Tag Archives: GIRC

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.

Screen Shot 2017-08-24 at 1.51.38 PM

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.

{KA}

Heritage Award & “After Stonewall”

Although there have not been weekly gay history posts lately, we have been diligently working on the history project behind the scenes. Kevin Allen has been going through the first edit of his history book manuscript, incorporating suggestions and edits to make the book a better read.

Last week, we were honoured by CommunityWise and given the 2017 Heritage Award at their Annual General Meeting. The award reads that “the Gay History Project continues to enrich and inform our present society and illuminates vital chapters of history in this shared place.” CommunityWise, formally known as The Old Y , is widely recognized as the historical hub of Calgary’s gay community dating back to the 70s.

CommunityWise Heritage Award

Erin, Jian, Thulasy & Phil from the CommunityWise Staff Collective present Kevin with the 2017 Heritage Award

We are also grateful to our colleague, Dr. Valerie Korinek, who is a professor of Modern Canadian History at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. She recently wrote a Notches blog piece on the prairie publication, “After Stonewall” exploring the politics and milieu of gay liberation in the late 70s. You can read it: here. Calgary’s Gay Information Resources Calgary (GIRC) was part of the liberation discourse of its day that Dr. Korinek writes about. Furthermore, the problematic National Gay Rights Coalition (NGRC) which is referenced in the article, interestingly sounded its death knell in Calgary when conference delegates in 1980 voted to disband the organization, seen as having outlived its usefulness.

{KA}

Earning Toasters in “The Hat”

By the late 70s, Calgary’s gay community was fairly established and extensive. If you boldly came out of the closet as a gay activist then, you would find a network of organizations and businesses to both support you and your work. Seeking approval from the straight community was decidedly out of fashion and gay separation was a recurrent theme in GIRC’s Gay Calgary newspaper.

In April 1979, the Alberta Lesbian and Gay Rights Association (ALGRA) was founded with representation from the Province’s biggest cities: Calgary, Edmonton, and Red Deer. Rural outreach was a priority goal for ALGRA and Calgary gays found themselves on missions in Southern Alberta to connect with rural gays as well as to coax them out of the closet.

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 1.56.37 PM

However, “Medicine Hat had a few shocks in store for three Calgarians who are gay and accustomed to being ‘out’,” wrote Charlotte Rochon, in the December 1979 issue of Gay Horizons.

Not only did they have a hard time trying to find a distribution prospect for their newspaper – the newsstand proprietor called Gay Horizons, “that shit,” but also the purported gay meeting place in the Hat didn’t really exist.

Fortunately, the intrepid Calgarians had a local contact whom they met for tea. It turned out that there was a covert network of gays and lesbians who might be coaxed out that evening for dinner.

Rochon wrote: “Dinner turned out to be quite encouraging after an afternoon of frustrations. Two of the contacts who came turned out to be part of the elusive underground: lesbians and gay men who do indeed have a group that meets regularly in one Medicine Hat bar that does not intimidate them. Dinner was a celebration of gays coming together”

As the evening progressed, the Calgarians were less than thrilled when they were requested to play it straight: no same-sex dancing or displays of affection. As they grumblingly cooperated  – “the closet is despicable” – they acknowledged that coming out in Medicine Hat might prove to be a riskier, and less anonymous, venture than coming out in Calgary.

They also concluded that the existence of the gay underground in Medicine Hat was a great sign – the beginning of a gay liberation movement in the Southern Alberta city.

The expedition informed Rochon’s politics. In a separate editorial, she wrote:

The gay movement should divert [its] energies away from lobbying heterosexual institutions in order to concentrate on the development of its own community.

Such a move has the potential to give our gay community the strength its members need to really ‘come out’ to be neither offensive or defensive, to simply be gay, content, beautiful, as we know ourselves to be.

The implications of community building are clear: as we grow stronger, more of us will be openly gay, more people will know us, larger and larger segments of society will come to appreciate us…. Familiarity breeds consent.

*”Earning toasters” refers to the social conservative notion of gays recruiting straights into their filthy lifestyle.  The gay community turned the notion into a joke as in, “one more recruit and I will have earned a toaster”: a primordial reward points plan.

Postscript: Brooks turned out to be a more tolerant town; their newsstand accepted Gay Horizons on the Calgarians’ road trip adventure tour.

toaster

Vintage 70s Toaster, Image Source: eBay

{KA}