Angels in America in Calgary

On September 19, 1996, Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) premiered Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America. Before even opening, the play attracted a wagon load of controversy. “Why are taxpayers still having to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars to a company that stages a self-indulgent production many feel is abhorrent? It is simply not right,” expressed the Calgary Sun.

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Image from ATP Theatre Program: Photographer Jason Stang

A number of Alberta MLAs were also on the record questioning provincial funding of ATP, which was $550,000 that year, about 1/6th of its operating budget. Calgary-Shaw Tory MLA Jon Havelock suggested that plays offending community standards should not receive public funding. He added, “It seems to me that in some instances people confuse sexual expression with artistic expression.”

Calgary-Fish Creek Tory MLA Heather Forsyth called Angels obscene and about ATP said: “If they can’t come up with better shows than this, maybe they shouldn’t be getting funding.”

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Edmonton Sun Editorial Cartoon: September 15, 1996

ATP’s producing director, Michael Dobbin, rejoindered that MLAs were wrong to attack the play without seeing it first, and he criticized their community standards argument. At the theatre company’s Annual General Meeting, just days before the play opened, he expressed equal outrage: “I say, back off! I say, let the ballots be counted at the box office! That’s the only censorship that I’m prepared to accept.”

Calgary’s reactions to the controversy were polarized; there were dozens of articles and editorials in the Calgary dailies extremely for or against. A conservative radio call-in show buzzed with furor, and ATP itself fielded a number of strange or hostile phone calls, including one who pledged to “shut the show down – we are not going to stand for it in this City.”

There were heartfelt published defenses of Angels in America too. A well-known educator, Dariel Bateman, wrote a guest column in the Calgary Herald on September 13th. She described the play as: “a glorious opportunity to stare down despair, to make sense of things, as we must.”

On of the most fascinating developments was when the Calgary Herald’s Don Martin managed to get protesting MLA Havelock to actually see the play with him. He summarized the experience in an article titled: Angels in America: The sequel: It’s easy to be a critic before the house lights dim, published on September 27th. As the play progressed, surprisingly Havelock became engrossed. At one point he felt compelled to spontaneously applaud; he loved it. He wrote, “thoroughly enjoyable” on a comment card before he left.

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October 7, 1996, Alberta Report Cover

The conservative and sometimes inflammatory publication, Alberta Report, made Angels in America its cover story on October 7th. It took the ATP promotional image of an angel and altered it for its cover, making it sickly: thinning muscles and adding skin legions.* Alberta Report writer Kevin Grace opined that Angels “is an artistic failure but it bears a powerful revolutionary message. While it elevates the belief current in the ‘AIDS community’ that victims of the disease are holy martyrs, homosexuals and AIDS victims are only one division of Mr. Kushner’s vaster army: one that seeks to destroy the very concept of the law – on earth and in heaven.”

He sensationally concluded his three-page article with: “those who see Angels in America as mere entertaining, diverting theatre, should know what they are getting into. In hell, the Marquis de Sade is smiling.”

Ultimately, ATP found themselves smiling. The controversy put extra bums in seats and attracted almost $50,000 in individual “Angels Consortium” donations. The play doubled expected ticket revenues and was sold out in its final weeks – setting audience records for the company.


* Photographer Jason Stang filed a lawsuit against Alberta Report for altering his image claiming the publication: distorted, defaced and mutilated his work.



Pre-WWII Calgary and its Queers

Calgary was incorporated as a town on November 7, 1884, with a population of 506, and grew phenomenally over the next 60 years to be a city of approximately 100,000 by the end of World War II. This period’s gay history is challenging to research for a number of reasons. Firstly, people organized their sexual lives differently then, and the concept of having a homosexual identity is actually a relatively modern one that solidified in North America after World War II. Men who had sex with other men could be perceived as normal as long as they presented a masculine gender identity and also showed a passing sexual interest in women.

Yet however normally these men were perceived, they were still criminals. Anti-sodomy laws were established in the United Kingdom as far back as 1533 and were updated in the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act to make illegal any kind of sexual activity between males. This crime was categorized and named “gross indecency.” Oscar Wilde famously was convicted under this amended law and given the maximum penalty: two years of penal labour. Canada, being a Commonwealth country, inherited the United Kingdom’s legal system and took its cues explicitly from it. Gross indecency entered into Canadian statute law in 1890, although Canada stiffened the maximum penalty to five years from two, and allowed for the lash as extra punishment.

Women were generally not considered sexual agents and were expected to be chaste until marriage. In common law, lesbianism was largely ignored. However, lesbianism was also targeted in the 1885 criminal law amendments, but Queen Victoria refused to sign it huffily explaining, ‘women can’t do that together.’ Rather than challenge Her Majesty, her ministers removed women from the amendment.

Another difficulty in researching gay history in this period is that there are very few references to its existence in the historical record, and even fewer people alive who remember these decades as adults. Gross indecency was prosecuted very rarely in these times: not often relative to the rates of prosecution and incarceration after the 1940s.

Nonetheless, the criminal record is one of the main sources of information we have about gay history at this time. For example, on November 18, 1911, a 27-year old Banff jeweler, John Ward, was found guilty of gross indecency in Calgary’s district court for having had anal intercourse with three different men that year. On June 11, 1914, Michael Noland was charged with committing an act of gross indecency with John Norman the day prior. The facts presented in the depositions divulged that it, in fact, was a case about oral sex.

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A group of Calgary men in July, 1912: Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

Men in trouble with the law due to “perversion” or “degeneracy” tended to fall into two categories. Some men had the whiff of notoriety about them due to effeminate gender presentation; others were unlucky enough to have had sex with another man who was indiscrete. Often there was an outraged family behind many gross indecency investigations; they were seeking to punish the man who “perverted” their family member.

For much of Calgary’s early history, it existed as a frontier town with a distinctively masculine character. Not only was there a staggering influx of single working class men who built the City in its first booms, there was also a sizable population of British remittance men: black sheep in their Victorian families who had been gently exiled to the colonies – often for their sexual eccentricities – and funded to stay away.

During the pre-WWI building boom, the city census reported that Calgary was 75% men. The Albertan newspaper in 1907 wrote: “There are so many young men and so few young women that somebody was bound to get left in the cold.”

Much has been written about “Bachelor Subcultures” in North American cities of this era, and their fluid and accommodating sexual practices. Poolrooms, saloons, and rooming houses were central to this homosocial culture and Calgary’s landscape was typical in this regard.

The Alberta Hotel, built in 1888-90, is a sandstone treasure we have on Stephen Avenue. It was the city’s pre-eminent hostelry in its heyday and is Calgary’s oldest remaining hotel building. The hotel was the preferred lodging and gathering place for well-to-do ranchers, businessmen, local personalities and remittance men. It was described as a “male Mecca.”

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Alberta Hotel Postcard from 1907: Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

In contrast, the recently demolished Cecil Hotel was built for the working classes. Opened in 1914 with 57 rooms, the Cecil was purpose-built to accommodate travelers and blue-collar workers in the downtown east end. By 1924, it also housed a stable, blacksmith shop, grocery store, cafe and a tavern that took up nearly the entire ground floor.

After the roaring 1920s, the depression hit Calgary particularly hard. Its antidote, William Aberhart, brought a strange mix of socialism and social conservatism to the city. The high profile Crescent Height High School principal, also known as Bible Bill, started Alberta’s Social Credit Party. His crusade against the depression and conventional economics hailed “Poverty in the Midst of Plenty” made him premier in a landslide election in 1935. He brought Christian fundamentalist principles to his government’s administration and had a strong interest in regulating Albertan morals.


William Aberhart portrait from 1937: Image, Provincial Archives of Alberta

By 1940, both Calgary and Edmonton had nascent gay communities, but the desire for “clean social conditions” brought Aberhart’s government to bear down on these loosely affiliated groups of men. In the high profile and sensational 1942 Same-sex trials in Edmonton, 12 men were investigated and convicted of participation in a “homosexual sex ring.” When several of the gross indecency charges were dismissed at lower courts, the Premier ensured that the Crown appealed these dismissals. He wrote: “I want to assure you that we want to do everything we can to curb the forces of evil.”

This sentence proved to be prophetic; for homosexuality, the moral tone in Calgary was now set for the next three decades.


Gays & The United Church Part 2

On March 4th, 1988 the United Church of Canada’s four-year study on “the nature of sexual orientation and practice” was complete. The 13-member research committee released an 118-page report called: Toward a Christian Understanding of Sexual Orientations, Lifestyle and Ministry. Its key recommendation: sexual orientation should not be a barrier to participation in any aspect of church life. A dramatic backdrop for this report was ever increasing AIDS-related deaths in Canada. The plague had been spreading exponentially in the 1980s, particularly in Canada’s largest cities.

A new grassroots lobby group sprang up called the Community of Concern to fight the report’s recommendations. In Calgary, like other parts of Canada, church leaders gathered to debate and discuss. On March 29th, 1988, at St. Matthew’s United Church in Calgary, Reverend David Cook moderated a meeting in reaction to the report in advance of the church’s Alberta and North West Conference.

The mood was mostly contrarian. At both the Calgary gathering, and then at the regional meeting in Camrose that May, petitions were brought forward rejecting the report and voicing strident opposition. In particular, the Alberta and North West Conference was concerned about individuals and families who were considering leaving the church if the report was accepted. By the time of the 32nd General Council meeting in Victoria in August 1988, the Church had received 1,813 petitions from across Canada rejecting the report.

In advance of the General Council, a special committee of 24 members was convened to digest the report and make recommendations. Marion Best, who chaired the committee recalled in an interview that when they began there were only two members who supported the report, and five opposed: the rest were open to listening. On day two of the deliberations, the committee members arrived at the classroom they were meeting in and found homophobic slurs written all over the blackboard. Best described that moment as a critical turning point; after six days of grueling debate and soul searching the members decided to recommend the report unanimously.

That unanimous decision was a powerful symbol at the General Council itself.  Yet for nine days at the University of Victoria, delegates lobbied and debated the divisive report. The culmination was a seven-hour session ending at 1 a.m. on August 24th, when the final vote happened. The 388 delegates voted 2:1 in favour of any worshippers – including self-declared homosexuals – to become full members of the church, which also meant that gays would be eligible for the ministry.

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Landmark vote at the 1988 General Council.  Photo: John Colville in Maclean’s Magazine, September 5, 1988.

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Watch: “United Church allows gay ministers” online at CBC Digital Archives

There was fallout. In September 1988, Lethbridge First United Church, at a congressional meeting, voted 4:1 to break away from the United Church due to the General Council decision.  Reverend Stan Errett, Minister of St. David’s United and chair of the Calgary Presbytery, said: “I don’t think it is going to have any impact on us; we’re in relatively good shape. There’s lots of distress and lots of concern, but people [in Calgary] are not about to run away.”

Calgary’s Hillhurst United Church was not pleased with the decision.  Their Reverend Robert Nagus said: “It’s wrong. It’s an error in judgment. It’s an attempt to sanctify sin. But the way to fight this thing is to stay within the church, get a referendum and change the policy.”

One hour north of Calgary, the Cremona United Church draped its signpost in sackcloth and ashes as a symbol of mourning. In Blackfalds, near Red Deer, United Church members erected a large sign on the church grounds reading: “THIS CHURCH IS OPPOSED TO ORDAINING HOMOSEXUALS.”

Dissent was increasing all across the country, led predominantly by the Community of Concern movement. Calgary started its own chapter of the anti-gay lobby group in October. By November, Hillhurst United, had publicly declared it was withholding funds to the national church and encouraged other congregations to join them. Later that month, three other churches: Forest Lawn, Southminister, and Southwood United had filed their opposition to the national executive regarding homosexual ordination.

As the heat spread, the United Church General Council Executive met for five days at the end of November in Toronto to decide how to move forward. The emergency meeting was precipitated by demands for a binding referendum on the issue by 1,000 Community of Concern members, who assembled in Etobicoke. They told the Executive: “We’re in for the long haul.”

The Executive declined to put the issue to a grassroots vote, as many wanted, but did reopen the issue asking congregations to discuss it among themselves, and in their regional conference, to bring their concerns to the 1990 General Council meeting, where policy could be changed.

Their willingness to entertain a reversal on gay ordination greatly reduced the turmoil and inflammation in the United Church community. Reverend Errett said: “I think it’s a good consultative process. From now on we’re going to take seriously what the congregations are saying. I think it will avert what people fear is a national denomination splitting down the middle and people going in all different directions.”

Madeline Wood, Chair of the Calgary Community of Concern chapter, conceded that the new move was “somewhat reasonable,” although she worried that the General Council commissioners could ignore the will of concerned congregations a second time.

Wood’s worries were prescient. At the 1990 General Council held in London, Ontario, the issue was debated and again came to a vote. This time, the result was 4:1 in favour of gay ordination, reaffirming the 1988 decision, and clearly foreshadowing the trajectory of the debate. Despite traditionalists fomenting fears of a new exodus from the church, the large split never took place. In the end, the estimate of those who left was about 25,000 people, around 3% of the United Church’s constituency.