Tag Archives: Glenbow

The Of Colour Collective

Here is our latest history segment from this week’s broadcast of Calgary Rainbow Radio on CJSW:

Identity politics are very present in the public realm currently. The high profile Black Lives Matter protest at the 2016 Toronto Pride Festival has given the LGBTQ2 community pause to consider issues of privilege and racism within our own relationships and organizations.

Yet this is not the first time in Calgary that issues of racism within the gay community have been tackled. The Calgary Gay History Project recently interviewed a number of people who were involved with the groundbreaking Of Colour Collective, which existed in the 90s, and the work that they did addressing racism, sexism and homophobia and the intersections between them.

The origins of the group began in the feminist community. In the early 90s, a small group of women of colour connected to the Calgary Status of Women Action Committee (CSWAC) formed a collective they called WOCC – or the Women of Colour Collective. WOCC members wanted to challenge both hetero-normative assumptions in the women of colour community as well as white privilege in the local feminist community, which they felt was endemic in Calgary.

WOCC ended up having a great impact on CSWAC, and on its most high-profile project, the Herland Film Festival; eventually WOCC was invited to become a co-presenter of the festival. WOCC members who identified as queer increasingly became preoccupied with a perceived ethnic divide in the local queer community. WOCC co-founder Susanda Yee in February 1992 met some queer men of color who spoke of going through similar struggles, and they decided to form a new group.

There was some debate about whether it would be a social or an activist group and it tried to be both. When they were formulating a name for themselves different options were bandied about. Queers of Colour worked for some. Another cheekily suggested Off Colour.  But then Of Colour was proposed as a way to centralize and focus on that aspect of difference that united the group. When the noun was dropped (women, men, queers, etc.), the focus became on the adjective that united participants and defined their experience.

Through Gaylines, at the Old Y, they began meeting on the first Sunday of the month. In addition, Of Colour began socializing together a lot – going to gay bars as a group, and meeting up at art-house cinemas like the Plaza Theatre in Kensington for movies and post-film coffee discussions.

A formative moment for the collective occurred in the fall of 1992 when they travelled to Vancouver for a national human rights Conference called Outrights whose aim was to form a pan-Canadian queer organization. It was there that they met similar groups such as Khush: South Asian Gay Men [and Women] of Toronto. The Calgarians were both inspired and politicized by the experience and left with the sense that they were not alone. Queers of colour across Canada were striving for self-expression, to be more fully seen and to move beyond stereotypes.

Upon their return to Calgary, Of Colour divided into two overlapping groups – the working collective devoted to political action and the general collective who worked on social events.

In the Spring of 1993, the Collective was invited to speak at the Calgary Networking Club, an organization for gay and lesbian professionals. After their presentation, the audience started asking pointed and hostile questions such as: “Don’t you think YOU’RE being racist?” Or: “Why are you so angry at white people?” One person even told the speakers that: “immigrants need to go, because we were here first.” The Of Colour Collective representatives were shocked but the group doubled down on their commitment to educating and representing.

The larger queer community though was not universally hostile. Around the same time, the Calgary Lesbian And Gay Political Action Guild (CLAGPAG) invited Of Colour to be part of their diversity education campaign for service providers in Calgary. Of Colour accepted the invitation and the project, which created posters for agencies to display in their offices and lobbies, was deemed a success.

Screen Shot 2017-03-15 at 11.45.12 AM

On June 20, 1993, Susanda Yee and Paul Fernandez spoke at the Pride Rally at City Hall representing the Of Colour Collective.  They said that gay media such as Speak Sebastian (on CJSW) and CLUE! Magazine and the gay community at large ignore the issue of racism within the queer community.

That September, Clue Magazine did a cover story on diversity, which includes a guest editorial by Of Colour Collective member Kevin D’Souza. Controversy erupted over the feature article when Paul Fernandez strenuously objected to his published interview in a strongly worded letter to the editor and a Clue! Magazine investigation of the interview tapes confirmed that there were indeed misquotes and quotes taken out of context. Clue Magazine issued an apology.

Until 1995, the conflicts and controversies were largely contained within the queer community but in June of that year, the Of Colour Collective’s work blew up in a way that attracted national attention. Some members of the Of Colour Collective had experience producing film festivals; they thought to organize a Queer Film Fest titled: The Fire I’ve Become. The Collective booked the Glenbow Museum as their screening venue and there were no issues until their program came out. Some of the films being shown had racy titles and perceived X-rated content, which quickly attracted the ire of social conservatives.

Screen Shot 2017-03-15 at 11.50.44 AM

Pastor Ron Goodhew of the Jubilee Christian Centre contacted MPs, MLAs, and leaders of over 200 local churches to have their members protest the festival. He explained: “I don’t think the majority of people in Calgary would approve of their tax money paying to show restricted movies in a government-funded building.”

Ruksanna Makris, a spokesperson for the festival said in the Calgary Sun: “We contacted the police and nothing we are doing is against the Criminal Code.”

Yet many politicians of the day threw their disgusted 2 cents in: for example, Calgary Southeast Reform MP, Jan Brown, said she was appalled that the festival was funded in part by the Canada Council for the Arts.

The Glenbow Museum decidedly did not like the heat from the hundreds of calls protesting the venue rental and had reservations about letting the festival go forward, but after an intense meeting with the Of Colour Collective and their supporters, the Glenbow Executives allowed it.

Some members of the gay community were also hostile about the festival, worried about losing face and moving backward on human rights in Alberta. Michele Sharpe, Executive Director of Project Pride said in a Globe and Mail interview: “They have put the community back 20 years. They expect the entire gay community to support them and they are not going to get that. There are people, including myself, who are upset with some of the titles.”

Filmmaker Michelle Wong from the Of Colour Collective was given a crash course in media relations and was the official media spokesperson over the controversy. A couple of her main talking points were the fact that the festival crystallized gay issues and brought them to a larger public. She also countered that gays pay taxes in Canada and have every right to access public funding and public venues for their events.

The four-day festival turned out to be very popular. Its audience members had to cross through a picket of anti-festival demonstrators – but they filled the theatre every night.

In 1996, the festival presented its second iteration of the Fire I’ve Become at the Uptown Cinema.  Audience numbers disappointed the organizers and Michelle Wong said that the 1996 festival felt like a failure. That blow, combined with the fact that some key members of the Of Colour Collective had begun to leave Calgary, meant the group became less active. By 1998, the group was effectively dormant. They then formally wound their operations down handing over their accounts to the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Association (GLCSA), the organization known to us today as Calgary Outlink.

{KA}

The Archives – We’ve got stuff!

For the past two years the Calgary Gay History Project has been dutifully collecting donations from community members to build a local gay history archive. The collection is diverse: we have publications, books, organization documents, news clipping, audio tapes, video tapes, clothing, buttons and other ephemera that represents the history of the LGBTQ community in Calgary.

We recently over two Sunday’s catalogued all of the donations to date.  “Archive blitz days” we called them, and it proved to be a huge but rewarding task. Now we have a simple but searchable database, which already has proved helpful in solving research queries related to our history.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 2.43.56 PM

Calgary Gay History Project’s Rosman Valencia and Jonathan Brower finished cataloguing the archive recently.

The long-term home for the archives, will be in one of our Calgary collecting institutions, such as the Glenbow Museum, the University of Calgary or Mount Royal University – we have been in conversation with all three. However in the meantime, while the gay history book is written, the collection is slowly filling up Kevin Allen’s apartment.

If you have something that might be of interest to the Calgary Gay History Archive, please contact us. We will take just about everything as well as pick it up from your home.  A few times, we have heard:

“I just threw out those old things a few months ago, because I did not think anyone would want them…”

This brings tears to our eyes!

If you are saving treasures you are not ready to donate, that is fine too.  Let us know about them, and we will keep you apprised of where the gay history archive collection ends up. You may want to contribute to the archive later down the road or contribute to it as part of your estate planning.

The archive is a treasure which will become even more valuable to historians in the decades to come.  Please consider donating to it.

{KA}

 

The Effect of AIDS on Calgary

AIDS created both personal and political crises in Canada and our gay communities were irrevocably changed.  Now in hindsight we are beginning to see the shape of those changes and understand their impact.  For one, it politicized the gay community dramatically – the stakes could not be higher – people were dying in a backdrop of little information and government action. For two, it brought the community closer together after years of division from fractious identity politics (read this interesting article about survivors of the AIDS crisis and the role of lesbians).  For three, the public at large could no longer ignore or fail to notice the queers amongst them.

Red ribbon

AIDS was first reported in Alberta in 1983: the first death a bisexual Calgary man in early June.  On June 30th, Alberta was the second province in Canada to declare AIDS a notifiable disease.  Grassroots organizing by Calgary’s gay community began almost immediately.  By late July, the city’s gay club owners raised and donated $10,000, to the University of Calgary to become the foundation for an AIDS research and education fund.

One year later (1984) the number of confirmed AIDS cases in Alberta had grown to six with only two men still alive – and every one was a gay or bisexual man.  For ten years the stats kept getting darker and bleaker until newly diagnosed cases peaked in 1994 at 134.  From then onwards, sex education and cocktail drug therapies started bringing the numbers and the mortality down. Calgary was the hardest hit city in the province.

The first meetings for what was to become AIDS Calgary began in September 1985.  Doug Young, a gay activist and community organizer collected papers from those early meetings, which can be found at the Glenbow Archives.  Sadly, he himself died of AIDS in 1994.

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 6.30.47 PM

 

Nationally, the recently launched AIDS Activist History Project is working to document Canadian AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s.  The Calgary Gay History Project will work collaboratively with the project to preserve our local stories.  As always, if you do have something to share, please contact us: here.

{KA}