lunch. The Georgia Straight was Vancouver’s hippie-powered underground newspaper, so our stories fit right in.

      You may have been there one of those nights and wondered if you’d show up in next week’s column.

      But the years sped past, as years are obliged to do, and here we are, 50 years on.

      Looking back, it seemed to have started out simply enough. A few off-the-radar private bottle clubs, a couple of seedy bars, a circuit of private parties, and the city’s homosexual men and women finding and creating spaces and places where they could meet, mingle, and, hopefully, get laid.

      Yes, it was about socializing, making new friends, and escaping reality via drugs, booze, and frenetic disco dancing. But the undercurrent was always about sex. That was what we were struggling with, celebrating, and trying to find a place in the world to just do it. We were men who wanted to have sex with men, and women who wanted to have sex with women.

      But we were waking up to political possibilities, often pointed in that direction by lesbians who were discovering the power of feminism. We were becoming aware that some of the drag queens among us were actually living as women. We were starting to see that the party boozing and drugging were crippling lives.

      But before many of the deep conversations that were arising could unfold, the AIDS decade arrived and we all rallied to the crisis. Never were drag queens more beloved than when they were raising money to support every kind of HIV/AIDS cause. Never were lesbians more appreciated than when they went into full caregiver mode for the sick and dying. Nobody asked what your pronoun was, or how you identified. We were a family in crisis and we were together.

      The author at the corner of Georgia and Granville streets in 1974 (left), and at a 1970s Octoberfest party at Taurus Spa on Hornby Street.

      I am often at odds with my “community” these days as I struggle to understand, and try to figure out where I stand, in this new landscape.

      The segment of that "community" that today presumes to speak for all gender and sexual minorities, and pretty much now runs the organizations purporting to serve them, want us to be seen as a monolith. So anyone stepping out of line, expressing a divergent opinion or daring to disagree with the trending notion of the moment, will be punished.

      The reason for this is plain to see. The more of us they can be seen to represent, the more power they wield over public conversations, institutions, and the all-important flow of grants, donations, and sponsorships.

      I sometimes think of Gore Vidal's observation that "gay community is a weird name for something that doesn't exist”.

      And I also cherish the wise words of Quentin Crisp, which probably would have summed up his view of the entire spectrum of identity politics: “Never go around in bunches. Eventually they’ll do something you won’t want to be associated with.”

      So I avoid bunches. I watch, and read, and listen, and every once in a while I sound off. But I’ve also discovered that just because I have an opinion doesn’t mean I have to share it. That will be safer in my dotage, don’t you think?

      It’s been quite a ride since that day a half-century ago, and sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice—I could have gone to UBC and become a history teacher, as was my original plan.

      Then I remember the words that Sandy St. Peters, that era's drag star, wrote to me when I announced my official retirement:

      “Dear Kevin: We are going to miss your column so much. Your articles were the first time we’d ever seen ourselves in print without being insulted and made fun of. Love, Sandy."

      So, yes, it was all worthwhile. And when I also think of the many dear friends I’ve made over the decades, and the less close but still beloved companions of my youth who are still with us (you know who you are!), I’m damned sure it was the right thing to do.

      Happy anniversary, Q.Q.!