Article by Frankie McKinnon
PR.ide before the PR
Let’s begin with the most fundamental question of it all – What is Pride Month? Taking aside the PR opportunity where many companies and organizations capitalize on and assert an allegiance to the LGBTQIA+ communities, Pride Month is a time where the human spirit and resilience is demonstrated and can pave the way for advocacy efforts.
As a recent transplant from Brooklyn, I am writing this article still in shock but heartbreakingly not surprised at the increasing legislative inaccessibility of basic human rights that target the minority and underrepresented population.
To orient myself in a new city I started to explore neighborhoods and taking in the feel of it all. Coming up on the heels of Pride Month, Davie Village hit a certain note in me, resonant of the Boystown neighborhood in Chicago, both in look and inclusive cultural vibes.
A sentiment not uncommon in the United States, I’ve long thought that Canada was far ahead in social policies and held a deep-seeded practice of community. Curious about Davie Village and why it seems to have a penchant for attracting attention, I learned the not-so-warm-and-fuzzy history of the neighborhood.
On the Other side of the Rainbow
Founded in the 1960’s following the end of Dupont and Alexander Street Districts, Davie
Village became notorious for its obvious prostitution scene, unflatteringly coined the
“Prostitution Capital of Canada”.
Perhaps unique to Davie Village, the sex worker scene included various demographics, not limited to cisgender, crossdressers, and two-spirit individuals. Not surprisingly, and what I consider a testimony to the human spirit, a community was formed, expanding past inter-personal relationships and into business and neighborhood aesthetics.
By the 1980’s Davie Village was economically growing but balanced by the gentrification that came with it – the sex workers were increasingly unwanted and were displaced (largely by lobby groups like CROWE), commonly first to Yaletown and ending up in the DTES (Downtown Eastside).
An already vulnerable neighborhood, it saw an escalation of violence, particularly an
increase of abuse towards the Indigenous population. Despite the attention Davie Village maintained over the decades and its growth as an inclusive LGBTQ2A+ community, the social history remains largely unspoken, veiled by events and sites such as the Red Umbrella March and the West End Sex Worker (corner of Jervis and Pendrell Street, for those new to the city as well).
Little Rainbow, Big Rainbow
I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with Don Wilson, co-owner and general manager of Little Sister’s, and resident of West End for over 30 years.
Famously, Little Sister’s was involved in a lawsuit with the Canadian Border Services Agency, over the import of literature written by and written for the LGBT community that was deemed as offensive, and thus withheld.
Following 6 years of litigation (1990-1996), the courts ruled in favor of Little Sister’s, citing that CBSA targeted the store and was in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protects and guarantees equality to all Canadians, including discrimination based on orientation.
Little Sister’s success can be attributed to grass-root efforts and expanding inventory to carry locally sourced products. Shortly after they started hosting events, pulling in large crowds of various ages, orientations, and ethnicities, featuring speakers such as Sophie Labelle.
These events helped create a platform where people were able speak about their experiences and created a safe space for those who were in the process of “figuring it out”, and those coming out. It was not uncommon to see parents alongside their children at these events and many of them continued on to be patrons of the store.
The Colorful Side Effects of Pride
Watching Davie Village continue to grow and brand itself, Don witnessed how the LGBTQIA+ community continued to feel the effects of the drug scene.
He’s seen the rise of accessibility of drugs at sex parties and as a result, has seen too many parents mourn the death of their young children. There is seemingly no sympathy and no empathy – Drugs are too easily accessible with not nearly enough help and resources available. Sooner or later, the government will be required to stand up and the city will need to impose restrictions, re-open clinics, and fund resources to those who need. It feels like the last 6 months pushed the scene to depths Don has not seen before – there is an increase in violence to the point where his staff carries items of protection.
The police respond when called, but they themselves are put in a position where they can only hold a person overnight only to be released the following day, with no administrative path to enter them into treatment or to provide health resources they clearly need.
There will be an inevitable upheaval in the DTES because of current development plans compounded with the struggling businesses. Looking at the hotels on Granville Street, their funding and resources simply cannot keep up with the rate of overdoses they experience. St. Paul’s is always full.
With a sense of optimism, Don believes Canada’s conservatives will continue to support Pride and the LGBTQIA+ community and will not (thankfully) follow in the path the United States is taking, saying “the VPD embraces pride and present themselves as an ally of the community.”
The verdict of Little Sister’s lawsuit stands to show when there is a targeted act against a group of people, such as custody of a shipment of books, it only furthers marginalization.
Pride Month expands so much further than raising awareness and simply being kind to one another. Awareness is critical to activism efforts – we should be seeking information, learning how to identify potentially damaging portrayals of minority communities imposed by our fluid society, and understanding the unknown as it pertains to us.
With an increase of diversity, we find that the spectrum is fluid and is consistently being redefined. As the landscape for LGBTQIA+ rights and protections have moved forward dramatically over the last handful of decades, I have learned that honest support comes from focusing on the advocates in the community who are fraught with the physical labor and emotional toll of activism.
Should you want to get involved in grassroots efforts, Don suggests looking into the following organizations :