RuPaul & AIDS in 1996

Twenty years ago, RuPaul was the headliner for Calgary Cares ’96, a benefit for AIDS Calgary. It was the fourth benefit of its kind in the city and raised approximately $50,000 for the agency.


RuPaul at Calgary Cares ’96. Photo: Shelagh Anderson (QC Magazine, July 1996)

RuPaul had then just been discovered by mainstream audiences, with the 1993 music video hit, Supermodel (You Better Work), and the groundbreaking model contract in 1995 with MAC cosmetics’ Viva Glam Couture Colour Collection. 100% of the proceeds from that collection were donated to the fight agains AIDS. In 1996, that amounted to a $5 million contribution which has grown to over $400 million today.

In the summer of 1996, Calgary was averaging about 10 new cases of HIV diagnoses a month and had the fourth highest incidence rate of HIV infection amongst Canadian cities (after Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver).

RuPaul suffered some flight delays, but after travelling 32 hours to get to Calgary made a late appearance, singing “Dude looks like a lady” for hundreds in attendance, and then hosted an impromptu press conference afterwards with local press.

Calgary Herald copy-editor Terri Inigo-Jones asked a few days later if RuPaul was not “a symbol for the best hopes for humanity’s future.”

In a June 19th, op-ed piece titled Lack of caring spawns new dark ages, the copy-editor characterized the mid-nineties as a downward slide towards the end of civilization. Despairing over neoliberal gains in the public sphere, and a perceived intolerance and pettiness in society, the author found hope in Calgary Cares:

Fortunately, modern equivalents of the early European monasteries may exist and, once again, humanity’s best qualities and best hope for the future may lie on the fringes.

Attending the fourth annual Calgary Cares fund-raising event for AIDS Calgary recently, it struck me that the true moral fibre of which society is so proud is at its strongest beyond mainstream thinking.

The event had a community feeling. About 1,300 people attended and many of them would not find acceptance in the mainstream. Every year, elected officials are invited to the event but none have accepted.

It was unconditional love that drove the 10-person organizing committee to put in 3,000 hours of volunteer labor before the show and that made hundreds of others help out on the night itself. Their efforts are expected to raise $25,000 for people in need. There was not a whisper of whether or not they could afford it or should do it. The only thought was that it must be done.

RuPaul was the star guest of the evening at the Max Bell Arena. A seven-foot, cross-dressing black man in a red patent leather bustier and thigh-high boots and a blonde wig as a symbol for the best hopes for humanity’s future?

Deal with it, folks. Our hope as a society and as a species lies in our unconditional concern and compassion for our fellow men, women and children and in our tolerance for diversity.

After all, without diversity society cannot evolve and without evolution there is no future.

It was in that summer that a corner was turned in the fight against AIDS. In July 1996, the success of new anti-HIV drugs, called protease inhibitors, were announced at the International AIDS conference in Vancouver. Almost immediately the death toll from the disease in Calgary came to a virtual halt.


My Own Private Idaho Flashback

Do you remember Clue Magazine?  Calgary’s LGBTQ publication of the early 90s had a nice review of My Own Private Idaho when it came out on video.  Hope to see you at the 25th Anniversary Screening tonight!




In the Big House

This week we are in Ottawa combing through the stacks of Library and Archives Canada. Having just gone through the Klippert Supreme Court Case files (hooray), there are now three boxes from the Delwin Vriend Supreme Court Case files to go through…


Library and Archives Canada is virtually next door to the Supreme Court, and it is poignant to be researching historical documents at the place where they were originally created.

We are on a mini-hiatus now until our upcoming 25th Anniversary screening of My Own Private Idaho on Tuesday, October 11th with the Calgary Cinematheque Society. Look for our next Calgary gay history blog post on Thursday that week.