YYCgaySPORThistory

{This week, the Calgary Gay History Project is pleased to present a guest article from the U of C’s Connor MacDonald!}

The Paradox of Queer Sport Stories in Calgary’s History

The following is a summary of an honours thesis completed by Connor MacDonald in 2019. Connor’s work was supervised by Dr. William Bridel in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary.

It is sometimes difficult to think about sport critically. Sport, after all, provides opportunities for people to witness and celebrate (or even perform) what seem to be superhuman feats. Sport also allows us opportunities to cheer on local teams as well as athletes representing our country in international competition. And, sport is proposed to provide opportunities for physical, mental, and social health benefits through participation. Those critical of sport, however, point to the ways that it has been and continues to be exclusionary. This is no less true for LGBTQ+ persons and communities where sport has often held a paradoxical role: it is well documented how LGBTQ+ persons have experienced discrimination, harassment, and abuse in (largely) mainstream sport while also experiencing sport as a form of community building.

Lesbian Softball in 1965

Lesbian Softball in Calgary circa 1965

As Kevin Allen notes in Our Past Matters: Stories of Gay Calgary, there were two lesbian softball teams in Calgary during the 1960s, who would play games and then meet afterward for drinks and food in the backroom of the Cecil Hotel. I was curious what other examples there may have been of LGBTQ+ sport at the time and in the decades that followed. This was of particular interest to me given the conservative political and cultural backdrop of Calgary in the 1980s and 90s. Thus, for my undergraduate thesis, I interviewed three self-identified gay men who all resided in Calgary in the 1980s and onward, and who had varying levels of involvement in local sport and physical activity. Interviews lasted between 2.5 and 3-hours and we covered many topics, with many similar ideas raised by each of the three participants.

LGBTQ Sport Organizations & the Calgary Community

Beyond the two lesbian softball teams in the 1960s, it appears that the first organized LGBTQ+ sport association in Calgary was Apollo—Friends in Sports. According to Apollo’s website, Facebook page, and interviews with participants, the organization was established in 1981 with a humble beginning of only four members initially. Apollo has grown since that time to over 400 members at present. The primary purpose of Apollo in the beginning was to organize a multi-sport event, presumably modeled after LGBTQ+ sport organizations in other cities in North America, leading to the inaugural Gay Games held in 1982 in San Francisco. The Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association (ARGRA, now CRGRA—Canadian Rockies Gay Rodeo Association) was created in 1991 with its first event held in 1994. With the growth of LGBTQ+ sport in Calgary, the city hosted the first North American Outgames in 2007.

This growth all took place while relationships between LGBTQ+ persons/organizations and Calgary and Alberta politicians were tenuous. As Allen notes in his book, Al Duerr, who was mayor of Calgary from 1989 to 2001, proclaimed his support for Apollo and for Pride, but later backed out on that support. More generally, it was difficult to receive sport-related funding from the provincial government and municipal governments, despite growing financial and policy-support for sport in Canada more broadly. This compounded the difficulty for LGBTQ+ sport fund opportunities in Calgary. However, this did not stop organizers from tirelessly gathering resources, funding, and partnerships with local businesses to host provincial, nationwide, and international sport tournaments. Despite resistance, prejudice, and discrimination, the growth in LGBTQ+ organizations, including sport, allowed for connections with the wider Calgary community—and with each other.

Sport and physical activity acted as an access point to socialization, connecting these groups to other community organizations (e.g., Rocky Mountain Singers, Imperial Sovereign Court of the Chinook Arch (ISCCA)), as well as forging national and international relationships with other LGBTQ+ sport groups (e.g., The Gay Games). One participant spoke specifically about the relationship between ARGRA and the ISCCA, noting that in early years ISCCA would sponsor a belt buckle for ARGRA, who in turn would support ISCCA events through ticket purchases and attendance. As he stated, “you scratch our backs, we scratch yours”. Both organizations benefitted from the relationship through exposure to community members who otherwise may not have known about their respective events and fundraising initiatives.

LGBTQ+ Sport Organizations as “Safe Spaces”

Beyond these more general ideas about emerging LGBTQ+ sport groups and events and their place in the Calgary queer community and city more broadly, the men I interviewed also spoke quite specifically about LGBTQ+ sport organizations and teams as “safe spaces” and places used for socialization and friendship building.

They’re definitely safe spaces for people to come out early, and later in life. Like, I witnessed it. I can remember volleyball back in the early 90s… I saw a guy that was in his late 20s showing up and playing volleyball with us, and not identifying as gay, and then, you know, a couple weeks later, “I’m questioning.” Then, you know, two or three months later, “I’m comfortable…a little bit more comfortable, but still struggling.”

I think that sports played, for me personally, sports played a big part of my fitting into Calgary. If I hadn’t had that connection. I probably would have left Calgary. I probably would have moved somewhere else, back to Montreal. And I actually contemplated it in the first six months, and it took me a good two or three years to feel comfortable here.

 My gay best friend, one of his first parts of coming out, was coming out to the Frontrunners (an LGBT running club founded in 1991). It’s so safe to just go out [and] try a drop-in running group…. That was a great way to meet people and bring them into the community.

Competitiveness and Exclusion

While being presented as “safe spaces” in terms of coming out and finding community, many of the sport organizations and teams in which these men were involved also followed mainstream sport models. Instead of focusing on fun and participation, competition and performance took precedent, lessening the potential of these so-called inclusionary spaces. The stratification of certain sports into “beginner” and “expert” levels, such as volleyball, sometimes resulted in cliques and feelings of tension in an otherwise social and supportive environment.

These spaces were also often not welcoming spaces to lesbians and queer women. One participant commented specifically that he recalled having conversations with women about this issue.

Women would say to me, “A lot of women won’t come out because they’re gonna’… they feel that… an all-women’s team, playing against an all-male team, there’s an unfair, it’s not level. They also don’t feel welcome on mixed [teams]”. So, you know… this team has one woman, or two women on it, and five or six guys, and they found that they weren’t getting played enough, or, you know… enough time on the court.

Sport and “Healthiness”

Despite the close relationships between some of the sport and community organizations, it was also evident that sports such as volleyball, running, curling, and spaces of physical activity, such as the YMCA in Eau Claire, were positioned as “healthier” alternatives to the bar scene, which was one of the predominant forms of community building in early queer Calgary:

I don’t know, it’s like… like-minded people so that’s what their comfortable with, that’s who they want to be around. I don’t say this in a bad way, but I know a lot of guys who would go to Apollo weekend, ‘cause they [were hoping] to date a healthy guy. If guys who wanted to date healthy men, they thought—in their opinion—it was an easier way to get a date out of it. “Let’s go to Apollo weekend, those guys are healthy.”

While a paradoxical distinction was made between sport participation and “healthiness” and alcohol consumption and the bar scene, the men interviewed also commented on the importance sport organizations and teams had for Calgary and area men who were living with HIV and AIDS.

[W]hen I first joined Apollo…. a couple of their earlier founders had been diagnosed HIV positive, and some had passed away, some were too ill to participate anymore…. That was also my first sort of contact with HIV in the sense of knowing people who were positive. I would say that would probably be the biggest secret in the leagues at that time. And people didn’t talk about status…. But it never… it never kept people from participating. There was no, “Oh, you can’t participate.” You know we encouraged people, and for some people, it was their only outlet. It was their only way out of the house. Their only social activity…. I know some of the members made sure that, you know, they would pick people up to take them to bowling, even if they weren’t bowing, they were just sitting there and watching, and having a beer. It was a way out of their house…. And to forget their illness, and things like that.

Apollo and AIDS

Local AIDS Calgary advertisement featuring Apollo members.

Calgary sport organizations seemed to provide a safe and supportive space for men living with HIV and AIDS at a time of significant (and unfounded) fear in sport about HIV+ athletes as well as tremendous amounts of AIDS-related stigma in the broader cultural context.

Summary and Next Steps

While each interview participant had unique histories with sport and physical activity in Calgary, many similar ideas or themes were generated in our conversations. The ideas of community building and safety, as well as competitiveness and positioning sport as a “healthier” alternative to bars, are consistent with research done on LGBTQ+ sport in other parts of Canada and internationally. That these groups and spaces emerged and grew during a time of strong conservatism in the province and the city speaks to the power and potential of sport. I was thrilled to be able to gather these stories from the three participants and am grateful for their willingness to share their experiences and their knowledge. There are, to be sure, important stories remaining to be gathered from other Calgarians who participated in sport and physical activity during the latter part of the last century—women, trans, and gender non-conforming persons in particular—so that a richer and more complex history can be recorded. As such, the possibility of extending this research project is being explored.

 Additional Reading

Our Past Matters: Stories of Gay Calgary by Kevin Allen, published by ASPublishing in 2018.

The Gay Games: A History by Caroline Symons, published by Routledge in 2010.

It’s Good to Talk: Oral History, Sports History and Heritage by Fiona Skillen and Carol Osborne, published in The International Journal of the History of Sport in 2015.

Transgender Inclusion and the Changing Face of Lesbian Softball Leagues by Ann Travers and Jillian Deri, published in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport in 2011.

Sport, Sexuality, and the Production of (Resistant) Bodies: De-/Re-Constructing the Meanings of Gay Male Marathon Corporeality by William Bridel and Genevieve Rail, published in the Sociology of Sport Journal in 2007.

Therapeutic Landscapes and the Regulated Body in the Toronto Front Runners by Cathy van Ingen, published in Sociology of Sport Journal in 2004 (pp. 253-269).

{CM}

Purple Noon on Sunday

A film I discovered at the Pacific Cinematheque last year has haunted me ever since. Purple Noon (1960), directed by René Clément, is a lush, colourful adaptation of queer author Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 crime thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley. 

Purple Noon One

Maurice Ronet and Alain Delon in Purple Noon

Purple Noon (1960) sizzles with an understated homoerotic subtext at a time when being overtly gay landed you in jail. The film is notable both for its delicious cinematography and for launching the career of French actor, Alain Delon, whose terrible beauty caused international audiences to swoon – of all genders!

The role of Tom Ripley is better known to contemporary audiences from Matt Damon’s 1999 portrayal. However, Alain Delon is mesmerizing as the duplicitous American charmer in Rome on a mission to bring his privileged, devil-may-care acquaintance Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) back to the United States. What initially seems a carefree tale of friendship soon morphs into a thrilling saga of seduction, identity theft, and murder.

Calgary Cinematheque invites everyone to a free screening of Purple Noon at the Central Library this Sunday with a short introductory lecture from the Calgary Gay History Project. Get out of the winter YYC, and escape to a hot Italian summer this Sunday afternoon!

purple-noon-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000

Bizarre Love Triangle with Marie Laforêt – from Purple Noon

 

{KA}

It Gets Louder: YYC’s Proud Theatre History

{Kevin is on a book tour currently in Toronto and Ottawa – check out dates/times: here!}

I was fortunate to be invited to the opening night of The Louder We Get. The musical is Theatre Calgary’s exploration of a true story, which was precedent-setting for the LGBTQ2 human rights struggle in Canada. The Louder We Get portrays the 2002 battle between high school student Marc Hall and the Durham Catholic School Board. The drama inherent in the story is whether Marc will be able to take his boyfriend to prom. His legal case made Canadian and international headlines – and he won – making for a triumphant ending. The long-standing ovation and visibly moved audience at opening night augers well for a long-life for The Louder We Get: go see it!

Louder Cast

The artists of The Louder We Get celebrating on Opening Night

Calgary’s theatre community has been brave historically in showcasing gay stories, even when there was public hostility to their staging. Furthermore, the theatre was one of the earliest safe places for gay people to find work and also be open about their lives. For example, Ken McBane, a Theatre Calgary set designer was one of the five founders of Calgary’s Club Carousel in 1970. It was Ken who came up with the circus-themed look of the Club, and the Carousel was the site of many performances of musicals, plays, and stage-nights.

Roger Perkins

A “Stage Night” at Club Carousel circa 1972

The Loose Moose Theatre Company, founded in 1977, was an early adopter of gay content in Calgary. In March 1980, it co-produced with Gay Information and Resources Calgary (GIRC), Fortune and Men’s Eyes at the Pumphouse Theatre.

Fortune and Men’s Eyes is a play set in a Canadian prison for youth and deals with society’s injustice towards gay people. Written in Canada’s Centennial Year, 1967, by John Herbert, the play shocked audiences and helped force Canadian society to acknowledge the existence and rights of homosexuals.

In 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.

Theatre Calgary 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 Theatre Calgary before, directing The Normal Heart in 1986, one of the first plays about AIDS ever presented in the city.

Playwright Stevens was on the record that the Theatre Calgary 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 and opened the play in Toronto that November at the Bathurst Street Theatre for an open-ended commercial run.

The gay play that attracted the most controversy in Calgary was Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) staging of Angels in America in 1996. Before even opening, the play attracted a wagonload 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.

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.”

There were heartfelt published defenses of Angels in America too. A well-known educator, Dariel Bateman, wrote a guest column in the Calgary Herald. She described the play as: “a glorious opportunity to stare down despair, to make sense of things, as we must.”

Ultimately, ATP found themselves rewarded. 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.

{KA}