In Memoriam – Chris Bearchell (August 16, 1953 – February 18, 2007)


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Chris Bearchell was among the first lgbt activists, and definitely one of the first lesbians, I met when I came out during the tumultuous days of February, 1981. I remember helping her, in a bit of a work-bee, as we made up protest signs for one of many marches which followed the police raids on Toronto bath-houses. Chris recognized, in me, some of the timidity of my youth combined with the seeds of passion for social justice work. I came to know her, just a little, as I contributed occasionally to the work of The Body Politic but, as time went on after TBP’s closing, I lost touch with her.

The following message was forwarded by Peter Bochove:

A NATIONAL ICON

Chris Bearchell, 52, died on Feb.18, 2007, in Vancouver General Hospital, after a lengthy and courageous battle against cancer. Her recent home, until two weeks before her death, was on her beloved Lasqueti Island, near Vancouver Island, B.C. Chris spent many years of her life in Toronto, where she made a major contribution to social justice, human rights and lgbt organizations.

A Memorial Celebration of Chris Bearchell’s pioneering work

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007, 7:30 – 10:00

519 Church St. Community Centre, 3rd floor.

(wheelchair accessible)

Please join us to celebrate our history and to share your stories about Chris or to discover how her diligent efforts contributed to the LGBT movement, anti-censorship and sex trade workers’ rights in Canada.

“They think that when they pick on us that they’re picking on the weakest. Well, they made a mistake this time! We’re going to show them just how strong we are. They can’t get away with this shit anymore! No more shit!”

Chris Bearchell (protesting the bath raids, midnight, Feb. 6, 1981, Toronto)

Chris Bearchell is a towering figure in the history of gay liberation, a courageous and compassionate woman who was in the forefront of founding the first lesbian and gay organizations in Canada. Chris cared deeply for human rights and fought for those who were most marginalized in society. Those of us who today live with greater openness and freedom in our lives owe much to this brave soul.

Chris became involved with the anti-Viet Nam war movement, and the pro-choice movement (the Campaign to Defend Dr. Henry Morgentaler) while still a teenager in Edmonton in the late 1960s. At the end of the ’60s Chris moved to Toronto and became involved in the emerging gay liberation movement. In 1976-77, she was on the coordinating committee of GATE, the Gay Alliance Toward Equality in Toronto, (with Tom Warner and Brian Mossop). Chris was also instrumental in establishing the GATE Lesbian Caucus. She began writing for the Body Politic, (TBP) in 1975, Canada’s voice of the gay liberation movement. Chris joined the Body Politic governing collective in 1978 and stayed until the paper’s demise in 1987. Chris also co-founded the Lesbian Organization of Toronto (LOOT). She was at the founding meeting in 1975 of the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario (CGRO) (now Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO)) and became one of its key players.

Chris became the first Chair of the Committee to Defend John Damien, a former jockey and horse-racing steward who was fired in Ontario in 1975 solely for being gay. John Damien’s case was the first test case that fought for the inclusion of non-discrimination against lesbians and gays in the Ontario Human Rights code. During 1978 Chris became involved in the Coalition to Stop Anita Bryant and in Lesbians Against the Right (LAR).

Some of the most memorable moments of Chris were as a speaker in public events where she had the capacity to inspire in times of great difficulty. In 1979, she spoke at a rally to defend the Body Politic in its battle against state censorship, when the press was raided and charged under censorship laws in 1978. In 1981, after the mass arrests of gay men by Toronto police in raids on four gay steam baths in Toronto, Chris inspired 3,000 angry demonstrators with her words and became involved in the Right to Privacy Committee to defend men arrested in the raids. In 1981 and again in 1986 she worked on CGRO’s campaign to win an amendment to the Ontario Human Rights Code to include non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, traveling across the province to build that campaign in 1986. After non discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was passed by the Ontario legislature in December 1986 and the demise of the Body Politic in 1987, Chris worked with the Gay Offensive Collection on a television project (at Roger’s Cable television), on an AIDS project with inner-city youth and with Maggie’s (a sex workers’ rights group and drop-in). Throughout all of these years, Chris was a strong and articulate opponent of censorship, including being among those charged in the censorship of the Body Politic, and later in the 1980s contributing to the Repeal the Youth Porn Law campaign.

Chris is survived by Irit, Andrew, Will Collin, Penny, Konnie, Jim and many, many more close friends and family.

Discrimination became a reality, as gay people emerged from the closet in larger numbers. We wanted to organize people in opposition to that discrimination, in part to bring them out in even greater numbers, knowing that that was a necessary precondition for the creation of a gay community and a gay political movement.So we realized that in order to mount any kind of effective campaign for human rights, we had to do it on a provincial scale, but many of the organizations that called that meeting together, and launched that Coalition (Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario), were not committed to rights as an end in themselves, but saw gay rights as a means to community build, and to politicize and mobilize people, and to increase their awareness of the extent and nature of anti-gay oppression.

Chris Bearchell (speaking at the rally to defend the Body Politic, 1979)

The raid was not provoked by any particular actions of The Body Politic,any more than the patrons of the Trucks bar provoked the police; or gay revelers on Halloween encouraged a thousand straights to swarm onto Yonge Street, unabated by police in the midst of a municipal election, to hurl eggs and threats and threats of violence at them; or than Barbara Thornborrow or John Damien provoked the governments that fired them; or our community provoked the Ontario Legislature to refuse to enshrine our token rights in the OHRC; or a lesbian mother provokes the courts to deny her her child; or a young gay person provokes his or her parents into persecuting him or her. It is because we have grown and are becoming visible, that we face such blatant opposition.

Chris Bearchell (provincial coordinator for the Human Rights Amendment Campaign, 1986)

There was a kind of excitement about our chances this time. We did large scale leafleting of bars in some of the bigger cities, and there was a generalized awareness on the part of people that this campaign was part of a history, and that there was an opportunity here that was new. So I was hired to research the brief. There was a lot of, for example, hate propaganda that was in circulation in the wake of the 1981 bath house raids and election campaign, 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. There were cases where people were not allowed to be the substitute consent, in the case of their partners’ becoming incapacitated or unable to give informed consent, just one medical-political horror after another.

(excerpts from documentary: Stand Together)

Chris Bearchell figures prominently in Nancy Nicol’s 2002 documentary film Stand Together, a history of the lesbian and gay rights movement in Ontario from 1967 to 1987 as well as in Never going back: a history of queer activism in Canada by Tom Warner, University of Toronto Press, c2002 and Lesbian and Gay Rights in Canada: social movements and equality-seeking, 1971-1995 by Miriam Catherine Smith, University of Toronto Press, c1999.

For more information about Chris Bearchell, please go to The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives: http://www.clga.ca

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One thought on “In Memoriam – Chris Bearchell (August 16, 1953 – February 18, 2007)

  1. I knew her briefly almost thirty years ago when I was in Toronto – she was a breathe of fresh air in an atmosphere (around the BP at the time) that tended to the turgid.

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