Chris Bearchell, 1952-2007
Chris Bearchall died in hospital in Vancouver on
February 18, 2007, aged 53. The tributes below, which appeared in
XTRA! West and Now Magazine, describe her life as one of
Canada's foremost fighters for gay and lesbian rights, beginning in 1975
when she began writing for The Body Politic.
At the time she joined The Body Politic, Chris
was a member of the Young Socialists and League for Socialist Action in
Toronto, where she played an important role in the development of a
revolutionary Marxist approach to Gay Liberation. Documents of that
discussion are posted on
Chris Bearchell 1952-2007
By Susan G. Cole
From Now Magazine, March 1-7, 2007
There was a time when Chris Bearchell was
Toronto's only lesbian. Sounds ludicrous, but when I first met her in 1977 she was the only one who would talk openly to the media about being
queer. She was out and proud when a lot of us were not nearly so
When I think of the radical lesbian Bearchell,
who died of breast cancer in Vancouver on February 18, I think of her
both as an ally and an antagonist.
Launching the Lesbian Organization of Toronto, we
were in the trenches together. She was already deeply involved in the
Body Politic collective, writing furiously in the local gay mag about
the things that pissed her off. She was the only lesbian who would agree
to go in front of TV cameras to talk about LOOT.
She was a superbly skilled political organizer
thanks to her early involvement in leftist, mostly Trotskyist
organizations. Don't read that as a dis or as red-baiting, but as an
appreciation of her ability to build coalitions. She never identified
herself as a capital-F feminist among the radical feminist dykes at LOOT
and insisted that lesbians would get nowhere politically if they refused
to work with men.
She wasn't afraid to make change through the
system. The brief she co-authored as a member of the Coalition for Gay
Rights in Ontario in 1977 in support of gays John Damien and Barbara
Thornborrow — he was fired from the Racing Commission, she was turfed out
of the armed forces — was instrumental in getting sexual orientation
included in the Ontario Human Rights Code
We fought intensely over the pornography issue.
She loathed censorship but didn't just pay lip service to old liberal
arguments for freedom of speech. She put her body on the line, both
politically in her support for prostitutes' rights —
she worked with
prostitutes group Maggie's — and creatively, too.
In the early 80s , as part of one of the first
series of erotica created by women, she made a small film of herself
masturbating. It, like other works she made like it later, may not have
been the biggest turn-on ever, but it did demonstrate her bravery and
As her friends and supporters mourn her passing,
I urge younger lesbians to check Bearchell's entry at the Gay and
Lesbian archives in Toronto. You'll see that coming out in 2007 is just
that little bit easier than it was 30 years ago because of Chris
Canada's queer landscape would not have been the
same without her.
Goodbye to a queer pioneer
Chris Bearchell dies surrounded by her chosen family
by Annie Smith
From XTRA! West, March 1, 2007
IN THE EARLY '70S when it seemed as if
homosexuals would never be accepted as equals, Chris Bearchell worked
tirelessly to change perceptions and prejudices; not just for gays but
Strippers, hookers, street kids, transgendered
people, people with HIV/AIDS, people battling mental illness—anyone who
was reviled or ignored by society at large—could count on Chris for
backup. You felt that if Chris was behind you, you couldn't possibly
She grew up in Edmonton where, like everywhere
else in Canada, gender roles were strictly enforced. Any girl who dared
to wear slacks to school, even on the coldest day of a prairie winter,
would be sent home in disgrace. Chris' younger brother Dave remembers,
"It wasn't easy to grow up in Chris' shadow. She fought to change the
dress code. It took her three years, but she did it. Of course, she was
the captain of the debate team."
In 1975 Chris began writing for The Body Politic,
then Canada's most influential gay newspaper. As an activist, she seemed
to be everywhere at once. She co-founded the Lesbian Organization of
Toronto (LOOT) and was a leader in the Coalition for Gay Rights in
She planned and led demonstrations, toured small
towns giving interviews, and even appeared in a Globe and Mail photo
spread entitled All These People are Homosexuals. She could usually be
found in the thick of whatever controversy was erupting at the Moment.
Gerald Hannon has fond memories of working with
Chris at The Body Politic.
"For many men in the early gay movement, she was
the only lesbian on the planet — a bit of an exaggeration of course, but
her willingness to work and play with men for the greater good of both
sexes was unusual at a time when lesbian separatism was a significant
force," he remembers. "She was a hard, committed worker on The Body
Politic collective. She was an astute analyst of contemporary culture,
and the best rabble-rouser we ever had. I can still see her at the
corner of Yonge and Wellesley Sts in Toronto the night of the huge demo
after the bathhouse raids. She whipped the crowd into a frenzy and soon
had them chanting, 'No more shit!' the phrase that became the
community's iconic vocal response to the police outrage."
At her home on Toronto's Walnut St you never knew
who or what to expect; strippers editing their own movies, hookers
planning conferences, cutting-edge artists and writers. Countless people
were drawn to her and found themselves instantly connected to allies,
lovers and friends for life. She was the first to listen and the last to
judge; no wonder she was described as a dyke dynamo.
Always ahead of her time, Chris was one of the
founders of Maggie's, a drop-in center for street prostitutes; probably
the first of its type in Canada. The police began to call on Chris at
home and harass the outreach workers who were on the street giving but
free condoms and educational materials. An advisory to the outreach
workers from the time is telling: "If anyone gets arrested, call Chris.
She will contact a lawyer and generally raise the alarm..."
In 1995, when Chris moved to BC, it was if the
very heart of the gay rights movement in Canada had shifted to the West.
She lived in a beautiful cabin with her lover, the writer Irit Shimrat,
and her influence continued. She wrote, edited and appeared in a film
and corresponded with her many friends.
When the island where she lived came under RCMP
surveillance for supposedly being a marijuana growers' paradise, her
neighbors were amazed at her ability to voice theft concerns, but those
who knew her well were hardly surprised.
Her bog-side home, which she affectionately
called Camp Swampy, became a sanctuary for migrating trumpeter swans and
hummingbirds as well as ex-hookers and Radical Faeries.
In the moments after her death from kidney
failure, Feb 18, Chris' family and friends stood in awe of all that she
had accomplished. We remembered the days when homosexuality was
synonymous with loneliness, and when lovers were dismissed from their
dying partners' bedsides to make way for estranged biological relatives.
Penny, an older woman friend (not a lover) who
helped to care for Chris during her final days, recalled a funny
incident: Penny had been soothing Chris by gently rubbing her tummy. A
nurse popped her head between the green hospital curtains, "Oh... you
are making love. I'll come back later," she said. That wasn't at all
what was going on, but it showed respect; a respect that would not have
been extended but for a few exceptionally brave pioneers like Chris
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