Vancouver's lesbian history project launch revives local feminist history

Image of outlaw Rose of Cimarron, holding a gun.

The launch of the Vancouver Lesbian history project turns out, in many ways, to be as much about the backlash against feminism as it is about the public erasure of Vancouver’s lesbian past, and the collective measures lesbian feminists are undertaking to collect, document, and preserve their living stories.

At the open, public meeting at SFU’s Harbour centre, historians Elise Chenier and Nadine Boulay, with the participation of the community, embark on a major historical project to bring together, in the words of Chenier, women’s testimonies, as opposed to the masculine-biased “histories,” of their experiences of being lesbian and queer in Vancouver.

The walls of the room are wrapped in white kraft paper, with an empty time-line starting on one corner of the room at 1960, reaching 2000 on the far corner. As the room fills to capacity, a crowd of white haired, septuagenarian sisters with markers is busy filling out every decade of the timeline with land-mark events that have effected their lives as lesbian women in Vancouver. The draw-prize today: a copy of Cameron Duder's history of lesbian life in Canada, Awfully Devoted Women Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900-65.

Exclusion of lesbians

This event was called on very short notice, in response to Xtra’s lack of lesbian representation in their 500th anniversary themed issue on Vancouver’s Queer history. Erin Flegg points out that it’s not just lesbians who are being excluded from historical narratives, but queer, trans and bisexual people as well. Xtra has subsequently published a lesbian timeline, which, Ellen Woodsworth adds, “they printed in a truncated fashion,” without any apologies for omitting women in the first place.

This speaks to a trend of lesbian exclusion from history more broadly, as the Canadian Gay and Lesbian archives are biased towards gay male material.

Chenier and Boulay also state that this project is trans-inclusive, and their intention to outreach to indigenous women, immigrant women, and people involved in other political movements, not just lesbian movements.

“You have to change your definition of what lesbian culture is,” says Chenier, “There are many different lesbian cultures.”

With the day’s focus on intergenerational oral history, it is fitting that Woodworth shares her own story of Vancouver’s rich lesbian feminist past. At the age of several of the young women in the front row, Woodsworth and other women from all over Canada participated in the Abortion Caravan. In 1968, women had to go through a long, demeaning process to prove to a hospital's therapeutic abortion committee that they were physically or mentally incapable of raising a child.

The women traveled to Ottawa, chained themselves in the House of Commons, shutting down the House for 45 minutes, and called for women's right to control their own bodies through the right to choose abortion. According to Quirk-E (a writing collective for older LGBTQ) writer Margo Dunn, this action “finally grabbed the government's attention. The red tape loosened up right away, and the struggle carried on until women achieved the full right of choice.”

They returned home with a sense of being part of a movement that could change the world, and would confront the exclusion of feminists who said that that there was no place for lesbians in the women’s liberation movement. They held workshops on lesbian feminism in larger liberation movement events such as the Indo-Chinese Women's Conference.

While working part-time in lay-out at the Georgia Straight, Woodsworth and allies took over the press rooms and offices in response to the publication of what they found to be a  sexist front cover.

At the end of a five-day occupation of the Straight, they produced an issue of the magazine, including feminist agitation propaganda demanding an end to sexism. On the centrefold was an image of the outlaw Rose of Cimarron in a jaunty pose, holding a gun. Then they demanded to be paid for their work putting out the paper.

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