Friday, April 27, 2007

Noreen Shanahan
Special to The Globe and Mail

p. S9.

Chris Bearchell, 53: Activist

She was Canada's rabble-rouser for gay rights

TORONTO — Less than two hours after Toronto police raided four gay bathhouses in 1981, arresting more than 300 men in the largest mass arrest in Canada since the October crisis of 1970, it was a surprise to see a 28-year-old lesbian stir the crowd of 3,000 angry demonstrators. On that February night, Chris Bearchell grasped a megaphone and assumed the mantle of all-round rabble-rouser for gay rights.

For many, the bathhouse event was the beginning of a Canadian movement inspired by the civil-rights, women's-liberation and anti-war movements.

"We saw the gay-rights strategy as something that would radicalize, politicize and mobilize people," Ms. Bearchell said. And, as a woman in a crowd made up mostly of men, she was on the vanguard. For years, she worked as the only woman at The Body Politic, Canada's most influential gay-rights newspaper, spearheading a column called "Dyke" as well as working as news editor until 1987 when the paper folded.

"They think that when they pick on us that they're picking on the weakest," she told the crowd at Yonge and Wellesley streets in Toronto. "Well, they made a mistake this time! We're going to show them just how strong we are."

Bill Siksay, member of Parliament for Burnaby-Douglas, B.C., recalls those days as a time when he felt terribly alone, thinking he was the only gay person around. He remembers how important Ms. Bearchell's work as a writer, activist, and host on a cable television show called This Program May be Offensive to Heterosexuals, was part of his personal coming-out process. "I would turn the volume on the TV way down, so my landlord wouldn't know what I was listening to. Chris and Harvey [Hamburg] were my lifeline to the gay and lesbian world."

Chris Bearchell was born a rebel. The eldest daughter of Julia Battersby and Ben Bearchell of Edmonton, she led her first demonstration in the halls of Jasper Place High School, demanding the right for female students to wear pants. At 16, she spoke at her first demonstration — against the Vietnam War. At 18, she co-founded the Alberta Women for Abortion Law Repeal. That same year, 1972, she moved to Toronto and felt early rumblings of what would become a vibrant gay community. Although her initial political work was in the campaign to defend gynecologist Dr. Henry Morgentaler, it didn't take long for her to link arms with other gay activists in Toronto, including a hard-working core of visionaries at The Body Politic.

Gerald Hannon, a former staff member, recalled Ms. Bearchell as an astute analyst of contemporary culture. He said she whipped the crowd into a frenzy the night of the raids, then headed back into the office to file her story.

In 1975, Ms. Bearchell co-founded Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights of Ontario, with gay liberation groups from across the province, and established an province-wide campaign to include sexual orientation in the Ontario Human Rights Code. The campaign included briefs, rallies, demonstrations, and educational pamphlets. The Canadian Human Rights Act, which created the Canadian Human Rights Commission, was finally passed in 1977. Homosexuality was not included.

That same year, The Globe and Mail published a major feature called "Gay in the seventies" that included a survey to measure public attitudes towards gays and lesbians. As it turned out, 70 per cent of those who responded agreed that homosexuality should not be criminalized.

For her part, Ms. Bearchell co-founded the Lesbian Organization of Toronto that year, and, as a member of the CLGRO, helped prepare "the Ontario Human Rights Ommission." In April, 1981, the brief was presented to Ontario MPPs and detailed incidents of discrimination in housing and employment against gays and lesbians. It included a new section on police brutality and homophobia that documented incidences of gay-bashing since the bathhouse raids.

"There was a lot of, for example, hate propaganda that was in circulation in the wake of the 1981 bathhouse raids," Ms. Bearchell wrote. "Examples of queer-bashing, and police neglect of queer-bashing, and reports of queer-bashing. One of the most heart-wrenching sets of stories that I uncovered were cases of abuse of people who were sick and dying of AIDS, whose families had never accepted their homosexuality, and who used the opportunity of a family member dying to cut their lover out of their family member's life, and /or out of his estate."

In 1986, the CLGRO produced the final version of a brief to Queen's Park and the Ontario Legislature finally passed an amendment to include sexual orientation in the Human Rights Code, making Ontario the second province after Quebec to pass human-rights protection for lesbians and gay men.

On another front, Ms. Bearchell joined forces with Peggy Miller, a Toronto sex-trade worker, and together they founded the Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes. In 1986, the group set up Maggie's, the first government-funded and prostitute-staffed and -directed community-service project in Canada.

Ms. Bearchell also co-founded AIDS Action Now, a Toronto advocacy group, and from 1988 to 1990 she co-ordinated efforts to disseminate information about the spread of HIV-AIDS among street youth. Additionally, she served on the board of the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange in Toronto.

In 1995, Ms. Bearchell moved to Lasqueti Island, B.C., and became involved in the censorship battle between the customs agency and Vancouver's Little Sisters bookstore.

"Wherever she was, and regardless of what was happening in her own life, she always made it her first priority to feed the hungry, house the homeless, caffeinate the weary, comfort the lonely, welcome with open arms the marginalized and the oppressed," said her friend Irit Shimrat. "And she helped us express ourselves through the numerous publications she edited, wrote for and designed."

Chris Bearchell

Chris Bearchell was born in Edmonton, Alta., on Aug. 16, 1953. She died of cancer in Vancouver on Feb. 18, 2007. She was 53. She is survived by her brother David and sisters Ruth and Susan.

She also leaves her good friends Andrew Sorfleet, Will Pritchard, Penny Sadler and Irit Shimrat.

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Created: October 23, 2007
Last modified: October 23, 2007
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