1979 – Linking Arms

By 1979, the gay community in Alberta was developing its political activist muscles. With support from GIRC in Calgary and GATE in Edmonton, Red Deer formed its first gay organization called the Gay Association of Red Deer (GARD). 15 people showed up to its incorporating meeting on February 24, 1979. GARD quickly took Red Deer’s newspapers to task for failing to let them advertise.

In the lead up to the Alberta Provincial Elections on March 14, 1979, activists in Calgary and Edmonton crashed political forums, asking repeatedly about the lack of human rights protections for gays in legislation. They were successful in getting the provincial New Democratic Party (NDP) to declare its support for gay rights: the first Alberta political party to take that stance. In addition, GIRC sponsored an all candidates’ forum on March 12th at the Old Y.  They were successful in getting five candidates from city centre electoral divisions to attend.

Progressive Conservative (PC) Premier Peter Lougheed was pigeonholed during the campaign in TD Square by an out gay man. The conversation was reported as follows:

Q: What is the Tory Party doing about the recommendation by the Alberta Human Rights Commission to include sexual orientation in the Individual Rights Protection Act?

A: It is under consideration.

Q: What is the Conservative party’s policy on the gay rights issue?

A: That’s a caucus decision, they will decide.

Q: What is you own position on this?

A: I don’t have one.

Peter Lougheed 1967

Bromosocial – Peter Lougheed flanked by his first elected PC caucus in 1967.  Image Source: National Post, September 13, 2012

Lougheed took his party on to a commanding victory in the election – 74 of 79 seats – but gay power was on a roll. On April 21st, the Alberta Lesbian and Gay Rights Association (ALGRA) was created in Edmonton at the conclusion of the first ever Alberta Gay Conference. 20 delegates from Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer met to coordinate efforts in human rights, rural outreach, public education, government lobbying and inter-city communication. Doug Young from Calgary and Clare McDuff Oliver from Edmonton were elected to represent ALGRA at the national level on the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Rights Coalition’s (CLGRC) Executive Coordinating Committee.

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Mayor Ralph Klein’s Gay Rights Tempest

Former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, had a high-profile disdain for gay rights: denouncing  the advent of same-sex marriage in Canada as well as publicly disagreeing with the Supreme Court’s inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected human right in Canada. In both cases it was the Government of Alberta, under his leadership, who supplied an active legal resistance to both issues.

However at the beginning of his political career, he seemed a different person. Elected as Mayor of Calgary in October 1980, he touted himself a “people’s mayor.” And in the early months of his mayoralty that included gay people too.

On January 10, 1981, Mayor Klein stopped in at the 5th annual coronation ball of the Imperial Court of the Chinook Arch (now Imperial Sovereign Court of the Chinook Arch – which held its 40th coronation earlier this year). He was invited by Bruce May, then president of Gay Information and Resources Calgary (GIRC). Klein gave a 15-minute cameo appearance, where he made a speech praising the good work of GIRC and exclaimed that law-abiding gay people were welcome in the City of Calgary. The 500 people in attendance gave him a three-minute standing ovation. Consequently, Klein was one of the first mayors in Canada to have made such an address.

The Calgary Sun, one of the city’s newspaper dailies, took extreme umbrage that Klein appeared at a gay event and for days wrote damaging and hostile editorials and columns.

On January 12th, the Sun’s banner headline was, Klein backs gay rights. Mayor Klein and his Executive Assistant, Rod Love, went into full damage control, attempting to find a favourable spin for the story. Two days later, associate editor Michael Shapcott wrote a scathing editorial titled, Pink Herring – here is a quote:

Mayor Ralph Klein can backtrack all he likes, but he can’t undo the damage from his foolish decision to show up at a homosexual rally and speak approvingly of “gay rights.”

What the heck was the Mayor trying to prove?  And what’s all this nonsense about “gay rights?”

[If] Mayor Klein’s talking about a homosexual’s privilege of doing any perverted act in private between consenting adults, no matter how repugnant it is to most of us, then he’s stating the obvious.  As long as homosexuals, or people who practice any number of bizarre things, keep it to themselves, they can do practically anything their filthy minds conceive (just leave the kids alone, please).

Fact is, though, when homosexuals talk about “gay rights,” they really want society to pat them on their heads, coo a few encouraging words and tell them that they’re all nice and normal.  And Mayor Klein should know that by attending their convention, and mouthing a few approving words, he’s playing right into their hands.”

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Calgary Sun Editorial Cartoon: January 14, 1981

On January 15th, the Sun wrote a column, Klein for gays, but….  In it, staff writer Peter Miller quoted Mayor Klein extensively as he awkwardly qualified his support for the gay community. He explained that gays should not ask for or expect any special rights or privileges, nor hold demonstrations or parades in Calgary because the protests would offend straight people. He also did not condone gay prostitution nor gays drawing young people into homosexual activity.

That would not be the last time that Klein changed tack politically.  At one time a liberal supporter, he switched teams to become elected as a conservative MLA. However, the Calgary Sun’s sustained attack in 1981, appeared to give Klein a scare that would set the tone for his relationship to gay rights during the rest of his political career.

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35 Years Ago The Bomb Dropped!

This week in history, medical journalist Lawrence Altman in the New York Times broke the story of what would become AIDS into public consciousness. The alternative New York paper, the Village Voice immediately complained calling it “the despicable attempt of The New York Times to wreck the July 4 holiday break for every homosexual in the Northeast.”AIDS NYT 1981It did indeed wreck the mood for a generation and caused significant panic, fear and anxiety in those early years of the epidemic. According to epidemiologists, Canada saw a two year time lag in the progression of the disease, “or epidemic curve” relative to the United States. As if on cue, Calgary’s first AIDS death was in early June 1983. One Calgarian, who has been living with HIV for 28 years, describes the pervasive mood in the gay community then as one of hopelessness and hysteria. He feels his generation of gay men, at some level, still carry that fear inside themselves today.

AIDS tore apart the closet for many in the gay community. Society at large could no longer ignore the queers who were dying in their midst. And as the disease spread into the heterosexual community a diffuse AIDS panic caused widespread hostility towards the LGBTQ community, creating both martyrs and activists in droves.

Only now, from a generational distance, are we seeing the long-term effects of the bomb that was AIDS in the 80s. Sexual behaviour became a lighting rod for tension within the gay community. The Body Politic, Canada’s gay newspaper that was founded on gay liberation principles, had an editorial approach to AIDS coverage that was: “skepticism of scientific and media authority; the need to resist panic and hysteria both within and beyond the gay community; the need to seek information on which we can make informed judgments about sexual practices; and, most recently, the need to preserve what is best and most distinctive about gay erotic culture in the face of a disease which apparently threatens its very roots.”

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The Body Politic (cover), December 1983

Other voices, confronted liberation politics, entreating gay men away from promiscuity and towards pursing a gay equality human rights agenda. Some academics, connect AIDS activism to the rise of the equality movement, whose ultimate manifest came in the form of same-sex marriage.

And this is the lasting legacy of AIDS. A heady combination of militant gay action, tragic loss, medical ingenuity, and public sympathy accelerating gay rights far faster than anyone could have expected in July 1981.

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