The history of pride in Vancouver

Professor Jen Marchbank discussed how pride has changed over the years from a protest to a festival

PHOTO: Jakayla Toney / Unsplash

Written by: Karissa Ketter, News Writer 

Content warning: mentions of homophobia

Vancouver’s earliest pride protest was on August 1, 1973, when the Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE) held a picnic and art exhibit. Vancouver’s first pride parade took place in 1978.

Vancouver refused to grant GATE a permit to host a pride event for years until Mike Harcourt, the 30th premiere of BC, was elected into office. He was elected after promises to the LGBTQIA2S+ community — including making a proclamation for the LGBTQIA2S+ community and granting their parade permit. 

After his election, a new municipal government was formed in Vancouver and GATE received a permit to hold their first official pride parade. He declared the week of August 1–7 Gay Unity Week. Vancouver then held Canada’s first lesbian pride march on May 16, 1981. 

“Pride did begin from protest,” said SFU professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies, Jen Marchbank, in an interview with The Peak. She recalled her time living in the UK, when she went to London to “march in the pride parade, and it was very much a demand for equal rights.” In the following few years, “all of a sudden, there was a party atmosphere,” she explained.

“In my lifetime [ . . . ] it has evolved from a parade into a spectacle and into a celebration.” During this time, Marchbank said she has seen laws change as rights for the LGBTQIA2S+ community progress in Canada. 

The legalization of same-sex marriage was first introduced in Canada in 2003 when Ontario and BC became the first provinces to legalize it. These were the only places in the world where same-sex couples who were not residents could still marry. 

On June 28, 2005, Bill C-38 gave same-sex couples the legal right to marry throughout Canada. The Bill became law in July 2005 when it received royal assent. 

Canada was the fourth country to make these advancements, following the Netherlands in 2000, Belgium in 2003, and Spain earlier in 2005. 

The Canadian Encyclopedia estimates that public support for same-sex marriage went from 41% in 1997 to 74% in 2017. 

“There still is a need for pride — not just to celebrate their existence, but to build community, to convey to those who are not part of the LGBTQ community that we’re here, we’re not just to be tolerated, we are a part of everyone’s lives.”

In 1985, the Equality for All report was released by the Canadian Parliamentary Committee on Equality Rights. Their report found high levels of discrimination against those in the LGBTQIA2S+ community. The recommendation was for Canada to make discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal. This recommendation wasn’t accepted for another 10 years

Marchbank cautioned some pieces of history are misrepresented. Bill C-150 was the federal bill that decriminalized some sexual acts such as sodomy — oral or anal sex between gay men. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau “very famously said ‘the state has no place in the nation’s bedrooms,’” Marchbank explained. She explained this Bill is often cited as one that decriminalized homosexuality, but “it did not [ . . . ] All Bill C-150 did was decriminalize certain acts between consenting adults over 21 — given that the age of consent for heterosexual relations was about 14.” 

She also highlighted the importance of understanding intergenerational effects of Canada’s institutional discrimination — such as the Cold War purge of LGBTQIA2S+ individuals. The purge consisted of government institutions spying on their workers to fire those who identified as part of the LGBTQIA2S+ community during a time when communism and homosexuality were seen as “character weakness.” 

There is lasting discrimination, stigma, and “intergenerational effects of the purge. Maybe someone in their 40s wasn’t purged themselves, but maybe their uncle was,” said Marchbank. “You might not be able to discriminate against people [directly] in Canada, but we have people living who have memories of discrimination.” 

She said she personally felt these effects at the age 23, when she chose not to pursue a career in diplomatic services because a “statement that was made said ‘homosexuality either declared or otherwise is barrier to employment.’

“It’s our responsibility in our current pride — not just festivals, but in our community — to remember whose shoulders we are standing on,” said Marchbank.