O Canada!

Speaking at the Dyke March, Vancouver BC

As I told you in my last post, I was invited to speak at the Vancouver Dyke March and Festival. The organizers told me to make it short, about 5-6 minutes, and provide them with a transcript so the sign language interpreters could have a chance to practice.

At the end of the march, people gathered in Grandview Park to mingle, check out various booths, and listen to entertainment and a couple of speeches. The attendees came and went all during a lovely sunny afternoon. I think there were about 300 sitting on the big lawn when it was my turn. And at the end, much to my astonishment, the crowd stood up and gave me a standing ovation. (I’d be used to that sort of thing if I had a singing voice like Renée Fleming, but I can’t even keep on tune for “Happy Birthday.”) I was the only one who got such an ovation, possibly because they saw me as an ancient pioneer in the LGBT+ movement. Sylvia thinks it’s because they didn’t expect that much feistiness from a little old lady–well, I’m no lady but I was definitely the oldest person in the park.

Here’s a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUGdC0X4pM8

And below is the transcript:

Hello Dyke Marchers! I’m delighted to be back in Vancouver. One of my fondest memories is of marrying my wife here in 2003, when same-sex marriage became legal in British Columbia. Canada legalized it nation-wide in 2005. The United States, my own poor benighted country, only did so ten years later.

While we celebrate these days of gay pride, keep in mind that every right and freedom we have at this moment—gay rights, women’s rights, the rights of people of color—came about because we fought for them. They weren’t bestowed on us like Christmas presents for good, obedient little children. They were won because we were disobedient.

The Dyke March organizers have asked me to share some of my personal history. Back in 1963, when I was 18, I had my first affair with a woman. At that time the law considered people like us criminals and threw us in prison. The clergy called us sinners, to repent or be thrown into hell. Most psychologists said we were sick and threw us in mental hospitals. A few of those psychologists, the liberal ones, said that we were stuck in an immature stage of development and needed years of expensive therapy.

The woman I loved encouraged me to see one of those liberal therapists, who said I should be bisexual. That didn’t work. I tried finding other lesbians at the bars but didn’t fit in there either. Then I heard about the Daughters of Bilitis—the DOB.

I don’t know what lesbian organizations existed in Canada before Stonewall, but in the U.S. the major, if not the only one, was the DOB. In 1967, when I joined the New York chapter, only a handful of gays and lesbians were out in public. That’s a handful nationwide. Members of our groups came to meetings hoping to find partners, but otherwise stayed in the closet to protect their lives and careers. Our efforts were spent pleading for acceptance, trying to convince the rest of society that all we wanted was to join the middle class. The biggest demonstration that our groups put on was in 1966, during the Vietnam War, where we pleaded for permission to serve in the military.

I was 23 at the time and didn’t have a career to lose. Plus I had a big mouth and not enough sense to be self-protective, so the women running our chapter made me the public speaker. I was asked to speak to abnormal psychology classes, where I’d explain why we weren’t crazy. I debated a couple of anti-gay headshrinkers on TV.

Then, in June 1969, came the Stonewall Riot. Those few nights of fighting back are rightly celebrated as a turning point in history. What made the difference, though, wasn’t the riot itself, but the political actions that followed. I’d passed by the Stonewall during the action, thinking it was just another anti-war demonstration. Two days later, when I heard the real story, I was on fire. I called for a protest march—and a few us organized that march exactly one month after the riot. Around 500 people showed up—more lesbians and gay men than had ever been out in public, out in the sunshine together. Just one year later, over 10,000 of us marched up Sixth Avenue.

At the same time as we organized that first march, we formed the Gay Liberation Front—the GLF.

What was the Gay Liberation Front? In New York, a bunch of raggedy-ass kids, with no money and no connections in high places. We’d all been influenced by or participated in the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement. Beg for permission to put our feet on the rungs of the corporate ladder? Hell, no! We abhorred the entire hierarchical system. Beg to be shipped to Vietnam, to kill people who’d never done anything to us? Hell, no!

We demonstrated for gay rights, and joined demonstrations for the rights of other oppressed people, and against the war. We held dances. We put out a newspaper. What we did, what made all the difference, was to reach out to other progressive groups and make alliances with them. First we changed the minds of the radicals. Later, our successor groups brought in the liberals. Eventually we even reached some of the conservatives. The laws changed. Now the U.S. permits us to marry legally and serve openly in the military.

Within months after we started the Gay Liberation Front in New York, other GLFs sprang up around the U.S.—and in Canada, England, Denmark, and New Zealand. By 2021, Gay Pride celebrations happened in 107 countries around the world.

So that bunch of raggedy-ass kids started an international movement. If we could do it 1969, we—all of us—can do it again today.

Back then we dreamed of a revolution. Now, as I’m sure you’ve heard, there’s a conservative backlash in the U.S. They want to roll back our gains, just as they’ve rolled back women’s reproductive rights. And that means we have to fight—not just for gay rights and women’s rights, but also for other oppressed groups, for economic justice, and to deal with climate change. Once again, we must make alliances. Let’s cherish our energy and our joy from today’s events, use them as fuel for the work ahead, and finish the revolution we dreamed of.




3 Responses to O Canada!

  1. Connie O Byrne August 17, 2023 at 7:03 pm #

    oh how I wish I could have been there! I would have been part of the standing ovation. and your book should arrive tomorrow (had to wait for bills to be paid…lol). I can’t wait to.read it…and for sure I will be sharing this with all of my friends! thank you so much for being out here

  2. Martha Shelley August 18, 2023 at 12:52 am #

    I too wish you could have been there! It would be so nice to meet you in person.

  3. Connie O Byrne August 18, 2023 at 1:02 am #

    the feeling is mutual, but given where we each live, not likely. but trust me, I will continue to read and share anything you write. you’ve lived the life I would gladly have had…we know what we know at the time. from what you’ve shared, your life is incredibly full and thankfully, so is mine. keep on telling it like it is!

Leave a Reply

Privacy Policy

We do not retain any credit card information
and will not sell, lend, or otherwise transfer your
contact information to anyone, ever.