Tag Archives: AIDS

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.

{KA)

* Photographer Jason Stang filed a lawsuit against Alberta Report for altering his image claiming the publication: distorted, defaced and mutilated his work.

 

 

World AIDS Day & Anger

World AIDS Day began in 1988, when an international meeting of health ministers in London, England declared December 1st a day to highlight the enormity of the AIDS pandemic. Today in Canada, men who have sex with men* still make up the majority of new HIV infections annually: 57% or about 1400 new infections/year. Men who have sex with men are 131 times more likely to get HIV than men who do not. Pause to consider that.

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The world is an angry place today. Foreign national events such as Brexit and the U.S. Election were notable in their antagonistic rhetoric. But even at the most local level, Calgarians are bellicose over reasonably low stake issues such as cycle tracks, public art, and election line-ups (issues I am personally connected to, which have given me lots of practice with wrath management technique).

Recently, I came upon a manifesto in zine form called Queers Read This. It was distributed at the June 1990 Pride March in New York City, and “published anonymously by queers.” It is a concentrated distillation of rage at a time when the stakes could not have been higher. AIDS, at the time, was a growing epidemic and for most, an almost certain death sentence.

The publication has exhortations to “bash back,” meet hatred with hatred, and give no inch to straights. It very much defended the word Queer as a militant signifier of strength which galvanized and branded the generation of activists who came of age then.

Calgary was part of this movement. 1990 was the year of the first Pride Rally in the city. It was also a time of tragic AIDS deaths, frequent gay bashings and other forms of homophobic backlash. Yet it was this anger which helped us stand our ground and ultimately win our human rights battles.

So I am reframing my relationship to anger. Anger can affect social change. Anger can be something positive – like the 1400 Canadian men who have sex with men who will get infected with HIV this year.

*{Men who have sex with men is a term that refers to behaviour rather than identity; it captures not only gay and bisexual men but also those who do not identify themselves based on their sexual practices.}

ANGER (An Essay from Queers Read This)

“The strong sisters told the brothers that there were two important things to remember about the coming revolutions, the first is that we will get our asses kicked. The second, is that we will win.”

I’m angry. I’m angry for being condemned to death by strangers saying, “You deserve to die” and “AIDS is the cure.” Fury erupts when a Republican woman wearing thousands of dollars of garments and jewelry minces by the police lines shaking her head, chuckling and wagging her finger at us like we are recalcitrant children making absurd demands and throwing a temper tantrum when they aren’t met. Angry while Joseph agonizes over $8,000 for AZT which might keep him alive a little longer and which makes him sicker than the disease he is diagnosed with. Angry as I listen to a man tell me that after changing his will five times he’s running out of people to leave things to. All of his best friends are dead. Angry when I stand in a sea of quilt panels, or go to a candlelight march or attend yet another memorial service. I will not march silently with a fucking candle and I want to take that goddamned quilt and wrap myself in it and furiously rend it and my hair and curse every god religion ever created. I refuse to accept a creation that cuts people down in the third decade of their life.

It is cruel and vile and meaningless and everything I have in me rails against the absurdity and I raise my face to the clouds and a ragged laugh that sounds more demonic than joyous erupts from my throat and tears stream down my face and if this disease doesn’t kill me, I may just die of frustration. My feet pound the streets and Peter’s hands are chained to a pharmaceutical company’s reception desk while the receptionist looks on in horror and Eric’s body lies rotting in a Brooklyn cemetery and I’ll never hear his flute resounding off the walls of the meeting house again. And I see the old people in Tompkins Square Park huddled in their long wool coats in June to keep out the cold they perceive is there and to cling to whatever little life has left to offer them. I’m reminded of the people who strip and stand before a mirror each night before they go to bed and search their bodies for any mark that might not have been there yesterday. A mark that this scourge has visited them.

And I’m angry when the newspapers call us “victims” and sound alarms that “it” might soon spread to the “general population.” And I want to scream “Who the fuck am I?” And I want to scream at New York Hospital with its yellow plastic bags marked “isolation linen”, “ropa infecciosa” and its orderlies in latex gloves and surgical masks skirting the bed as if its occupant will suddenly leap out and douse them with blood and semen giving them too the plague.

And I’m angry at straight people who sit smugly wrapped in their self-protective coat of monogamy and heterosexuality confident that this disease has nothing to do with them because “it” only happens to “them.” And the teenage boys who upon spotting my Silence=Death button begin chanting “Faggot’s gonna die” and I wonder, who taught them this? Enveloped in fury and fear, I remain silent while my button mocks me every step of the way.

And the anger I feel when a television program on the quilt gives profiles of the dead and the list begins with a baby, a teenage girl who got a blood transfusion, an elderly baptist minister and his wife and when they finally show a gay man, he’s described as someone who knowingly infected teenage male prostitutes with the virus. What else can you expect from a faggot?

I’m angry.

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Photo: Queers Read This published anonymously by queers.

{KA}

 

 

2016 Hero Awards – Nancy & Richard

{My husband Gordon is part of the Calgary Chinook Lesbian and Gay Endowment Fund. Every year they give a deserving member of the local LGBTQ community a hero award – this year they gave two! Here is his recent speech addressed to the 2016 recipients, Nancy Miller and Richard Gregory. A standing ovation ensued. Gordon also has a history blog called Edwardian Fernie; check it out if you are interested in period architecture, culture and gardens! – Kevin}

“Where were you in 1988, when the first pride workshops were being held in Calgary, or in 1990, the year of the pride rally and where were you again in 1991 the year of Calgary’s first pride parade.

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Nancy Miller and Richard Gregory in 2015

If you were our Hero Award recipients, Nancy Miller and Richard Gregory, you were activists on the front lines of the gay rights movement in Calgary and you were leaders in organizing the rallies as well as the parades and not giving an inch to politicians and citizens who wanted to treat gay and lesbian Albertans like they didn’t exist; or if they did, like they were a lower order of citizen who were not entitled to equal rights. And not having equal rights meant you could be fired from your job, evicted from an apartment, refused custody of your children, refused service in restaurants and not ensured safety and protection when you walked down the street.

It was for many of us, like me, a time when our ability to pass, and our privilege, protected us from the vagaries of the police and their state sanctioned bullying of the LGBT community. It was a time when AIDS deaths were reaching record highs in Calgary, and the city’s response was ever greater hysteria and paranoia as well as hostility towards the gay community particularly in the form of violent gay bashings. After all what were baseball bats for? Many in the gay community were afraid and were even hostile towards activists.

I quote Nancy, who in a Metro interview acknowledged:

“I have to admit there were lots of people within our own LGBTQ community who were not happy with us. They didn’t want us to be drawing attention to the community. They had found ways to survive without rocking the boat too much and they were comfortable and felt safe there. They were afraid we were going to open a whole can of worms. Which of course we did.”

Nancy and Richard did not take the safe or comfortable route, though they might have, instead, they got busy organizing the lesbian and gay community so that finally by the 1990’s Calgary’s activists were working hard to establish gay rights through the Pride moniker. Some of you will remember that a pride rally or parade in the early 90’s was not the feel good happy events attended by tens of thousands like today. The organizers and participants, who numbered in the hundreds, were literally facing the prospect of physical violence from police and anti-LGBT homophobes as well as the risk of possibly losing their jobs, their homes and their families. It is no wonder that some opted to wear lone ranger masks or paper bags!

Our Heroes, Nancy and Richard, were not only involved with fighting for our rights through the idea of Pride, they were involved with CLAGPAG, the Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild, an organization which is where we find the roots of Pride. This was merely one aspect of CLAGPAG and their activism. They were involved in the struggle for gay and human rights on many levels, including the Delwin Vriend legal battle. But it was not only with the big battles that our award recipients made a difference, it was the many smaller day to day skirmishes that also moved forward the struggle for our rights.

I found copies of the Calgary Herald in the early 90’s in which Nancy was out and proud and asserting the right to equality. The journalist wrote, “that Nancy Miller isn’t crazy about interviews, but she speaks up for the record anyway – for a couple of reasons. For one thing, she believes clear, honest, open dialogue is the only way to promote understanding.  For another, she doesn’t have a thing to lose.”

“She’s not afraid she’ll be fired for telling the world she’s lesbian.” She was not afraid to insist that, “We in the LGBT community contribute a lot to the city that goes totally unseen and recognized.” You have to remember by that time Nancy had reason to be afraid for she had been discharged from the Canadian Military for being a lesbian and had also had the courage to refuse to cooperate in the naming of lesbians and gay men in a military investigation.

For four decades, Nancy Miller has been advocating for social justice, human rights and reproductive choice. In addition to being involved with CLAGPAG, she has been an organizer of Take Back the Night marches, served as a board member for the Calgary and Alberta Status of Women Action Committees, Women Looking Forward, The Lesbian Information Line (co-founder), Planned Parenthood Alberta and the Calgary Sexual Health Centre (formerly CBCA). A proud feminist, today Nancy provides strategic communications, writing and video production services to progressive candidates, non-profits and small businesses.

Like Nancy, Richard Gregory was not only critical to developing Pride he was, in addition to being a leader at CLAGPAG, an Aids Calgary volunteer as well as board member, and in 1989 organized the Aids Quilt project’s visit to Calgary.

In 1995 he ran for council in ward 8 as the first out gay man in Calgary to run for political office. He was at that time also chair of the advisory committee of the social services program at Mount Royal College.

During those years he was also a committee member of the OXFAM-Canada Human Rights Initiative Project and worked for the Boys and Girls Club of Calgary.  Today he is the president of Alberta College of Social Workers Council. And is the department chair of the health and human services program at Medicine Hat College.

I want to close with something which Richard Gregory wrote for CLUE Magazine in 1994. He reported in the month of October that he went to an open house held by MLA Mark Hlady of Calgary Mountainview, given that there weren’t many people in attendance he spent a half an hour with a clearly extremely homophobic MLA, who even believed Alberta should opt out of the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in order to avoid giving the LGBT community equal rights.

Richard quizzed him about his understanding of the charter, of the bible, its connection to human rights, the rights of LGBT citizens. I could only think the MLA must have been very happy when someone else finally showed up to take their turn. That month he also attended a conference on human rights in Alberta, and I will quote his take away message from the conference:

“I suggest we go to town hall meetings, confront them in their own territory, be really clear on what we want. There is no time like the present to demand equal rights in this province. Each voice must stand and be heard. I guarantee that if only half the gays and lesbians and members of the transgender communities in Alberta wrote a letter to the Premier – rights would be extended to us. Many people state they are not political – this is not about being political – it is about being equal and being treated as such. Don’t expect someone else to do it.”

Richard Gregory and Nancy Miller did not expect someone else to do it, they did it, and are still doing it and we are all the better for it and that is why they are our Heroes. Please join me in paying tribute to this amazing duo – they make us proud!”

{GS}