As West End resident Robert Kaiser was walking to work one night several years ago, someone in a passing car threw food and yelled at him.
“They called me a faggot,” said Kaiser, who was in drag at the time of the incident.
Kaiser, also known as the popular drag queen Joan-E, is a consummate volunteer who in past years was responsible for helping raise more than $500,000 through Bingo for Life. Proceeds went to the Vancouver Friends for Life Society, a non-profit organization that assists individuals living with HIV and AIDS. His past honours include the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal and induction into Canada’s Q Hall of Fame.
Kaiser said it was no surprise the incident took place during the annual fireworks festival, which has operated under several names in the past — most recently as the Honda Celebration of Light. The festival is famous for attracting hundreds of thousands of bystanders, with a majority from out of town.
The fact that Pride Week in Vancouver coincides with the annual fireworks festival can make navigating the West End safely a challenge, said Kaiser. He added it’s a time of year when many residents of the West End, and in particular some members of the LGBTQ-2S+ community, get nervous about an increase in homophobic incidents in the neighbourhood.
“If you looked up the stats on emergency visits and police calls you’ll see it doesn’t seem to be a great recipe,” said Kaiser, who acts as an MC for the Pride Parade, which takes place the day after the final fireworks show. “It’s impossible for me to get around and I’m involved in a lot of Pride events. I don’t think a guy who does all that deserves to be called a faggot.”
Moving into the West End years ago, Kaiser knew living downtown naturally equates with noise, sirens, music and lots of people.
“That’s part and parcel of living downtown,” said Kaiser. “That said, the fireworks brings out an element that forces residents to barricade their gardens and yards and you just never see that with Pride.”
It was reported previously in the Courier that during one fireworks festival there were 605 liquor pour-outs, four arrests for public intoxication, 28 liquor seizures, 26 weapons seizures, including three sets of brass knuckles, eight cans of pepper spray, four knives and an ice pick, 26 violation tickets written, two arrests for breach of the peace, 10 drug seizures and one person arrested for an outstanding warrant. That same year the VPD reported no violations as the result of the Pride Parade.
CJ Rowe, executive director of QMUNITY, a provincial resource centre for members of the LGBTQ-2S+ community based in the West End, has not experienced any homophobic incidents, but knows others who have.
“I don’t live in the West End, so I’m only there during the day,” said Rowe. “But I do know some folks who have experienced homophobic comments [during the fireworks festival].”
Rowe said people who live in the West End typically choose to do so because they feel safe and supported. It’s when the neighbourhood sees a huge influx of out-of-towners that their feeling of security can be threatened. People have told Rowe about walking alone and having homophobic slurs hurled at them either from a passing car or from a group walking down the street during the fireworks festival.
“People choose to live in the West End because of its history and gathering places,” said Rowe. “But it’s who is visiting the West End during times like this that don’t have the same world view.”
In a statement to the Courier, Vancouver Fireworks Festival Society co-chair Paul Tilbury said the Honda Celebration of Light is not just a celebration of fireworks.
“It is a celebration of our community and as such does not condone any sort of discriminatory behavior towards its guests from any source,” said Tilbury. “We partner closely with VPD to ensure each and every person who comes to English Bay feels safe celebrating our festival and watching the fireworks. Part of what makes Vancouver such a unique and dynamic environment is the spirit of inclusiveness and diversity that our city fosters, and no event represents that more than Pride, an iconic and important event in Vancouver, which we are thrilled to have as our neighbor this time of year.”
VPD Const. Jason Doucette said over the years the fireworks festival has evolved from what used to be nicknamed the Symphony of Fights, instead of the official name of Symphony of Fire, to a family-friendly event he’d be comfortable taking his 11-year old daughter to.
He noted that the combined efforts of the VPD with other jurisdictions, including the Metro Transit Police and Vancouver Fire and Rescue, means partiers who used to arrive for the fireworks already drunk, are getting stopped before they can reach the city.
“I worked Saturday night and it was family after family,” said Doucette.
Doucette said on that note, if anyone has been the victim of a homophobic attack, verbal or otherwise, they need to let police know as soon as possible.
“We want to hear about it or there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Doucette.
He added through education it’s becoming less and less socially acceptable to make homophobic remarks or for that matter, allow someone else to do so.
“I wouldn’t walk by it and neither would my wife,” said Doucette. “It’s not acceptable.”
As for comparing police incidents between the fireworks festival and Pride, Doucette likens it to apples and oranges.
“We have a special detail dedicated to the fireworks and any major event that watches everything very closely, while Pride events are spread out over a week.”
The Courier was not able to reach anyone from the West End BIA before press deadline. A woman who answered the phone at the West End Coal Harbour Community Policing Office said, “We’re not allowed to talk about things like that.”