Oliv Howe is a Vancouver trans icon — here's how we told her genre bending story
After a long road to the screen, Dave Rodden-Shortt's The Empress of Vancouver is premiering at Inside Out
In 2018 I was doing research for Behind The Façade, a series of shorts produced by my company Lantern Films about British Columbia's untold histories. More than one person had suggested that Oliv Howe was the person to talk to about Vancouver's queer scene in the 1980s.
At our first meeting Oliv shared stories from 1981 — the year that she was elected the 10th Empress of Vancouver by the Dogwood Monarchist Society. I learned that 1981 culminated in Oliv appearing at the front of Canada's first official pride parade. She wore a wedding dress. AIDS had yet to crash the party, and it seemed like the possibilities for queer futures were endless.
I was struck by Oliv's incredible and unusual ability to remember the past in vivid detail. Her sharp wit and candidness were intoxicating, especially for someone like me who struggles with an almost compulsive need to please others.
I excitedly returned to the Lantern Films office and told my business partner and producer Jessica Hallenbeck that I'd met someone whose story was much larger than a short — it was worthy of its own feature length film.
We started to dig into the archive, at first worried that there would be little visual material to support the telling of this story. This was a fair thing to worry about — it was illegal to take photos in gay bars in the 1980s.
Little did we know that this search would become a two-year long rabbit hole obsession that would uncover thousands of photographs and never before seen films from the era. We learned that talented photographer and artist Oraf Oraffson had skillfully photographed Oliv every single day leading up to, and during her reign in 1981. His work took our breath away, and co-editor Hân Phạm scanned over 8000 photos of his photographs from 1981.
We knew that we had a one-of-a-kind person to share with the world, a remarkable untold story, and a treasure trove of never-before-seen archival material. Now all we needed was funding.
Jessica was determined to find funding but this was no easy task. We had never made a feature film before and were envisioning something new — a historical biopic with drag performances. We prepared a strong pitch deck and a number of funders — the CBC, the NFB, Knowledge Network, and Crave — expressed interest. In the end, they each passed. We were told to include more of Oliv's "sensational" backstory, or to shift the film to be exclusively about drag.
Several decision makers told us the absurdly offensive reason for not greenlighting the film "we already have a trans film." In one case, the prospective funder said they weren't sure that Oliv's personality would resonate with their audience. As I write this, I can hear Oliv's voice saying, "don't be that kind of queer, be this nice kind of queer."
As Oliv has pointed out in jest, I look like the poster child for homonormativity. In 2001, I was a litigant in the lawsuit aimed at making marriage legal for gay and lesbian couples in Canada. I'm now married, have a 6-year-old son, a dog and can generally be seen wearing button up shirts. Yet, this more expansive view of queerness — which was being defined and embodied in 1981 — is one of the things I wanted to centre in the film, and spark an intergenerational conversation about.
In January of 2021 in the midst of the pandemic, we began to film. Every Friday night Oliv headed to Vancouver's Davie Village in drag, her handmade outfits wowed passersby and brought joy to residents during a dark time. In the film, Oliv describes these Friday night performances as a form of social therapy. For me, it was like going from black and white to colour. A chance to see and be part of a world where the boundaries of queerness are infinite. Filming these nights became a welcome ritual for us, a way for us to create a film in a dark time.
For me The Empress Of Vancouver was a chance to celebrate Oliv's everyday life, a chance to help tell this incredible untold story of our own history as a movement. An opportunity to develop a new language for queer cinema.
The film is a celebration of friendship and the value of non-conformity, and a reminder that history happens in the margins. And to top it all off, it's supported by a striking original score by Cindy Lee/Pat Flegel. All in all, it's a hell of a good time.
The Empress of Vancouver screens in Toronto at the Inside Out 2SLGBTQ+ Film Festival on Sunday, May 29. It is available to stream across Ontario from May 26 to June 5.