Queering Vancouver: Activists and artists bridge the east-west divide

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      It’s a regular Saturday night for Van Dang, Bella Sie, and Hostion Ho, the trio behind Ricecake, Vancouver’s LGBTQ2S+ Asian event collective, as they set up for another one of their parties. Soon, the eerily empty and bright room they stand in will be filled with colourful lights, dancing bodies, and pulsing music.

      But something sets this party apart—it’s happening on Davie Street.

      A queer party on Davie Street might not sound unusual, but Vancouver’s LGBTQ2S+ community has been culturally and geographically divided between the West End and East Side for decades. The spectrum of differences that ranges from class, gender, race, generation, and artistry have historically situated the West End as the space for white cisgender gays, with the East Side more open to women, trans, non-binary, and BIPOC members of the community.

      “There’s definitely less people, other than the gay men in the West End,” Ho says. “At East Side parties you always see the queer spectrum.”

      But thanks to groups like Ricecake, that spectrum is creeping back into Davie Village.

      Sie offers it’s “kind of surreal” to be hosting a party in the historically gay neighbourhood.

      “Especially in [Celebrities],” Dang says.

      Ricecake's queer Asian parties have happened in both Eastside warehouses and West End clubs. Left to right: Bella Sie, Van Dang, Hostion Ho.
      Caleigh Kats Photography

      The night’s event, a party celebrating the Hindu holiday Holi, is taking place in Village Studios. The venue is located in the basement of and operated by the same people as Celebrities Nightclub, a former pillar of gay nightlife that has since shifted to serving a broader (and straighter) clientele.

      Dang started Ricecake in 2018 after noticing a lack of nightlife that served the queer Asian community.

      “I moved to Vancouver and I was like, ‘There are so many Asians here, where is the Asian night?’ ”

      The group’s first party was at the now-closed gay club XY on Davie, but Ricecake quickly found a home with Eastside Studios, mainly throwing parties in the recently closed Warehouse location for the five years it operated.

      With a mission to create spaces for queer people who might not feel welcome at West End parties in mind, the Ricecake founders approached their reintroduction to Davie feeling hesitant but hopeful.

      “To me, it kind of feels like wearing Crocs for the first time,” Sie says. “I was unsure at first because it’s unfamiliar, it’s something different. But like, you put it on, you walk through the venue, and it fits like a glove.”


      The historic roots of Vancouver’s East/West split run deep and aren’t exclusive to queer spaces.

      According to cabaret performer, producer, and educator Alexa Fraser, talks of a divide in Vancouver’s nightlife and entertainment date back to the 1950s. The nightlife in the West End had a reputation for “classier” entertainment frequented by richer, whiter patrons rather than the “raunchier” offerings in East Van. Fraser points out that these distinctions were largely socially constructed and rooted in cultural and economic differences.

      For the LGBTQ2S+ crowd, the gentrification of the West End further fractured the community along gender and racial lines.

      “You saw a lot of the gentrification from the city, but also from a lot of out-of-province or suburban queers coming in and moving into that neighborhood as well,” Fraser says.

      With the rise of gay liberation in the ’70s, gay men moved into the West End in droves. At the time, the neighbourhood offered one-bedroom apartments that were affordable to men who had the economic freedom to live as their authentic selves. For the lesbians and trans folks facing intersectional marginalization for their gender and sexuality, not so much.

      The emerging divide was exacerbated by a campaign in the ‘80s to oust the nearly 200 sex workers who worked pimp-free within a 25-block zone surrounding Davie Street, then known as the “prostitution capital of Canada.” The prevalence of sex workers in the West End posed a risk to the gay community’s relatively newfound political respectability and the neighbourhood’s budding commercial rainbow aesthetic. West Enders, many of whom were gay men, successfully campaigned to displace sex workers, many of whom were women, transgender, and BIPOC, to the Downtown Eastside.

      “We saw this massive shift of quote-unquote ‘cleaning up the city,’ which in turn, absolutely just displaced and vanished a ton of vulnerable people,” Fraser says.

      While gay men had the resources to live and start businesses in the desirable real estate of the West End, queer women built a community in East Van. The Vancouver Lesbian Centre opened in 1985 on Commercial Drive, a street that continues to be a queer hub and host to the Vancouver Dyke March.

      The Dyke March is a grassroots alternative to the corporate Pride parades, centring on queer women, trans, non-binary, and BIPOC folks who are often excluded from corporate Pride events. But changes to the upcoming 45th annual Vancouver Pride Parade call back to its roots in queer liberation and mirror the gradual bridging of the East/West divide led by LGBTQ2S+ organizers.

      The parade’s usual route—running through the West End down Denman Street and onto Beach Avenue for the Sunset Beach Festival—will be moving east for 2023. The new route will start at Davie Street and Denman Street and follow Pacific Street towards Concord Community Park near Science World for the festival.

      According to the Vancouver Pride Society, the change was prompted by the need for larger capacity and better accessibility in response to the growing popularity of Pride festivities, and in anticipation of Vancouver hosting Canada Pride 2024.

      The Vancouver Pride Society has gone through a queer reckoning of its own, deliberately broadening its programming and leadership beyond the white gays on which Pride parades and festivals have generally centred. Relocating its most prominent and popular event to the East is an extension of these efforts to bring Pride back to historically neglected communities.

      “The needs that Pride fulfills are exponentially greater when you include the entire community,” says Alison Dunne, co-executive director of Vancouver Pride Society. “[We] leave a segregated part of the community and bring ourselves into a more centralized area where all the East Side gays, us included, exist.”


      Multidisciplinary artist (and Straight contributor) Mx. Bukuru has three words to describe the difference between the East Side and West End: “queer versus gay.”

      Previously, one of the most visible differences between the two LGBTQ2S+ cultural hubs was the kind of drag you could find in each. Where the West End was dominated by more commercial drag that favoured RuPaul-style queens and performances, the East Side was home to more DIY, experimental, and gender-diverse forms. But today, more and more performers thrive in both scenes—Mx. Bukuru included.

      As a non-binary drag performer, they remember initially receiving a cool reception at Davie Street drag juggernaut the Junction. Today, Mx. Bukuru and the other five members of Enby 6, a non-binary drag group, hold the coveted Thursday night spot at Junction that was formerly owned by Canada’s Drag Race alumni Kendall Gender, Gia Metric, and Synthia Kiss.

      “Being at the Junction and having that spot now and working with an audience who is so interested in what we as a group are doing … and getting to try stuff and knowing that we’re supported in the trying stuff, means a lot,” Mx. Bukuru says.

      Along with platforming Enby 6, the Junction has also adjusted its programming to showcase more diverse drag with a rotating BIPOC host every Friday.

      Despite their own role in reshaping the West End, Mx. Bukuru says there “absolutely is” still a divide rooted in the history of segregation and gentrification.

      “It’s not wild to say that we still feel echoes of it today.”

      To Xanax, a drag performer and promoter, the division has been eroded thanks to the work of her fellow drag performers.

      “I really don’t think there’s a divide. I think that’s a really archaic mindset,” she opines.

      Xanax hosts and performs at events across the city—from Davie to Gastown to Kitsilano and beyond—and says she doesn’t feel limited by the lack of explicitly LGBTQ2S+ spaces. As mainstream interest in the art of drag has grown, more venues have become open to hosting performances.

      “Just because there’s not dedicated queer spaces as much as there was before … we now have access to anything,” Xanax says. “Now, we can do drag anywhere, which means we can make money anywhere, which means we can bring diversity everywhere.”

      Drag performers who host and cast events are a key force in diversifying the West End, something Xanax strives for at her own Davie Street drag show, XXX Friday at Numbers.

      “Without us [performers] pushing that [diversity] forward, I don’t think any of these spaces would have made those changes.”

      It’s a stretch to say the West End has achieved queer utopia, but Xanax doesn’t want to dismiss the progress that’s been made.

      “I’m not saying that white supremacy isn’t still running rampant. The patriarchy is still in control of a lot of things. Even my home bar is owned by a straight white man. So like, I get it, but I’m also playing that game that I’ve benefited from the fact that he’s allowing me to be in that space.”


      With the recent opening of queer-and-trans-owned Eastside Studios’ new space, the Birdhouse in Mount Pleasant, Ricecake will be returning to East Van for its main party space. But it’s not shutting the door on Davie Street.

      “The West End doesn’t necessarily feel like home. But who knows, maybe it’s time for us to reclaim some space here and make this venue queer again,” Sie says.

      Queering a place involves what Sie calls “queer measures”—including diverse performers and staff, harm reduction procedures, and gender-neutral bathrooms. Thanks to community efforts, these queer measures are making their way west, while traditionally gay-dominated events like Pride evolve and find their way east, gradually blending Vancouver’s once-disparate LGBTQ2S+ scene. To many members of the community, this is a step in the right direction.

      “People are realizing that queer is the way to go,” Dang says. “And not just gay.”