Tag Archives: Lois Szabo

Lois is a Calgary superhero!

Congratulations to Lois Szabo, selected as this year’s Calgary Pride Parade Grand Marshall.  We, at the Calgary Gay History Project, think Lois is a truly deserving ambassador. If you have not seen it, check out this lovely profile of Lois composed by CBC journalist Terri Trembath.

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Family Photo of Les and Lois Szabo: Source, Terri Trembath/CBC News

Lois was born in March 1936 and married her husband Les at the age of 18. They had two children before Lois realized her true sexual orientation. She came out as gay in the early 60s and renegotiated the terms of her marriage with Les in order to live together and raise their children.

Lois found Calgary’s larger lesbian community in the 60s at the Cecil Hotel, where there was a separate drinking room for women that gay women occupied.  Finding great comfort and joy in discovering her community, Lois became one of the founders of Club Carousel, Calgary’s first community owned and run, private members club.  The Club was incorporated in 1970, as the Scarth Street Society; there were approximately 600 members by 1972. Weekend attendance could top 350 revelers in the small underground venue – no straights allowed.

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Lois at Club Carousel in 1972 with a little pomp!

Club Carousel was the first legal gay & lesbian club in Alberta and Lois was a key volunteer and board member for most of the Club’s history.  Using the Calgary club as a model, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Regina established similar societies.  Club Carousel also sponsored prairie regional gay conferences from 1970 to 1976.

Since then, Lois has spent a lifetime volunteering and organizing in Calgary’s LGBTQ community.  She currently volunteers for the Kerby Centre’s Lesbian Seniors Group, One Voice Chorus, and Calgary’s LGBTQ2S+ Legacy Committee.

Lois was recognized by the community in 2015 receiving the Chinook Hero Award given annually to deserving LGBTQ leaders by the Calgary Chinook Fund Endowment Committee.

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Lois receiving the Chinook Hero Award, October 21, 2015, with (L to R) Natalie Meisner, Playwright; Jonathan Brower, Third Street Theatre; Gary Courtney, Chinook Fund; & Kevin Allen, Calgary Gay History Project.

Amusingly, we recently found this comic book cover, which would have hit Calgary newsstands around the time Club Carousel was being conceived.

Lois, we think you are Super too, just like this other Lois!

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August 1968 DC Comic: “When Lois was more super than Superman.”

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Defending Lesbian Moms in YYC

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.

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Francie Wyland, Dustin Smith, and his mother, Lynn Fraser. Photo: Garth Pritchard, Calgary Herald July 2, 1981.

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.

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Lou with Marilyn Atkinson featured in Calgary’s Lesbian Publication The Lavender Times on the occasion of their 25th Anniversary.

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 Lavender Times, November 1987

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.

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The Passing of Nick de Vos

Last week I attended the funeral of Nick de Vos, who was one of the first gay elders we talked to when the Calgary Gay History Project started in the Autumn of 2012. Born in Holland in 1932, he and his family immigrated to Canada in 1948 after the war.

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Tom and Nick on holiday in 1960

He wrote to me once, “I have been gay since birth” and was lucky enough to find his life partner in 1959, Tom Deagon, who passed away in 2011 – a 51 year relationship! Nick was active in Calgary’s gay community when it was still largely underground, and talked often about fun times at the Palliser Hotel (the Kings Arms Tavern). He recalled:

Most of us had to enter through the front entrance and worked our way to the bar as the First Street bar entrance was too obvious – there was a danger of getting known and losing your job.

When the bar closed everyone placed a $1.00 on the table for someone to buy beer to keep the party going at someone’s apartment. There was always a volunteer host for those parties which went into the wee hours of the morning on weekends.

Nick valued his privacy and spent his lifetime being discrete where his sexual orientation was concerned; he operated on a don’t get asked – don’t explain principle with the world at large. Yet he was very out in the gay world, attending lots of gay events, including some he created. He was proud of the length of his relationship with Tom, and their 39th anniversary was featured in the June 1998 issue of Outlooks Magazine, a local gay publication.

A lifetime performer, Nick claimed the best gay bar Calgary ever had was Club Carousel, where he performed on stage numerous times, as well as created and managed numerous shows, including “It’s a Carousel World.”

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Nick (right) with a friend at Club Carousel in 1972

Nick was a bon vivant, a firm hugger, a prolific emailer and an accomplished event photographer.  He liked being in the centre of a party; his eyes often twinkled. In collaboration with Third Street Theatre, we held a Club Carousel Cabaret at the 2014 High Performance Rodeo. Nick, invited as a special guest, was moved to tears which he called tears of joy.

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Nick de Vos, Lois Szabo, and Kevin Allen at One Voice Chorus’ Club Carousel Concert  (2015)

We will miss you Nick.

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