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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 this website.

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 courageous.

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 tenaciousness.

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 Bearchell.

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 for everyone.

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 lose.

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 Ontario (CGRO).

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 Bearchell.

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