Take a Walk Through Vancouver’s Hidden 2SLGBTQQIA+ History
Rain Marie (She/They) // Contributor
Valeriya Kim // Design Director
2SLGBTQQIA+: Two-Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual and/or Gender Diverse or Non-Binary.
At the corner of Hornby and Georgia streets, before it housed the Vancouver Art Gallery, lived a courthouse surrounded by an ever-growing Queer History. Despite this courthouse being the site of many arrests that targeted both 2SLGBTQQIA+ and BIPOC individuals over the crime of Buggery – meaning the act of Anal and Oral sex performed by penetration – the streets surrounding became epicentre for 2SLGBTQQIA+ people. The streets surrounding the courthouse were filled with many hotels, some of which are still standing today, such as Hotel Vancouver and Castle Pub. But it wasn’t the hotels themselves that made this area so interesting, it was what was underneath them.
In the early to mid-20th-century, hotel bars had a very particular quality to them: they were separated into sections based on one’s gender assigned to them at birth. The “men’s” section of these bars allowed only men to enter, whereas the women were women only or women being accompanied by their husbands. This, although originally designed to promote respectable and chaste behaviour, created a space for gay men to meet each other without fear of suspicion. Each of these surrounding hotel bars had its own specific niches and parts of the community that they connected to. For example, Hotel Vancouver housed a nightlife for a lot of Gay Men whereas Castle Pub created some more space for Transgender people and Drag Queens. Unfortunately, these new safe spaces did not come without discrimination of their own within them. Gay Men who frequented Hotel Vancouver were very against anything that drew attention to them, so they did not appreciate Trans people, Drag Queens, or People of Colour entering their space. There was also very little space for Queer Women in these bars as men were free to enter their space provided they were escorting their wives.
For years Vancouver’s 2SLGBTQQIA+ has been pushed aside, hidden and actively erased from the public eye. Vancouver has long been a mecca for Queer activism, communities, and art, but, many people, both in the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community and outside of it, remain unaware of its deep history. Forbidden History Walking Tours, which you can find at forbiddenwalkingtours.ca, is a Vancouver-based tour company that focuses on the “forbidden” history of Vancouver and making history that was wiped away, accessible to the public. Glenn Tkatch the Head Storyteller of the Really Gay History Tour designed this tour in 2017. Tkatch started this tour as he “knew that queer history would be a perfect fit for [Forbidden Vancouver], and [he] also suspected that there was a real hunger for this subject matter”. It is an interactive history tour that travels from Vancouver City Center Station to Davies Street with the intention of getting Vancouver locals and people visiting Vancouver better acquainted with the long-buried history of 2SLGBTQQIA+ people in Vancouver.
Tkatch and Forbidden History Walking Tours teach us about powerful and influential members of the 2SLGBTQQIA+ that we would not get the chance to otherwise learn about such as ted northe, Gaétan Dugas, Bruce Smyth & Jim Deva, and Jamie Lee Hamilton.
Empress of Canada, as titled by the International Imperial Court System (a grassroots network of drag queens); ted northe was and gay civil rights activist and drag queen active in Vancouver in the ’50s to ’60s. ted northe was known for his activism, an unlikely friendship with Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and his work inspiring the eventual passing of bill C-150 decriminalizing homosexuality. Walking down to St. Paul’s Hospital, Tkatch teaches us about the gross mistreatment of Gaétan Dugas by the government and his community after being incorrectly titled Patient 0 for G.R.I.D or HIV. Heading towards Davies street, Tkatch takes us to the old location of Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium, Co-Owned by Bruce Smyth & Jim Deva. Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium is an 2SLGBTQQIA+ hub and store that survived through three years of harassment from the Canadian Government through Candian Customs and a series of anti-gay terrorist attacks on the bookstore. Finishing up at Jim Deva Plaza, the tour participants learn about Jamie Lee Hamilton, an advocate for Indigenous people, the 2SLGBTQQIA+ community, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and Sex Workers. In 1970 she was one of the first medically acknowledged Trans Women and one of the first youth treated for “gender identity disorder”. She was also a Sex Worker who operated out of Davies Street and fought to keep Pimps out of sex work.
The Canadian government has an unfortunate habit of trying to effectively erase any parts of history they consider grim, dark, dirty, and especially anything that casts them in a darker light. Our community has seen this in the erasure of Indigenous history and abuse, silencing of immigrants, and forcing the stories of 2SLGBTQQIA+ people back into the closet. Forbidden History Walking Tours was created to find these stories and breathe new life and value into them by passing them back into the mouths and hearts of the public. The act storytelling, particularly the telling of Queer stories, is hugely important to Tkatch as it is “To understand, in specific terms, what is the tradition that I belong to? What is my heritage? What is my legacy? To be able to understand your own identity in the context of a tradition, of an ongoing story that you are part of, is really important to understanding yourself.” Story Tellers such as Tkatch uncover these stories through extensive research and one of the best and oldest ways that stories get passed on, by talking to the people who lived through these moments in history.
Storytelling is the oldest form of immortality and our memories are one of the most powerful tools we have. No matter how hard one tries to erase and silence a community they cannot erase the words and memories of someone who was there. Passing down stories from generation to generation keeps people’s actions and impact alive long past their death. It allows future generations to know who came before them and how their efforts created the world we get to live in now and how we can protect, respect, and further their progress. The act of keeping the story alive also helps our society grow and heal rather than end up stuck repeating progress that has been lost or forgotten through the passage of time. Organizations such as Forbidden History Walking Tours are so important as they help us keep the past alive and valued and help us progress into a stronger, more just society.
The Really Gay History Tour is a wonderful and accessible opportunity to learn about Vancouver History that the Government and Schooling have previously denied us access to. It runs every Sunday at 10 am rain or shine and takes around two hours to complete for 32$ for adults and 29$ for Students and Seniors. It is an incredible way to spend a morning and learn detailed recounts of previously lost 2SLGBTQQIA+ history following the stories of the activists mentioned and many more. Tkatch invites all people of all backgrounds to come and learn from forbidden history as “everyone benefits from the freedoms won by queer people. We are all more liberated because of these queer heroes. Everyone will benefit from understanding this history better.”