Chris Bearchell: Fierce Activist,
Writer, Editor, Organizer
(August 16, 1953 - February 18, 2007)
News of her death brings sadness that is unimaginable. Chris Bearchell passed away at 7:40 am on Sunday, the 18th of February at Vancouver General Hospital at the age of 53. We had been in the hospital since Monday, February 5 due to kidney failure and other complications caused by several large blood clots in her leg and lungs. We sincerely thank the staff in the Acute Medicine Ward, Emergency and the Palliative Care Unit for their compassion and expert care of our dear friend and comrade.
Relieved of her pain and distress, Chris died with the company and comfort of beloved friends. During the last few days and hours prior to her departure, Chris was conscious and expressed her pleasure at receiving the many visitors and phone calls filled with love. She even marvelled at the stunning view from her private room on the 16th floor the hospital's penthouse. The windows in her suite were filled with beautiful flowers. Chris loved life so much that she never gave up the fight for just another minute more. Her incredible strength and spirit prevailed to the very end Dawn.
Chris Bearchell at Elaine's, Vancouver.
DATE: 2006. PHOTO: Elaine Ayres
Chris's strength and determination made her a fierce activist. Born in Edmonton in 1953, Christine Louise Bearchell was the eldest daughter of Julie Battersby and Ben Bearchell. From an early age Chris demonstrated a deep commitment to the fight for sexual equality. When Chris entered Jasper Place High, the school's dress code required female students to wear skirts. But Chris Bearchell put an end to that. By the time Chris finished high school just three years later the skirts-only rule for girls was abolished, thanks to Chris and her relentless opposition. In 1971 at the age of 18 Chris co-founded the Alberta Women for Abortion Law Repeal. By 1972 Chris had moved to Toronto and co-founded the Committee to Defend Henry Morgenthaler. Chris Bearchell's unyielding dedication to sexual liberation, reproductive rights, lesbian and gay rights, and prostitutes' rights was critical to the gains and successes of those movements in Canada and internationally.
In 1975, Chris was a founding member of the National Coalition for Gay Rights and the Committee to Defend John Damien which she also chaired. John Damien was a horse-racing steward who was fired by the Ontario Racing Commission for no other reason than that he was "a homosexual." Around 1984, Damien's wrongful dismissal suits against four officials were settled out of court. However, the agreement prevented Damien from collecting the $50,000 cash settlement or revealing his story until the civil trial was resolved. John Damien died in 1986 and the trial never took place.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Chris Bearchell, John Damien, Charlie Hill speaking at the founding conference of the National Coalition for Gay Rights, in Ottawa, 1975.
DATE: 1975. PHOTO: The Ottawa Journal, City of Ottawa Archives
Chris began writing in 1975 for The Body Politic (The BP) one of the earliest and most internationally influential gay rights magazines in the world. In 1980 Chris was the first woman to join The BP's editorial collective as News Editor as well as the coordinator of over 60 volunteers. Chris continued to write for The BP until it folded in 1987.
Chris Bearchell was also active and influential in the League for Socialist Action (LSA) a member of their Toronto Branch. In 1976 Chris made significant contributions to the LSA's resolutions on gay liberation which included The Socialist Perspective for Gay Liberation, Political Committee Statement on Gay Liberation and Proposal on Gay Liberation Discussion. Chris also wrote "Our Intervention in the Gay Movement in Toronto" and "Gay Liberation: The Need for a Socialist Perspective" instrumental articles published in the LSA Bulletin.
Chris was a founding member of the Lesbian Organization of Toronto (LOOT) in 1976. LOOT was not only an organization, but also a space (an actual house, 342 Jarvis Street) where lesbians could explore and develop their own distinct identity. LOOT folded in 1980.
By 1977 Chris Bearchell became involved in community television production and co-founded the Gay Offensive Collective. The group produced a cable show called This Program May Be Offensive to Heterosexuals.
Chris Bearchell was a member of the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario (CGRO) Executive Council, and member-at-large of the Steering Committee from 1979 through 1981 and possibly beyond. (She was a founding member of CGRO since 1975.) CGRO later turned its name into CLGRO after Chris conceded it was a losing battle to maintain the term "gay" as an all-inclusive moniker for homosexual orientations.
Police raids of gay bathhouses and arrests of gay men on bawdy-house charges sparked an angry gay riot in 1981 that overturned police cars along the march to 52 Division of the Toronto Police. It was Chris Bearchell in her dual role as both a CGRO and The Body Politic spokesperson who rallied the crowds of irate protesters with her bullhorn. Chris became infamous for coining the slogan: "No More Shit!"
In 1983 Chris together with Danny Cockerline bought a house 97 Walnut Avenue, just south of King Street. For twelve years, the kitchen table at 97 Walnut Avenue served was a hotbed of political organizing, activism and education in Toronto a gathering place where activists strategized, debated, got baked, drank coffee and ate approximately one tonne of take-out szechuan food.
Chris and her friends provided a great haven (ironically nick-named "Harmony House") for people running from the law, running from jealous lovers, or just running scared. (That's where we brought Jane Doe (Fiona Stewart) of the Junger/Whitehead Inquiry into police misconduct, when she called Maggie's in the middle of the night fearing for her safety in 1993.) Whores, queens, bulldaggers, radical faeries, perverts of all sorts, pornographers, journalists, cats, photographers and artists found a refuge in those horny hallways.
Chris joined the Right To Privacy Committee (RTPC) which placed a full-page advertisement in The Globe & Mail a petition with over 1,400 supporters' names demanding the repeal of Canada's bawdy-house laws. It was through Chris's involvement with the RTPC that she met prostitute activist Peggy Miller a streetwalker charged with keeping a bawdy house when she brought home an undercover cop from the stroll. Chris and Peggy joined forces and in 1983 they founded the novel and influential Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes (CORP), joined by such illustrious activists as Danny Cockerline, Gwendolyn and Valerie Scott.
LEFT TO RIGHT:
DATE: 1985[?]. PHOTO: Konnie Reich
With Chris's guidance and Peggy's vision, CORP in 1986 established Maggie's the first government-funded, prostitute-staffed and directed community service project in Canada. From 1992 to 1994 Chris was responsible for administering Maggie's finances which grew to a budget of over $400,000 annually. It was due to Chris's tireless labouring as the project's administrator that Maggie's became the first and only prostitute-run organization to be awarded official charity status by Revenue Canada, allowing the project to issue tax receipts for charitable donations.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Sasha, Georgia, Chris Bearchell and Helen Posno prepare for a staff meeting at Maggie's.
DATE: 1990. PHOTO: Rogde
By 1985 Chris Bearchell was a formidable defender of pornography and was recognized for her astute analysis that challenged Canada's obscenity laws. Chris was a huge fan and friendly acquaintance of porn stars Annie Sprinkle and Nina Hartley. (She even made some porn of her own.) Chris passionately opposed censorship and co-founded the Canadian Committee Against Customs Censorship following seizures by Canada Customs of shipments to gay bookstores. Chris provided expert reports and testified at Little Sisters' first court battle against Canada Customs in 1986, over seizures of lesbian and gay material destined for the Vancouver bookstore. Chris continued to write about the Little Sisters case as late as 1993.
In 1986 Chris Bearchell worked for the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO) campaign to amend the Ontario Human Rights Code to forbid discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Chris researched, wrote and produced the CLGRO brief titled "The Ontario Human Rights Omission" that eventually won the inclusion of sexual orientation in Ontario's human rights legislation.
Chris Bearchell co-founded Epicene: Canada's Gay News Magazine (publisher Lambda Resources) which published four issues only in 1987. Chris was responsible for coordinating content and editing.
Chris Bearchell was a devoted promoter of sexual health and education, and an influential AIDS activist. Chris was co-founder in 1987 of AIDS Action Now! a community-based group that advocates for the needs of people living with HIV and AIDS including access to services and treatments. From 1988 to 1990 Chris was the STD-Prevention Project Co-ordinator for Toronto's Inner City Youth Project, where she worked with street youth to create appropriate and engaging education materials about sexually transmitted diseases.
RIGHT TO LEFT: Chris Bearchell (far right) at the AIDS Action Now! protest against Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Richard Schabas who recommended that HIV-positive people be quarantined.
DATE: April 25, 1990. PHOTO: Konnie Reich[?]
Chris Bearchell became a member of the first board of directors of the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange (CATIE) in 1991. Her editorial work was crucial to the first edition of Managing Your Health A guide for people living with HIV or AIDS, published by CATIE in 1996.
After moving to Lasqueti Island, BC in 1995, Chris continued her constant advocacy for civil rights in personal ways, which included research and aid for people to claim and receive veterans' pensions, disability pensions and other state benefits which one is entitled to. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, Chris immediately became extremely knowledgeable about mainstream and alternative cancer therapies. Chris relentlessly advocated for patient rights and access to up-to-date information and treatments. Despite personal, physical and financial challenges, Chris built her new family home beside a beaver pond in the woods which she lovingly called "Camp Swampy."
Chris Bearchell works on the construction of an old-style logging road log bridge that crosses Lenfesty Creek in order to put the road in to Camp Swampy.
DATE: August 1997. PHOTO: Andrew Sorfleet
Chris Bearchell was featured in Nancy Nicol's 2002 documentary film, Stand Together: A history of the lesbian and gay rights movement in Ontario from 1967 to 1987. In October 2003, Chris was inducted into Canada's gay and lesbian hall of fame the Canadian Lesbian Gay Archives (CLGA) National Portrait Collection. Her portrait is a black and white photograph by Konnie Reich taken in 1984.