'If we are making history then who is documenting this?' Archiving Vancouver's LGBTQ history

The collection now has more than 750,000 items, including posters, buttons and handouts detailing everything from the early days of the AIDS crisis to wet t-shirt competitions in gay bars.

From the AIDS crisis to wet t-shirt competitions: how one man preserved decades of gay history in B.C.

An anti-violence rally takes place in Vancouver in 1979. (B.C. Gay and Lesbian Archives)
Listen5:03

Ron Dutton began collecting pieces of British Columbia's queer history in 1976, in the middle of the gay liberation movement.

A former librarian, the 72-year-old stored boxes of posters, pamphlets, recordings and magazines, afraid that no one else would catalogue the work of the province's LGBTQ history.

"There was this kind of jubilant sense that we were changing history," Dutton told Day 6.

"If we are making history then who was documenting this? My first thought was, 'Well if not someone else, then who? It should be me.'"

Earlier this year, with more than 40 years of neatly organized boxes in his home, Dutton realized his collection needed a more permanent home.

Two people pose for a photo during the 1987 International Lesbian Week held in Vancouver. (B.C. Gay and Lesbian Archives)

He donated in excess of 750,000 pieces of LGBTQ history to the City of Vancouver Archives. The collection has been officially named the B.C. Gay and Lesbian Archives.

"What I began to do from the beginning was collect everything I could get my hands on," he said. "[It's] a broad representation in all media of anything that gave information about the community and its life."

Guardian of B.C.'s queer history

It was Dutton's community — his tribe, as he puts it — that led him to become the unofficial guardian of B.C.'s queer history.

As a young man, Dutton says, he was inspired by the stories the community elders shared in gay bars — the LGBTQ community's town square long before social media came along.

"You'd sit around a table with young folk and old folk and they would start spinning stories," he said.

"They would tell you about the amazing characters that used to populate the gay bars in the 1940s and '50s like 'Messy Mae' and 'Boxcar Bertha' and 'Mitch the Bitch' and all of these characters."

Part of the collection of VHS tapes gathered by Ron Dutton and soon to be digitized. (B.C. Gay and Lesbian Archives)

It was those stories, now largely forgotten, that Dutton hoped to memorialize. The archives, he says, act as a time capsule for community members to revisit the early days of the movement.

"It's wonderful to see that world portrayed in such a crystalline way because it's gone."

Diverse collection

Despite being kept in his house for the better part of a half-century, Dutton has long believed that these documents belonged to the public, not him.

It's one of the reasons behind his decision to archive the documents at the Vancouver archives, and why he built a comprehensive collection.

"You can't predict what is going to become important at a later date," Dutton said.

The shelves on which the archives now live measure 25 metres long. The collection includes over 7,500 photos, 2,000 posters, 60 recordings and 220 videos.

[It's] a necessity for us to begin to say, 'Whoa, we have a different life and we need you to know about our lives.- Ron Dutton

Dutton's collection is inclusive of the broader LGBTQ community. The archives include documents about transgender, senior and two-spirit Indigenous members of the community.

"The more marginalized you are, the less resources you have to be getting in the newspaper, or printing posters, or in other ways documenting your own activities," Dutton said.

Open to more

Dutton says he plans to continue to seek out marginalized voices to add to the collection, and the City of Vancouver is looking for additions.

Protesters gather during the 1993 International Women's Day march in Vancouver. (B.C. Gay and Lesbian Archives)

The photos, videos and posters in the archive are being digitized in hopes they will be published online ahead of next year's Pride festival.

Regardless of where the archive ends up, Dutton believes the records are invaluable to British Columbia's LGBTQ community.

"[It's] a necessity for us to begin to say, 'Whoa, we have a different life and we need you to know about our lives and accommodate that new narrative.'"


To hear the full interview with Ron Dutton, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of the page.