Tag Archives: ACT UP

Labels in YYC: do you like Queer?

The second episode of Calgary Rainbow Radio premiered this week. It is an interesting discussion about labels and the complications in how we identify in our community. Here is the transcript of our contribution to the show on the history of labels:

Hello. My name is Kevin Allen and I am the research lead of the Calgary Gay History Project.   When I initially conceived of the name of the project, I called it the Calgary Queer History Project and had printed posters and postcards to that effect. I personally like the word queer, and use it often. I came out in 1990 at the age of 19, when AIDS activism and queer nation was in the ascendant. The slogan “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” still resonates with me today. Yet in my first few oral history interviews with community elders, I discovered that “queer” is still a living pejorative for them. To honour their contributions to the project I shifted the name of our work to the Calgary Gay History Project.


Photo: from Zine, “Queers Read This: published anonymously by queers”

Terminology in the LGBTQ2S+ community is steadily evolving and there have been many transitions in terms over the decades. For example, I was surprised to learn that some women once considered the term lesbian an uppity feminist word in the mid-20th Century. These individuals maintained that they were gay women and not lesbians. In fact, Canada’s very first national lesbian conference, held in Toronto in 1973, ended up being called the Gay Women’s Festival. Ellen Woodsworth, one of the organizers, explained:

“Some of us really wanted to call it the Lesbian Conference or Lesbian Women’s Conference or something, but it was clearly going to be a barrier to others – either those who self-identified as gay or those who weren’t sure, or those who were really in the gay movement. We wanted everybody to feel safe to come.”


Woodsworth quote and poster image from Liz Millward’s book “Making a Scene: Lesbians Community Across Canada 1964-84.”

The word gay itself came into common usage to mean homosexual only in the 20th Century, although it likely had earlier usage antecedents. It was first uttered in this context in a famous Hollywood film in 1938, called Bringing Up Baby starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. There is a scene in the film, in which Cary Grant’s character’s clothes have been sent to the cleaners, and he is forced to wear a woman’s feather-trimmed robe. When another character asks about his robe, he responds: “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” This reference to cross-dressing (and, by extension, homosexuality) was unfamiliar to most filmgoers. The line can also be interpreted then as, “I just decided to do something frivolous,” but it was a coded reference to the rather large gay community working in Hollywood at the time.

California was also the birthplace of the homophile movement in the 1950s, a sort of polite, pleading for tolerance effort, that early gay activists employed. Homophile societies seeded themselves across North America. The two most prominent: the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis were both code names for homosexual men and women respectfully.

Amusingly, Harry Hay one of the Mattachine founders reported that in the 1930s and 1940s, gay people referred to themselves as temperamental – which I am really fond of now in 2017.


Harry Hay in 1937. Photo: LeRoy Robbins from the Bay Area Reporter

The word homosexual itself is a manufactured word and a mash-up of Greek and Latin roots. Its first known appearance in print is found in an 1869 German pamphlet called “143 des Preussischen Strafgesetzbuchs” written by Karl-Maria Kertbeny. He published it anonymously. His pamphlet advocated the repeal of Prussia’s sodomy laws. Kertbeny had previously used the word in a private letter written in 1868 to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a writer and forefather of the modern gay rights movement. Kertbeny used homosexual in place of Ulrichs’ term Uranian, which was the term he invented for his so-called third sex: men who had female brains and women who had male ones.

And of course, we are just scratching the surface of terminology past and present for queers, including names we call each other and those which are used against us. There are literally dozens of slang words. A sampling includes; dyke, faggot, molly, tommy, poof, pansy, Mary, limp-wristed, friend of Dorothy, butch, Kiki, muff diver, pillow biter, fairy, fruit and sod.

Like queer, perhaps it is time to reclaim some of them.

For myself, if I am looking for a change, I sort of like the ring of the Calgary Temperamental History Project.


World AIDS Day & Anger

World AIDS Day began in 1988, when an international meeting of health ministers in London, England declared December 1st a day to highlight the enormity of the AIDS pandemic. Today in Canada, men who have sex with men* still make up the majority of new HIV infections annually: 57% or about 1400 new infections/year. Men who have sex with men are 131 times more likely to get HIV than men who do not. Pause to consider that.


The world is an angry place today. Foreign national events such as Brexit and the U.S. Election were notable in their antagonistic rhetoric. But even at the most local level, Calgarians are bellicose over reasonably low stake issues such as cycle tracks, public art, and election line-ups (issues I am personally connected to, which have given me lots of practice with wrath management technique).

Recently, I came upon a manifesto in zine form called Queers Read This. It was distributed at the June 1990 Pride March in New York City, and “published anonymously by queers.” It is a concentrated distillation of rage at a time when the stakes could not have been higher. AIDS, at the time, was a growing epidemic and for most, an almost certain death sentence.

The publication has exhortations to “bash back,” meet hatred with hatred, and give no inch to straights. It very much defended the word Queer as a militant signifier of strength which galvanized and branded the generation of activists who came of age then.

Calgary was part of this movement. 1990 was the year of the first Pride Rally in the city. It was also a time of tragic AIDS deaths, frequent gay bashings and other forms of homophobic backlash. Yet it was this anger which helped us stand our ground and ultimately win our human rights battles.

So I am reframing my relationship to anger. Anger can affect social change. Anger can be something positive – like the 1400 Canadian men who have sex with men who will get infected with HIV this year.

*{Men who have sex with men is a term that refers to behaviour rather than identity; it captures not only gay and bisexual men but also those who do not identify themselves based on their sexual practices.}

ANGER (An Essay from Queers Read This)

“The strong sisters told the brothers that there were two important things to remember about the coming revolutions, the first is that we will get our asses kicked. The second, is that we will win.”

I’m angry. I’m angry for being condemned to death by strangers saying, “You deserve to die” and “AIDS is the cure.” Fury erupts when a Republican woman wearing thousands of dollars of garments and jewelry minces by the police lines shaking her head, chuckling and wagging her finger at us like we are recalcitrant children making absurd demands and throwing a temper tantrum when they aren’t met. Angry while Joseph agonizes over $8,000 for AZT which might keep him alive a little longer and which makes him sicker than the disease he is diagnosed with. Angry as I listen to a man tell me that after changing his will five times he’s running out of people to leave things to. All of his best friends are dead. Angry when I stand in a sea of quilt panels, or go to a candlelight march or attend yet another memorial service. I will not march silently with a fucking candle and I want to take that goddamned quilt and wrap myself in it and furiously rend it and my hair and curse every god religion ever created. I refuse to accept a creation that cuts people down in the third decade of their life.

It is cruel and vile and meaningless and everything I have in me rails against the absurdity and I raise my face to the clouds and a ragged laugh that sounds more demonic than joyous erupts from my throat and tears stream down my face and if this disease doesn’t kill me, I may just die of frustration. My feet pound the streets and Peter’s hands are chained to a pharmaceutical company’s reception desk while the receptionist looks on in horror and Eric’s body lies rotting in a Brooklyn cemetery and I’ll never hear his flute resounding off the walls of the meeting house again. And I see the old people in Tompkins Square Park huddled in their long wool coats in June to keep out the cold they perceive is there and to cling to whatever little life has left to offer them. I’m reminded of the people who strip and stand before a mirror each night before they go to bed and search their bodies for any mark that might not have been there yesterday. A mark that this scourge has visited them.

And I’m angry when the newspapers call us “victims” and sound alarms that “it” might soon spread to the “general population.” And I want to scream “Who the fuck am I?” And I want to scream at New York Hospital with its yellow plastic bags marked “isolation linen”, “ropa infecciosa” and its orderlies in latex gloves and surgical masks skirting the bed as if its occupant will suddenly leap out and douse them with blood and semen giving them too the plague.

And I’m angry at straight people who sit smugly wrapped in their self-protective coat of monogamy and heterosexuality confident that this disease has nothing to do with them because “it” only happens to “them.” And the teenage boys who upon spotting my Silence=Death button begin chanting “Faggot’s gonna die” and I wonder, who taught them this? Enveloped in fury and fear, I remain silent while my button mocks me every step of the way.

And the anger I feel when a television program on the quilt gives profiles of the dead and the list begins with a baby, a teenage girl who got a blood transfusion, an elderly baptist minister and his wife and when they finally show a gay man, he’s described as someone who knowingly infected teenage male prostitutes with the virus. What else can you expect from a faggot?

I’m angry.


Photo: Queers Read This published anonymously by queers.




My own public IDAHO: kiss-in May 17th

Brett from Calgary Outlink invited me to a kiss-in this week in Tompkins Park (see facebook event: here).  This is Calgary’s gesture towards the growing International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), annually held on May 17th.

Citizens around the world over take part in actions of various kinds, including kiss-ins, flash mobs, demonstrations and sometimes very poetic gestures in countries where homophobia is rampant and personal safety is at risk.  For example, activists in St. Petersburg, Russia, commemorated IDAHO 2012 with a mass rally of 300 people. They faced off against 100-150 anti-LGBT protestors who chanted homophobic slogans and attacked two of the activists. Yet, in 15 Russian cities, other activists staged “Rainbow Flashmobs” by releasing balloons into the skies.

Kiss-ins are a form of social activism pioneered by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).  In April 1988, ACT UP and their art agitprop arm, Gran Fury, released this iconic poster announcing their first KISS IN.

Modelled on the love-ins and be-ins of the late 60s, the kiss-in was to disrupt social norms and presumed heterosexual space with the assertion of queer identity.  “We kiss”, ACT UP’s fact sheet explained, “so that all who see us will be forced to confront their own homophobia.”

Canada’s Fondation Émergence spearheads the national IDAHO marketing campaign.  The 2013 IDAHO theme is:

We at calgarygayhistory.ca and calgaryqueerhistory.ca are sending you big kisses and anti-viral voices and stories for this May 17th and throughout the rest of 2013.