Lasqueti Island, BC
Chapter 18 |
Eating Fire: Family Life, on the Queer Side.
CHRIS BEARCHELL composes her e-mail bulletin by candlelight, a softer glow than the white glare of the propane that has to be hauled from the mainland. She uses a lot of propane in the fall, putting up harvest pickles: two kinds of carrots, spiced Vietnamese and Indian, also mustard cauliflower and sweet beets. She'll get to the marmalade, chutney, and apple butter after she's hauled her firewood.
Until work is finished on her one-room house, she's living in an unheated trailer, on twenty acres next to a swamp up a mile-long road into the woods. She moved to the trailer after a storm flooded her tent and a wind-snapped tree just missed flattening it. Though winter temperatures rarely drop below freezing here, fierce autumn and winter storms come roaring up the Georgia Straits to batter the little island.
Since her electricity comes from two car batteries that she charges up with a small gasoline-powered generator, only essential functions get juice: a water heater for washing dishes, clothes, and bodies, and at least as critical, power for the computer. E-mail is Chris Bearchell's lifeline to the rest of her clan, the other Walnuts, scattered across the wide world out there.
I met Chris in 1974, at the Gay Alliance Toward Equality in Toronto. It was a heady time; we were bursting from our various closets, propelled by a passion to remake the world. I remember Chris as a nineteen-year-old lesbian and socialist from Alberta, with a searchlight intelligence and a ready laugh. For a while we did a performing homo duet, a sensible chat don't be afraid, we're just like you at schools where teachers were brave enough to invite us. I remember Chris's calm, sometimes sardonic responses to the usual stupid questions but you do molest children, don't you? and my own desire to smack the weedy boys snickering at the back. On one of these excursions she told me that one day she would return to the West and settle where she belonged, in some wild back-country place.
In the meantime she worked in a tangle of gay-lesbian organizations that sprang up through those fervent years. At The Body Politic, the now-legendary Toronto gay journal, she joined the collective and became one of several paid workers. By the mid-1970s, apparently we had gained enough ground to alarm the authorities. One night in December 1977 police raided The Body Politic, seized crates of material, and arrested three collective members. Their crime: publishing an article, "Men Loving Boys Loving Men," in which one of them, Gerald Hannon, had argued for a fresh look at the complexities of intergenerational sex.
Over the next six years the Conservative government appealed one acquittal after another at taxpayers' expense, while the paper and its supporters had to raise almost $100,000 in court costs. Overwhelmed, some collective members were tempted to accept a deal, a manageable fine in return for a guilty plea. Others, especially Chris Bearchell, argued that pleading guilty would only encourage the authorities to further repression. On that ground there could be no retreat. This view prevailed, and eventually the Ontario Tories quit trying to silence The Body Politic. "That was my early education as a free-speech activist," says Chris.
But they weren't done with us yet. Late one night in mid-winter 1981, 150 armed policemen stormed four steambaths in downtown Toronto. They searched, fingerprinted, harassed and jailed 309 men, the largest mass arrest in Canada since the War Measures Act was imposed on Quebec in 1970. Around ten the next night, outraged protesters started gathering at a downtown intersection, and by midnight more than a thousand of us had spilled off the sidewalks into the street. Police ordered us to make way for traffic, but we were in no mood to obey. I remember the icy night, and waves of white heat in the belly, a potent mix of fury, terror, and joy. I remember Chris Bearchell standing on a mailbox, her voice ringing through the canyon, "NO MORE SHIT!"
In the early 1980s Chris met Danny Cockerline at The Body Politic. On the Walnut website she describes him as "brilliant and reckless, a queer queer, an outsider among outsiders." The two of them clicked, and in 1983 somehow they gathered the down payment on a narrow three-storey house, 97 Walnut Avenue. It's a short street, only four blocks, set oddly askew in the King-Queen-Bathurst grid. Now the whole area has gone upscale, with factory shells transformed into condos, corporate temples, and smart restaurants. But twenty years ago it was still a working-class neighbourhood, a region of outsiders and home to a queer refuge called Walnut.
Says Chris, "The people who lived there or who were drawn to the house shared commitments to particular struggles for justice. That was our common ground. We wanted others to know about these situations, and to help us transform them." Having met people who made their livings as performers in pornography, Chris and Danny both developed an interest in the well-being and rights of sex workers in general. "For Danny it started as an intellectual thing," says Chris, "but then he got into doing sex-work himself. He became quite renowned as a prostitutes' rights activist and did a lot of work organizing sex workers in response to AIDS." Danny and Chris helped found Maggie's, the Toronto Prostitutes' Community Services Project, a drop-in and advocacy centre in downtown Toronto. When Danny left his job there, Chris took it on.
The Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes was hatched at 97 Walnut, as was the Canadian Committee against Customs Censorship and a host of other such initiatives. When Irit Shimrat and Chris became lovers in 1984, Irit moved into the house, where she edited and published Phoenix Rising out of the basement. It was a national magazine for former psychiatric inmates; Chris handled layout and design. Irit says, "It was a really powerful experience for me to hear the stories of other people who'd learned the hard way how dangerous psychiatry can be."
In the late '70s, facing bouts of depression, Irit had been locked up and forcibly drugged by psychiatrists. She had lost several friends, imprisoned, tortured with electroshock and drugs, even killed in psychiatric institutions. In 1990 she was electec the first coordinator of the newly formed Ontario Psychiatric Survivor's Alliance. "I was very moved to find people at Walnut who understood the anti-psychiatric cause, even though they had no direct experience of it themselves. Before I got there I was lonely and isolated, I didn't fit in anywhere, but at Walnut I finally found some kindred spirits."
Says Chris, "The support wasn't abstract or theoretical. I already had serious doubts about psychiatry, probably first sparked by your writing in The Body Politic." (In 1974 I wrote a long article on my year of electric shock "aversion therapy," meant to stamp out my homosexuality, and another article the next year when I discovered that the shrink who administered this torture was himself a homo.) She continues, "But when your lover or friend or house-mate is a psychiatric survivor, or a prostitute, suddenly the issue becomes quite real and compelling." In 1991 Irit created two radio documentaries challenging psychiatry for Ideas, the CBC radio show. The producer was another Walnut.
After making a rukus for fifteen years and becoming what activists in several countries considered the finest gay journal in the world, suddenly in February 1987 The Body Politic died. I asked Chris why. "It was a victim of its own success," she responded in an e-mail. "Gay liberation brought more people out of the closet, swelling our ranks and giving us more credibility, just as we'd hoped. Our movement evolved from 'gay liberation' to 'gay rights' to no movement at all, but instead became this much more amorphous thing, the 'gay community.' In this tidy, respectable 'community' there was very little room for a principled defence of sexual freedom."
To fill the void, Chris, Irit, and others launched a new magazine, Epicene, which the dictionary defines as "a person with characteristics of both sexes." As usual with such ventures, funding was a major challenge. "Most of us had experienced compromises that come with being dependent on funding from official sources," says Chris. "So we've learned to do as much as we can on the smallest budget we can. That was The Body Politic model, where you had a handful of modestly paid staff and a vast network of committed volunteers. And that's pretty much how we did most things around Walnut we relied on each other's skills and passion." Epicene folded after five issues. But the second-hand equipment that Will Pritchard had gathered to produce it would now serve Phoenix Rising, until it too folded in 1990.
Will Pritchard's story is classic Walnut material. He designed Epicene and lived for a while at the house. Through Walnut connections he became immersed in prostitute activism and eventually decided to turn tricks himself. Then he got a job at Maggie's, doing outreach work to male sex workers. "He did an amazing job there in a very short period of time," says Chris. "He designed our materials, our 'look' on paper, he made signs, he did all kinds of wonderful things to fix up the space, and at the same time he also managed to do more street outreach than anyone else on staff." Burned out, he headed west to Vancouver, and there established the first Walnut outpost.
Life at 97 Walnut reflected its shifting constellation of inhabitants. Shortly after Danny bought the house with Chris in 1983, he went to England for six months and sublet his room. Bruce Martin responded to the ad. In Berlin where he'd worked as a nanny, Bruce had encountered The Body Politic at a gay bookstore and became a devoted fan. Returning to Canada, he was determined to live where the paper lived, in Toronto. He called Walnut, and Chris invited him to dinner; he would meet everyone, then they could all decide if they wanted to live together. "The conversation was amazing," says Bruce. "Peggy Miller was there that night, and Gwendolyn, they were getting the Prostitutes' Rights Organization started. I just sat quietly and listened. I knew I wanted to live there, but I didn't think I had a chance. I was so out of their league, being a boy from the suburbs and quite naive politically." When Chris called to say they wanted him to move in, he asked why. What really did it, she said, was his red pants and yellow shoes.
Bruce settled happily into the hum and throb of the house. "Dinner was always a big event, with wonderful conversation and always more people at the table than lived in the house. My contribution was being an eager cook. Walnut had fewer rules than other co-op houses. Everyone just seemed to end up doing the chores they liked to do. So they fed my mind, and I fed their bellies. I loved being there, it was the perfect place for me." When Danny came back, Bruce was prepared to leave, but instead Chris offered to tame part of the basement for herself and left her room to him. After a year or so Bruce became lovers with one of his house-mates, David.
One of the things Bruce liked best about Walnut was the continuous flow of people. "Where I'd been raised, in suburbia, everyone has their own quiet little house with the curtains drawn. There were always more people staying at Walnut than ever paid rent people in trouble, people who'd lost their housing, people passing through Toronto. I loved living in a place where the door was always open for people to come and go, or come and stay. After all, that's how I got to be there."
The idea of Walnut as a refuge had been clear to Chris from the beginning. "Most of us Walnuts don't have kids of our own, but we do have a history of taking in people who've been spurned by others. I'd been on my own from a very early age, a runaway without many resources, and often without a place to live. A lot of people helped me out, and that left a strong impression with me. When you've been a hitchhiker and then you get a car, you stop for hitchhikers. Now that I finally had a place where anyone, even people I didn't know, could take refuge, it was a good way to pass on some of that support I'd got. And if someone shows up in the middle of the night, in desperate straits, what are you going to do?"
People did arrive in the middle of the night, and in desperate straits for example, three young men who'd made a vdeo of their three-way sexual encounter and got entangled in a huge child pornography investigation by the Toronto police. Though they had no intention of selling the video and all three had taken part with evident gusto, the two younger men were labelled victims, and the older one, who was only twenty-one, a child pornographer. "All three of them passed through Maggie's or Walnut," says Chris. "With us they got the shelter and support they couldn't find anywhere else. They also divulged a lot of information you'll never find in the official police reports the actual circumstances before the bust, the apalling treatment they got from the system, and how little chance they had to defend themselves. It was a real education in what goes on behind the headlines, and it was partly the grounds on which we criticized the new porn legislation that criminalized consensual youth sex."
Bruce attributes his own political evolution to the support he got from Chris and other Walnuts. As he listened and learned, he became more confident and more actively involved. "Chris was always prepared to listen," he says, "and to share whatever information she had. Unlike some activists I've encountered, she never made me feel unworthy, like there were things I should already have known." In the early days of HIV and AIDS, Bruce wanted to confront the alarming, widespread notion that safe sex was boring. "Chris encouraged me not just to talk about it but to actually do something. She said if I didn't get the word out, she would." He wrote an article on hot safe sex, Irit edited it, and they published it in Epicene. Bruce and Chris also co-wrote and narrated three safe-sex radio ads for university stations across the country.
Chris rejects the idea of herself as primary author of the Walnut experiment or even uniquely central to it. "Walnuts recruit other Walnuts. I'm sure there are Walnuts I've never even met."
Bruce laughs. "Don't listen to her. We all added our various colours to the house but the shape it took depended very much on who she is."
The first five years were the best, he says, at least for him. Then rifts deepened, and tension mounted between the original co-owners, Danny and Chris. Danny sold his share to her. Others moved on, and new people arrived who were less inclined to live as a community and much less tolerant of the always-open door. After Bruce broke up with David, he stayed another year, then got an apartment with a friend who, like him, worked at This Ain't the Rosedale Library, a lively, near-queer independent bookstore in the gay village.
By January 1995 a mix of internal and external pressures had brought Maggie's close to collapse. Chris and her young friend, Andrew Sorfleet, a former hustler who had also worked the last frantic year at Maggie's, both quit their jobs. They stuffed their worldly goods into an $800 van and rented a trailer, and headed west in a snowstorm with Chris's ancient cat, Micah, in her lap. Andrew had his own reasons for making the move; on a previous jaunt to Vancouver with Chris and another Walnut, he'd fallen in love with Will Pritchard. After a week-long perilous journey, Chris landed in the wild place where, as she told me a quarter century before, she belonged. She sold the Walnut house to another activist.
Chris asked me not to identify her island off the coast of British Columbia. "Given the kind of crazy over-development that's happened to other Gulf islands, the less attention we get the better." It's a small island, with a very small year-round population that doubles in summer, phone service, but no hydro, mail three times a week, no cops, and a periodic ferry.
To Chris, it's paradise. She gets by with occasional freelance writing, part-time work at a small business that makes buttons and souvenirs of local woods, and odd jobs that come her way recently she was hired to cook a Thai birthday dinner for twenty. She also counts on a little help from her friends on the island and, as always, the Walnuts.
A Walnut found the land that Chris co-owns here with another Walnut. Another Walnut delivered her here, another provides occasional work or covers her rent when her own funds run out, and others are helping to clear the land and build her house. Irit Shimrat worked most of the past summer with Chris, living in an tent and hauling hundreds of wheelbarrrows of rock, gravel, building materials, drinking water, propane tanks, generator fuel, and groceries up the long driveway. In 1993 when Irit moved to Vancouver, where affordable housing is harder to find than winter sun, a well-connected friend found her a tiny but pleasant apartment in an old building in the west end. Irit put in a good word for another migrant Walnut to get an apartment in the same building, and he's done the same for two more, as well as helping Irit out for a while with her rent. This is what Walnuts do.
Chris explains, "We've come together around complex, controversial political beliefs, most of which aren't exactly popular in the general culture. Since it's only a small minority of the planet's population who seemed prepared to do that kind of thinking, you can easily get to feel very isolated. So when you do meet people who share these perspectives, or who are at least willing to grapple with them, you definitely don't want to let those people go."
The Walnut building
In the mid-1990s Deborah McIntosh was coasting through a fairly comfortable life in Ottawa. She was thirty, a lawyer and a land-claims analyst with the federal Department of Indian Affairs, and in a long-term relationship. But there were things that didn't sit well with her: aspects of her job, a clear, steady drift to the right in national gay politics, a huge silence on sexual politics in general, and in her neighbourhood, a righteous citizens' committee that had sprung up to drive out the prostitutes. "In the rather stifling climate of Ottawa I felt quite nervous about raising serious questions about these things," she says, "so to avoid being too isolated, I started a web page to open up some dialogue." She also searched the Internet for related sites and found two of Andrew Sorfleet's: The Sex Workers' Alliance of Vancouver, and the Commercial Sex Information Service, "a clearinghouse of information about laws, sexual health, commerce, and culture as these topics relate to sex work." Deborah says, "It was such a relief to find people who were taking a less conservative path, and supporting a more radical sexual politic."
Andrew connected her with Chris. The two corresponded by e-mail, then Chris invited Deborah out for a visit. They've been friends and lovers ever since. In Vancouver Deborah also met other Walnuts, including Irit, Andrew, and Will. "When my relationship broke up in 1996, I really couldn't see any good reason not to move here," she says. "There was a lot more going on here in native politics and land claims, and now I had this extended family here too." And an apartment in the Walnut building.
It's in her apartment where we're chatting over breakfast Deborah, Irit, Chris, and I, on a wet Sunday morning in early May. It took Chris most of a day to get here, hitchhiking to the dock on her island, then two ferries and a bus. The apartment is tiny, tidy, and tastefully furnished. "Deb has the fanciest furniture of any of us," says Chris.
Deborah nods. "I do inhabit a more mainstream version of the world than these guys. I grew up in a middle class suburb, I'm a lawyer, I go to work in a big office tower. That's partly why I value my association with the Walnuts so much. They give me the energy to keep looking critically at the world. I also like their sense of community, the ways they've developed of being family to one another that seem to avoid the pitfalls of more traditional family structures."
Irit adds, "I've had someone just out of the psych ward come and stay at my apartment, which is no bigger than this one, and someone who was trying to avoid getting locked up stayed with me for over a month. Before I got involved with the Walnuts I would have never done anything like that. I would have been too afraid of the unknown. It's really about learning to be responsible for each other instead of leaving it to official structures that can end up doing so much damage to us."
How does a person qualify for Walnutship? "Well," says Chris, "I suppose you'd just have to hang out with one or more Walnuts, either in meatspace or cyberspace, and then if you discovered a shared passion or two, maybe you'd decide to maintain contact with some or all of us. The rest of us would have no say in the matter. There are no tests, no rites, no secret oaths. And we don't all have to like each other. As with biological clans you don't get to choose your in-laws."
The Walnuts are only human. "Like most conventional families, we have our share of dysfunction," says Chris. "We've been together, some of us, for a long time. We've lost people, sometimes through rifts, sometimes they just drift away. It's hard when people who matter to you don't stick around. But these are the same things that make you sad in any kind of family."
"Generally I find these guys pretty tolerant of each other," says Deborah. "But if someone is acting out, or in trouble, they have a remarkable way of policing each other's conduct. It doesn't strike me as malicious, it's just that they're all accustomed to thinking critically. Then they'll go around lobbying each other to build support for their particular case."
Chris laughs. "You can easily gang up on someone, and of course everyone says it's for their own good. If they don't agree, then you've got a fight on your hands. We all do that to each other."
With the Toronto house long gone, Walnuts scattered across the country, and Chris an expensive daylong journey from the nearest branch, the lifeline function of her car-battery-driven computer becomes clear. "I was quite torn about leaving other Walnuts behind in Toronto, but with the Internet I can be on my little island in the middle of nowhere and still have regular contact. We've become a cyberclan," she says. She composes richly detailed bulletins on island events, visitors, the change of seasons, pickles she's prepared. "I think that started at The Body Politic. We were obsessed with writing each other memos all the time, to stay connected and keep each other informed, that's mostly how the collective process worked there. It translates wonderfully to e-mail."
Deborah adds, "Any difficult conversation I've had with any Walnuts has been by e-mail. It's a really good way to focus your thoughts. In person it's so easy to get distracted by nature, or pot, or sex. "
The Internet is also a great way to carry on political work, says Chris, on a minimal budget. "The Lunatics Liberation Front web page reaches far more people 93,000 hits so far, actually for a lot less work and money than Phoenix Rising ever could." Irit runs the page, listing herself as "an escaped lunatic," and she credits Andrew and Will for design and resources. Her intent is "to promote the liberation of people who have been or are in danger of being labelled mentally ill those who go nuts or get too angry, too 'high' or too miserable for their own and/or other people's comfort."
The page is one of several that share the Walnet website which Andrew designed and manages. The site includes a page from a Montreal prostitutes' rights organization, a page called "Jane Doe" that documents the struggles of several Toronto prostitutes to confront police abuse, and "Trailboys," a webzine about gay sex outdoors and in other public places, which offers practical advice on "how to stay healthy and avoid unwanted attention."
In the first months of 1999 the tone of Chris's e-mail bulletins suddenly darkened. "In early December," she wrote, "I discovered a lump in my left breast. In eary January, I finally confirmed that it was cancer." At the same time, she'd been laid off at work, she'd injured her knee, she wasn't registered for provincial medical insurance, her water supply had frozen, and one of her cats was seriously ill. She concluded, with characteristic understatement, "It's been a complicated winter."
Not being a Walnut, I had missed the whole earlier chapter in which Chris grappled with her options, and sought input from the extended family. E-mails and phone calls flew across the country. "It was very family-like," says Bruce Martin. "Suddenly people who hadn't had much contact for a while were talking back and forth, what's to be done, how will she manage, how can we support her? It was like a body springing into action, the adrenalin pumping, and all systems going on high alert."
In Chris's first messages about the diagnosis, Bruce had read an unfamiliar fatalism. "Chris always seems so strong, so unstoppable in any external crisis, but now suddenly she was saying this is how my mother died, this is what happens in my family, and there's nothing to be done. She didn't even seem interested in getting any information, which is what she normally would do in taking on any other issue. That was very upsetting. I didn't want her to lie down and die without putting up a real Chris Bearchell fight. Having lived with her, I knew how crucial it was that she find the grounds to fight. When Chris gets angry, it stirs her, she goes into action. Well, finally she did, she got angry, really furious with this doctor and she started railing about the information she was and wasn't getting, and I thought, great, that's it, that's the turning point."
Much of the debate on Chris's situation turned on people's attitudes to conventional medicine. Some Walnuts, including Chris, had been sharply critical of the role that corporate science played in defining HIV/AIDS research and treatment. On the other hand, Bruce Martin's partner is an oncological nurse, which made Bruce more amenable, as Chris puts it, to trusting the medical system. "Probably most of us would admit that medicine is a weird mix of art and science," she says, "but how do you distinguish which is which, and what or who can you trust? It's such a complicated, emotionally wrought area, particularly with something as loaded as cancer."
Says Deborah, "One time I just wailed at Chris, 'Your position is too cynical, I can't stand it!' At the same time, of course I recognized that finally it was Chris herself who had to make these incredibly hard decisions about her own health."
I actually got less input than I expected," says Chris. "As I discovered later, several people withheld the opinion that I shouldn't get involved with conventional medicine at all. But that's not so surprising. I suspect that most of us are quite reticent about influencing someone else on such a critical matter, even when they've asked for input. I mean, what if they take your advice and it turns out you're wrong?"
Chris did what Bruce had seen her do on many other fronts. She gathered all the information she could find, in print and on the Internet, and worked her way though the available options, statistics, pros and cons, to reach her decision: surgery to remove the lump, which turned out to be malignant, and several lymph nodes, which did not. A month of radiation treatment in Vancouver followed.
And life goes on. Work proceeds on the island house, 16 by 20 feet, one storey with a root cellar below, a vaulted ceiling, bay window and skylight, a chimney for the woodstove, salvaged windows, and covered porches. Last time Chris wrote, the outhouse was ready and the water reservoir under construction. With luck and fair weather, she hoped to move into the house by the end of the year.
In the meantime, she writes, "Strange things do happen to people who live alone in the woods. I, for instance, have been fascinated by birds." She describes these neighbours in some detail, from tiny wrens and thrushes to eagles, a great horned owl ("heard often but seen only once, from behind, under pursuit by a flock of robins"), and a family of six majestic trumpeter swans.
"Still," she continues, "I'm only just learning to recognize many of the birds' songs and the pattern of their comings and goings. This year, I know to expect the rufous-sided towhee back for the winter, but I'm not sure I'll recognize its call until I see one chirp. This May I'll be waiting to hear the first solitary vireos sing their greetings to the dawn and the dusk. And I'm sure that next fall I'll be craning my neck and stretching my ears for any sign of those amazing swans."
Her e-mail concludes, "More later."
Modified: Nov. 8, 2009
Created: Nov. 7, 2009
© Camp Swampy
Lasqueti Island, BC