In 1958, when homosexuality was a crime, ted northe did something remarkable. Accompanied by a few supporters, he stood on the steps of the Vancouver courthouse, bravely holding up a sign declaring himself a human being and calling for an end to discrimination against homosexuals. Oh, and he was wearing a dress and made up to look like Gina Lollobrigida.
Passersby jeered, police arrived to shoo them away and a Vancouver Sun columnist later derided the small group, labelling them “the Lavender Hill mob.” But the modest protest by the self-styled “activist in a dress” began a lifelong commitment to the once-lonely cause of gay rights in Vancouver and across the country.
Mr. northe (he used lower-case lettering for his name) was a drag queen with a difference. At the forefront of the long, arduous fight for gay rights, he spurned exotic stage names and the extravagance of many gay divas to focus instead on activism. Although he enjoyed performing as a woman and was considered a doyenne of Canada’s drag-queen community, Mr. northe once said he first put on a dress to get noticed. “People needed to hear our message. They wouldn’t listen to a young rural boy, but they would listen to Mr. ted northe, a man in a dress.” Over a career lasting more than 50 years, though Mr. northe was not widely known to the general public, his contribution to Canada’s gay-rights struggle was immeasurable.
“He is one of the founding fathers of the movement,” says close friend Paul Therien, who considers Mr. northe his mentor. “He stood up at a time when it wasn’t easy. ted didn’t just say, ‘oh, poor me.’ He stood up and said: ‘No, this is enough.’”
Soon after his courthouse appearance, the young Mr. northe began picketing bars that would not admit gay people. During the sixties, he spearheaded a national letter-writing campaign to MPs, urging the removal of homosexuality from the Criminal Code. One of a handful to respond was Pierre Trudeau, who pledged to do just that. Spurred by the free-flowing flavour of the times, Mr. Trudeau, first as justice minister and then prime minister, oversaw broad, radical changes to the country’s Criminal Code. His reforms ended legal strictures against homosexual behaviour, so the law of the land came to reflect Mr. Trudeau’s famous declaration, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”
After the bill passed, the prime minister made a special phone call to Vancouver. “Your majesty,” he began. Mr. northe – not Queen Elizabeth II – was on the other end of the line. Mr. Trudeau’s unlikely greeting was in recognition of Mr. northe’s official drag-queen status as Empress of Canada. It was a title he retained until he died of cancer on March 30, at the age of 74. Mr. Trudeau had come to know and admire Mr. northe. The prime minister wanted to thank him personally for his role in shaping the government’s landmark legislation. Over the years, the two kept in contact, and in 2009, they were among the first five inductees to the new Canadian Q Hall of Fame.
At a time when many in the gay community held back, still wary of public hostility, Mr. northe was a pivotal figure. In Vancouver, he was instrumental in founding the Gay Businessmen’s Guild and a gay sports league, both Canadian firsts. He was part of an early celebration that later evolved into today’s massive gay-pride parade and he was always engaged in fundraising campaigns, including the first gay fundraiser for breast cancer. When some in the community criticized the initiative for deviating from “gay” causes, Mr. northe retorted: “Are you telling me lesbians can’t get cancer? The disease doesn’t discriminate. Why should we?”
Mr. northe could be blunt, a fact that was not always appreciated. But he never held a grudge, says Kevin McKeown, who wrote a gay-rights column in the Georgia Straight in the early 1970s. “He would tell me what he thought, very directly, and then he would suggest we have a drink.”
Mr. northe’s knack for rapprochement was also evident in his work to curb the harassment of gay people. To that end, he established the country’s first official liaison between the police and the gay community, aiming to change police attitudes and make the streets safer.
These contacts came in handy when Mr. northe protested an anti-gay policy at a Hotel Vancouver restaurant by showing up with a group of friends clad in boa-adorned tuxedos. Police officers, tipped off by Mr. northe, arrived to intercede when the group was told to leave. Not only were they allowed to stay, the hotel soon established a gay-friendly bar in the basement.
Above all, Mr. northe was renowned as a pioneer for the community’s substantial drag queen constituency. In 1964, inspired by drag queen coronations in Portland, Ore., Mr. northe brought the imperial court system to Vancouver. Presided over by its founder, the elaborate structure has thrived ever since, expanding to include more than a dozen chapters across Canada. The chapters each elect an annual Empress and Emperor at elaborate coronations that bring out the drag community in full glittery regalia. Members also take an active role raising money for charities. Some estimate that Mr. northe’s efforts over the past half-century helped bring in $10-million for dozens of causes.