Tag Archives: Calgary Herald

The Sum of Us

In October 1991, Theatre Calgary presented a highly lauded production of playwright David Stevens’ The Sum of Us. Described as frank, funny and touching, the play explored the relationship between a widowed father and his gay son, set in a working-class suburb of Melbourne, Australia. The play first premiered in an acclaimed off-Broadway production in 1990, and Theatre Calgary was the next company to stage it after that inaugural run.

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Theatre Calgary’s Sum of Us Program

Stevens said The Sum of Us, was partly autobiographical. In a Calgary Herald interview, he explained:  “My mother had to come to terms with the fact that her mother was a dyke and her son is a poofter. I thought, if she could cope with that, anyone could!” For the play, however, he made the father the compassionate parent, noting that his own father was somewhat “to the right of Genghis Khan.”

Theatre Calgary (TC) secured impressive talent for their production. Gordon Pinsent played the widower Harry, and Ted Atherton, his son Jeff. Theatre director Eric Steiner was engaged to bring The Sum of Us to the Canadian stage. Steiner, who came to Calgary, via Stratford, Chicago and Toronto had worked with TC before, directing The Normal Heart in 1986, one of the first plays about AIDS ever presented in the city.

Martin Morrow, Theatre Critic for the Calgary Herald, wrote:

“Eric Steiner’s production for TC is outstanding. As well-meaning Harry, venerable Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent gives a warm, rich, endearing performance – this is surely among the best acting he’s ever done. He’s well matched by blond, boyish Ted Atherton as the likeable underachiever Jeff – the pair have a beautiful familial chemistry on stage….. As it stands, it’s one of the best shows Theatre Calgary has ever done.”

Playwright Stevens was on the record that the TC production was the finest his play had been given. And Calgary audiences liked it too; the show tripled its expected revenues at the box office. Theatre Calgary then leveraged its success to open the play in Toronto that November at the Bathurst Street Theatre for an open-ended commercial run in collaboration with independent producer David Warack.

I remember seeing the play twice in Calgary and found it very moving. “Our children are only the sum of us, what we add up to,” said a philosophical Gordon Pinsent. “How could I be ashamed of what my seed has become?”

The Sum of Us would go on to be produced by theatre companies around the world and in 1994 was made into an Australian feature film starring Russell Crowe. Sadly, after ten years battling AIDS, Canadian theatre director Eric Steiner died on June 30, 1993.



Defending Lesbian Moms in YYC

For decades in Calgary, if you were out as a lesbian and had children, you would likely have them taken away. Therefore the stakes were high for gay women: being a mom was decidedly a good reason for keeping the closet door barricaded. Unofficial estimates claim up to 50% of lesbians in the 1960s and 70s had children through previous heterosexual relationships or marriages. If they were outed, former husbands or even the state itself would intervene to ensure that these “unfit mothers” had their children removed.

Lois Szabo, the 2017 Grand Marshall of the Calgary Pride Parade, is a lesbian and also a mother. She was able to work out a child rearing arrangement with her husband privately. Sadly, Lois knew of other lesbians in the 1960s who lost access to their children completely and became utterly broken. One lesbian she knew was institutionalized. Another killed herself slowly through alcoholism.

In fact, it was not until November 21, 1975, when an openly lesbian mother was awarded custody of her child in Canada. In the groundbreaking decision of K. vs. K., Justice D. W. Rowe of the Alberta Provincial Court reasoned that a child’s likelihood of becoming gay would not increase solely by being raised by a homosexual parent – contrary to the view widely held in Canadian society. Regrettably, this decision did not set a new legal standard as throughout the 1980s lesbian mothers continued to lose custody battles specifically due to their sexual orientation.

However, the 1975 decision fired up feminist activists to begin challenging the legal bias against lesbians in Canadian courts. In 1978, the first Lesbian Mothers’ Defence Fund (LMDF) was started in Toronto, initially through a grant from a local church group and then sustained through private donations.

In Calgary, Lynn Fraser was working at the Calgary Status of Women Action Committee, a job she described as “very low paid but very exciting.” Lynn was an unapologetic feminist and activist. She recalled, “I had a big button I always wore that said, ‘Lesbian Mother,’ which sometimes caused me trouble – but I never backed down.”

Lynn had organized Feminist Town Halls in Calgary which included both actions and public speakers. In 1982, the first “Women Reclaim the Night March” was staged in Calgary in conjunction with a talk by Andrea Dworkin, a well-known American anti-pornography activist. Another speaker in the Town Hall series was Francie Wyland, the coordinator at Toronto’s LMDF.

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Francie Wyland, Dustin Smith, and his mother, Lynn Fraser. Photo: Garth Pritchard, Calgary Herald July 2, 1981.

There was a loose collective interested in starting a LMDF chapter in Calgary after Francie Wyland spoke to the lesbian community in 1981. Lynn met Marilyn Atkinson and her partner Lou at that first gathering featuring Francie. Marilyn also became a key organizer in the collective. As a mother herself, Marilyn volunteered to provide peer support to lesbian mothers and women during any potential custody struggles. The collective was based out of Gay Information Resources Calgary (GIRC) initially.

Lavender Marilyn

Lou with Marilyn Atkinson featured in Calgary’s Lesbian Publication The Lavender Times on the occasion of their 25th Anniversary.

The LMDF was a low-budget, grass roots organization. Pot-luck suppers and community dances were its primary source of funding. In 1982, two Calgary lesbians took pledges to cycle across the county to raise money for the LMDF. It took them four months, but they made it to St. John’s that summer after starting in Vancouver.

In 1983, the father of Lynn’s son, Dustin, started making noises about challenging her for custody of their child. That mobilized Lynn to call Francie in Toronto for LMDF advice. Beltline lawyer, Neva Ramsay, volunteered to do the incorporation papers for the local chapter and on April 21st, 1983, the Lesbian Mothers Defence Fund Society of Alberta was born. Dustin’s father backed off.

There was a lively social scene with Calgary’s LMDF, which moved out of GIRC into their own office at the Old Y. The potlucks and dances would even attract lesbians without children! A bonus to the socializing was that their children got to play with other kids who had lesbian moms, making their family structures seem much more commonplace.

The Lavender Times, November 1987

The LMDF offered information, support, referrals to lawyers, and financial help to lesbian mothers struggling to keep or win custody of their children. The advice in child custody cases included: going to court is the last resort; do not leave your children behind; beware of ex-husbands kidnapping your kids. The LMDF also advocated for social change in the judicial system, proclaiming that the straight court system failed lesbians.

Lynn recalls: “It was an exciting time to get your voice out there and be heard. There was so much misinformation and so much fear – it seemed like almost everybody was in the closet.”

As the LMDF developed, Marilyn was hired to organize lesbian conferences which she remembered proved quite popular: “Women came from everywhere to attend.” The first conference in 1985, was funded by the local lesbian community itself. When the conferences began to attract public funding, protests were heard.

Maureen Buruill, a lobbyist with REAL Women of Canada in January 1987 wrote an editorial in the Calgary Herald complaining about her own organization’s lack of funding:

“Women’s groups across Canada receive funding from the Secretary of State’s Women’s Program. One example was a grant to the Calgary Lesbian Mothers Defence Fund to set up a “lesbian-gay” workshop collective. This organization also received a grant to arrange a lesbian conference. Why is our tax money given to these groups and refused to a group seeking to preserve family values?”

Despite the social conservative yowling, the legal system evolved to have less bias against lesbian mothers. Consequently, the LMDF’s activities morphed into helping lesbians get pregnant – initially by connecting donors to mothers but also by running sperm! It was not until 1992 that artificial insemination in hospitals became legally available to single and unmarried women, including lesbians in Calgary. The LMDF then began fundraising for artificial insemination in doctor’s offices and stopped running sperm themselves. Several babies were born from the LMDF’s sustained efforts.

In 1992, the society changed its name to the Lesbian Mothers Support Society to better reflect its efforts and developed a notable online presence. It also was active in advocating Provincially for adoption rights for the partners of lesbian mothers. The society wound down its operations in 2002. However, in its 21 years of history, the LMDF made a huge difference: defending lesbian mothers and moving social justice forward in Calgary.


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.

Alberta Report Cover, October 7, 1996.

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.