by Francisco Ibáñez-Carrasco
Living on “The Drive”
Living in Canada, being Canadian, for me, is being HIV-positive. I don’t know any other way of life. I was twenty-two when I came and got infected. If you took HIV away from me, I would be an immigrant again or homeless, or worse, hopeless. My Canadian-ness is in my infected relationship to the persons of Canada as much as to its forests and mountains and glaciers and prairies. No Canadian place or peoples has shaped me more than Commercial Drive in Vancouver.
Space molds us: our closets make us square, bathhouse cubicles alienate us, and housing co-ops make us dramatic à la [the British soap opera] Coronation Street. Mood and shape and design are related to geographical location. In the East, men are thickset, rough, cocky, and friendly, used to swaggering in harsh winters. On the West Coast, they are diffident and prissy, used to a lot of personal space and tempered weather.
Commercial Drive, The Drive, is where I lived for twenty-four years, where I did important growing up. Fancy people come slumming there on Saturday mornings; they come from everywhere in the Lower Mainland, following their noses up in the air, their yelping designer dogs and strollers (new millennium children are all being rendered disabled, not allowed to walk until they are nearly ten years old), straddling their Hummers and Harleys. The aging punks on clunky skateboards and the cute young Sinéad O’Connors fade into the background of the pixilated folk. The rest of the week, The Drive is intimate, vibrant, and a bit skuzzy even in the face of imminent gentrification. Commercial Drive is a corridor between Hastings Street and Broadway Avenue, a lesser vanity fair, a borderland between dull suburbs and a self-important high-heeled downtown with buildings named after New York erections, and far from the West Side. Here, they sew Lululemon in local maquiladoras; in the precious Kitsilano neighborhood to the west of Main Street, they vomit to wear it. Main Street is a sort of mindset borderline between the west side of Vancouver, one of the most livable cities in the world, as it is advertised, and the east side, soggy, dreary, suburban. The mythical poverty and drudgery of the Vancouver Downtown East Side lives there, the evidence that a third world can fit uncomfortably inside a first world.
You need an identity to live on The Drive but you don’t need an ID. What’s not to like? Where else can you smoke a doobie at the top of the street, hop on your skateboard, your scooter, or your own two feet, throw worries into the air and whiz through the busiest corner of the city at Broadway, past the decrepit cinemas, the stalls with green produce, the smell of weed, queer femmes with rough edges and tramp stamps, men who look like their dogs, a refugee camp of second-hand fashions, the cornucopia of 1970s lesbian purple outfits, tamales, shawarmas, and dubious sushi?
I’ve experienced nothing like The Drive and, trust me I’m always sniffing around Canada. Kensington Market, Church and Wellesley, and the Ossington Village in Toronto; the Plateau and the Mile End in Montreal; the Osborne Village in Winnipeg; or the Gottingen North End area in Halifax exude a whiff, have an air, but they do not have the aplomb and stamina of The Drive. The Drive is not a one-theme park.
Queers have not made it boutique like the Castro in San Francisco or Chelsea in New York. When I think of traveling The Drive, plugged into my iPod, I hear the ’80s Vancouver rock band Bob’s Your Uncle, cheesy rap, salsa, and local jazz jams. It is a blended smoothie of wheatgrass, butch desire, a trace of secondhand clothes stores, earnest global politics, and tree-hugging. There is always an indignant little demo for someone to be liberated in a faraway prison or to take back the night. The Drive acts locally and projects globally.
The Drive is a stone’s throw from Strathcona, that patch of Chinese houses saved from the bulldozer that was to pave a highway through it in the late 1960s. It is midway to the suburbs and close to the airport (in case you are being deported). Forget downtown Granville, reeking of testosterone; Robson Street trying to be Rodeo Drive North; and the different planet where North Vancouverites live—The Drive is where it’s at. From there, you can check out the world.
To be on The Drive, you’ve got to be a bit insolent, quirky, mind-your-business. This surely includes the kind of vehicle you drive, the drugs you use, how green you are, and who or what you choose to fuck. Historically, The Drive has been populated by immigrants, the working class, and lesbians. It isn’t dainty. It is a mix of cheaply made co-ops, [post-War Canadian tract houses known as] Vancouver Specials, and Vancouver boxes from the century of the dodo.
In 1985 when I arrived there, Vancouver wasn’t the aspiring world-class city they say it is today, more like a young hooker from the province trying to walk in big-city high heels; Vancouver was a sleepier town with many queer bars. I rejected the dense gay atmosphere of the West End where gay men had traditionally lived since the 1970s. Maybe it was fear of HIV, and longing to escape my fate, which I did in many ways. I hopped on the primordial 420 Victoria line, one of those swaying trolley buses worming its way up Hastings, going east to finally turn south into a drab street. This was the first time I saw The Drive and my urbanite nubile big bustling Santiago city wetback immigrant little heart took a dive— another clear-cut on this forsaken rainforest, I thought. If it was hard to find myself comfortable among the Anglo gay men in the West End who were silenced by AIDS in the 1980s, it would probably be impossible to find a queer on this cluttered Drive, I mused. Wrong! Dykes were there. Once I saw the first dyke mullet and fleece hoodie combo swaggering down the sidewalk, the women adjusting themselves, I never looked back.
The next twenty years I would walk, crawl, limp, and run on those sidewalks, happy, fit to die in the 1990s, high out of my mind on “BC bud,” or brokenhearted by bad dates with Anglo gay men who invariably thought I was too intense and too foreign, that the East Side was too far and too foreign. I walked The Drive in plainclothes, and in drag at the legendary Harry’s on Charles Street at Commercial Drive, the only gay coffee shop to exist outside the West End, thanks to the sourly committed but committed Harry Grumsky. I strutted my stuff in leather or stumbled along wearing Depends when I was very sick and incontinent, but I was always content to live there. In my experience, there was tolerance, diversity, and less of the gay bashing, internalized homophobia, and AIDS phobia so easily found in the West End of Vancouver. One lesson I learned: It was good to stay at a distance from my ten-percent-gay-men contemporaries when I was an HIV-positive minority within that ten-percent minority.
Lesbians fit The Drive like a pair of Birkenstocks. I went looking for a father figure and I found many. Historically, as immigrants often do, lesbians drifted East by necessity, not choice, once Kitsilano and other alternative neighborhoods became gentrified by the late 1970s. In the book Queers in Space (1997), Anne-Marie Bouthielle tells us that North American fags used to gather traditionally around consumption, sexual opportunity, and entertainment, while lesbians used to gather around labor, reconstructed families, and inexpensive housing.
In the 1980s, when I went to live in The Drive, the butch lesbian was queen of The Drive. It is surely changing now that new generations might not need a geographic ghetto to be protected. I had arrived from a Latino culture that, even today, is machista and misogynist, where gay men of my generation still look at lesbians with reticence. Paradoxically, Latino societies are tough matriarchies where mothers are ambiguously feral to their offspring: they erect themselves as victors and victims. In any case, the presence of dykes in my new Canadian ’hood was one of the most interesting discoveries for me as a young queer settler. They became central to my life, and like what happened in many other places in North America, dykes and straight women were my nurses and allies during the worst of AIDS.
You can see these East Side lezzies with their politics tattooed on their skin, laughing raucously at local cafes after touring the world with a circus (like my beloved Erika Espinosa did) or building a house on an island (like Jen and Suzanne and Oline did). Lezzies raising hell in housing co-op meetings, zipping down the road in station wagons packed with children and dogs and softball equipment and groceries, holding hands tightly while swaggering through a pack of goofy soccer players idling on a sidewalk. Handsome women choosing a whatnot at the local lesbian erotica store, Womyn’s Ware, donning Mohawks, carrying children of all colors on their backs, or sensually licking their fingers made sticky by the delicious pullout ribs from a local eatery.
Lesbians remind me not to be a sissy about the important shit, to open my mouth big—not only to suck but to speak—to do what needs to be done without violence. Any part of me that may be butch, I owe to lesbians on The Drive. Lesbians made me vocal, whereas men had made me oral, submissive, and silent; lesbians forged me into a queen of social justice process, and not letting my dick lead the way all the time. I learned from them about friendship, loyalty, and family at times that were difficult for gay men. Inoculated with dread and disgrace, subject to apartheid by my HIV serostatus, I could not be family to gay men. I was nearly left an orphan to AIDS. Before I met the wonderful John with whom I built a family, it was dykes on The Drive that gave me hope. They were my role models for gender fucking and progressive families.
Lesbians and straight women still are the dutiful caregivers of gay men. I see them among the researchers, students, and frontline nonprofit workers, and I sigh in relief. Women often bring compassion mixed with a pragmatic look at the work that needs to be done and often a political and critical eye on life. Dykes, in particular, will always make me remember Vancouver. I grew up queer thanks to the dykes on The Drive.
Francisco Ibáñez-Carrasco is an AIDS activist, social scientist, educator, and writer. His memoir Giving It Raw: Nearly 30 Years with AIDS will be published in September 2014 by Transgress Press. Ibáñez-Carrasco lives in Toronto, Ontario, with his fat cat Orion.