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.
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.
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 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.