UNDETECTABLE was featured earlier this month at the LGBT Toronto Film Festival where it won the audience award for best short film.
UNDETECTABLE is a TELUS Original documentary and was produced with the assistance of the Government of Alberta, the Alberta Media Fund and Calgary Arts Development, in collaboration with the Calgary Gay History Project.
The Calgary Gay History Project recently presented the history of Calgary’s first LGBTQ2 chorus, the Rocky Mountain Singers (RMS). This is the second blog post exploring the history we uncovered as part of this commissioned research project (thanks to One Voice Chorus).
1990 proved to be a pivotal year for Calgary’s LGBT community. AIDS was in the ascendant, and the community was beginning to find its political voice—confronting the casual homophobia that was pervasive in the city. RMS had been practicing for less than a year but had scheduled their first big concert on June 22nd as part of Calgary’s growing Pride Week festivities.
For some, the masks were a media stunt, but others worried about having their LGBT identity revealed. This concern was a reality RMS had to negotiate in the choir’s early years. Members had differing levels of comfort in being out, which affected their ability to perform in public or even have their name listed in the program.
However, the concert went bravely ahead. Luke Shwart remembers: “Pride 1990 felt like our very first concert. It was set up cabaret-style and sold out. It went very well, but backstage the level of anticipation was through the roof! People were terrified about walking out there and performing—there was a great sense of exhilaration, accomplishment and relief afterward.”
The concert was a hit. Karen Whyte in Modern Pink Magazine wrote, “a special highlight of [Pride] week was the outstanding performance by Rocky Mountain Singers. Over 200 people attended the concert, and everyone loved it!”
Later that summer, 15 RMS choristers flew to Vancouver for the Gay Games. They participated in the Festival Chorus: a choir for anyone who wanted to sing and was coming to the Games. The Gay Choral movement had been spreading across North America, and hundreds came to sing.
The Festival Chorus was directed by choral conductor Carol White from Denver, Colorado. The Calgarians in attendance found the experience electrifying—the sheer volume of that many voices was profound.
Patrick O’Brien remembers: “We had to learn about 14 songs. One of the songs was called Living With AIDS. It had a hymn-like quality. Carol directed it professionally—cutting it into bits for us to practice. At one point, she paused and said, ‘If there is anybody who is comfortable standing up who is currently living with AIDS—can we as a group collectively acknowledge your strength?’ RMS member Karl Siegfried stood up, and then and men started standing up everywhere in their sections. It was an amazing, powerful moment. I think the women from our chorus looked around and thought: what do you know….”
The Festival Chorus rehearsed every morning for a week. They performed at the Gay Games opening ceremonies on August 4th, marched in the Pride Parade on August 6th, gave an evening concert on August 10th and delivered a final performance at the closing ceremonies on August 11th.
The Gay Games ended withCarnaval! A fantasy parade. Fantastical creatures and people in extravagant costumes led the audience, choristers and athletes, out of the stadium and towards the Plaza of Nations for one last party together. The exhilarated Rocky Mountain Singers had found joy in a larger community and new energy and purpose for their fledgling Calgary chorus.
One of the moving aspects of working on local gay history is that—sometimes—the stories you are sharing of long dead activists come to life when living family members reach out and connect.
In April, I was writing a series about AIDS: reflecting on one pandemic while we move through another. I discovered the story of Mark Perry-Schaub, a thwarted Calgary ’88 Winter Olympics volunteer, who fought to regain his volunteer position after losing it, because he had AIDS.
After coming across the post, Ann—a relative—wrote to me. Mark died before Ann was born; this unknown Uncle left a haunting ache in Ann’s family.
Ann explained: “I’ve always been drawn to learning more about Mark, and talking about him. That’s why I contacted [his friend] Dave McKeen when I was 16, and attempted to contact Doug McKay, Mark’s friend who’d been his roommate and cared for him in the final months (unfortunately McKay died in 2005 when I was a toddler). I’ve written a number of essays on Mark, and AIDS in general, for school… I just always wanted to know more, like as much as is possible without being able to meet him. I think being LGBT+ myself results in me being even more interested, like he could have been such a great supportive figure in my life. We could have been close.”
Ann shared photos, news clippings, and fleshed out details of Mark from family stories. Mark, even appeared in an AIDS Calgary video: Respect Yourself Protect, Yourself. Although I had seen it before, I did not make the connection that the man named Mark in the video was Mark Perry-Schaub. What a surprise to see Mark animated again!
According to Ann, Dave McKeen told her that: “Mark had a heart of gold and even when too ill to really help, he was still volunteering his time and energy to help those in greater need; no one volunteered as much as he did.”
Mark died on April 1, 1988, aged 26, just weeks after the Calgary Winter Olympics concluded. His memorial service was held at the Metropolitan Community Church. Although his parents weren’t in attendance, his siblings were; it was a profound loss.
Ann shares, “it sounds like he was an amazing person. Of everyone, alive or dead, he’s the person I’d want to meet the most. I imagine he’d have been an awesome uncle.”