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 , a s 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.