Vancouver’s Pride events are usually associated with the city’s West End neighbourhood, but this year a group of organizers is shining a light on the LGBTQ+ community in the Downtown Eastside.
Daniyah Shamsi and Carmel Tanaka have been working hard to put together a community Pride event for this coming Saturday. It will include speeches and performances as well as walking tours of street art and historic sites in the area. Partners for the event include the Overdose Prevention Society and the Vancouver Pride Society, and funding from Global Pride is supporting development of the arts and culture walking tours.
Queer and trans people have always lived in the Downtown Eastside, Shamsi and Tanaka said. But because of marginalization and discrimination, many queer people in the neighbourhood don’t have the option to be open about who they are.
“This was a thing that came up very early on as we were planning this: what is the LGTBQ+ history of the Downtown Eastside? We don’t know these stories,” said Shamsi. “And so, for me, it’s been more about engaging the community here. A lot of us, we can’t be loud and proud about who we are. We just exist as we are.”
Shamsi, who identifies as a queer and trans Muslim person with an Arab Pakistani background, said they’ve been part of the Downtown Eastside community ever since they were a teenager, when they were having a rough time with their relationship with their family.
“I came out to my family, and they didn’t handle it very well,” Shamsi said. “A lot of the youth down here are actually queer and trans people who got kicked out of their homes because of cultural misunderstandings, and also just the stigma around who we are.”
Shamsi said it’s hard to even talk about the experience of being queer in the Downtown Eastside because of the possibility of outing other people. “Our experiences have been kind of secret and in the shadows.”
Shamsi is the founder of Everybody Is In, a grassroots group started at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to identify gaps in services for people in the Downtown Eastside. They’re continuing to fundraise to put on the Downtown Eastside Pride event.
Tanaka, a queer woman of Jewish and Japanese Canadian descent, is the founder of Cross Cultural Walking Tours and JQT Vancouver, a Jewish queer and trans non-profit. Her grandfather immigrated to Canada from Japan in 1923 and lived in Vancouver’s historic Japanese Canadian community, centred around Powell Street in the Downtown Eastside — a community that was displaced when people of Japanese descent were interned during the Second World War.
The walking tours offered on Saturday will explore the history of the Downtown Eastside, Strathcona and Chinatown — inner-city neighbourhoods that have been home to many marginalized communities, including Indigenous, Black, Chinese, Japanese and Jewish people.
Tanaka said she’s working with Vancouver historian John Atkin to include queer history in those tours — a challenge, she said, because so much of that history is not known or talked about. Tanaka and Shamsi hope the tours will spark conversation and story sharing in the neighbourhood.
The graffiti that fills many of the alleys in the Downtown Eastside will also be a big part of the walking tours.
“One thing that’s really important for me and the Downtown Eastside and telling stories through the arts and culture walk is that we get to tell stories of racism, genocide and particularly erasure in how street art is so stigmatized and covered up or defaced,” Shamsi said.
Graffiti in Vancouver is illegal if it’s painted on private property without permission. In response to an uptick of graffiti and street tagging during the COVID-19 pandemic, Vancouver city council passed a motion this spring that proposed cracking down on “prolific” taggers with more enforcement, while designating specific areas where graffiti would be allowed.
But, Shamsi said, the graffiti in the Downtown Eastside tells important stories about the people who live in the neighbourhood.
As a youth living on the street, Shamsi said the graffiti in the alleys provided hope because much of the art included messages written by people looking for loved ones. Some pieces are memorials to neighbourhood residents who have died, or have relayed important safety information about using drugs more safely during an ongoing overdose crisis.
“This isn’t just an eyesore,” Shamsi said. “A lot of these murals and a lot of the tags are actually memories of people. When I see a fresh tag, I know this person is alive — this person was here recently.”
More information on the DTES Pride event is available on the Everybody Is In Facebook page.