Tag Archives: Memorial Park

Rocky Mountain Singers—Week 2

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.

RMS at the Pride Rally. Source: CBC Calgary

A few days before the concert, RMS participated in a Pride Rally in Central Memorial Park. The Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild (CLAGPAG) organized the rally to agitate for LGBT human rights. In fact, this rally on Monday, June 18th, 1990, is considered Calgary Pride’s origin event. CLAGPAG handed out free lone ranger masks at the Old Y, and directed participants to gather at the Boer War Memorial for speeches and songs.

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.

The First RMS Concert Poster: made on a dot matrix printer by chorister Patrick O’Brien!

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….”

Part of the Vancouver Festival Chorus in Rehearsal
Carol White conducting the Festival Chorus at the Gay Games Closing Ceremonies. Source: communitystories.ca

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 with Carnaval! 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.

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#YYCGayHistory @CalgaryPride 2019

Calgary Pride launches tomorrow, and the Calgary Gay History Project has a full slate of activities during the next ten days. Here are the offerings:

Friday, August 23rd: The Our Past Matters: Stories of Gay Calgary e-book release!

Sunday, August 25th: as part of Memorial Park Pride

1:30-2:30 PM – Calgary Gay History Lecture at the Memorial Park Library

3:00 PM – Calgary Queer Arts Society’s Outliers Screening

5:00-6:30 PM – Beltline Gay History Walk

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Beltline Gay History Walk during Pride 2017. Gary Evans, photo.

Monday, August 26th: Bill C-150, the bill “decriminalizing” homosexuality came into force on this day, 50 years ago. Keep your eyes peeled for a particular essay to commemorate this important date.

Wednesday, August 28th:

7:00-10:00 PM RISE: a social commentary with two legendary voices of the LGBTQ+ movement: Cleve Jones and Ruth Coker Burks, Kevin Allen, MC.

Saturday, August 31st:

12:00-4:00 PM  – Join author Kevin Allen for a book signing of Our Past Matters Stories of Gay Calgary at Chapters-Indigo Dalhousie or just stop by to say, “hi.”

Sunday, September 1st:

11:00 AM – 6:00 PM – Pride in the Park. After the parade, stop by the Calgary Gay History Project’s History Booth. Share your own stories and learn more about Calgary’s LGBTQ2 Past.

Phew. It’s going to be a busy Pride!

On a final and sadder note, the Calgary Gay History Project would like to acknowledge the sudden and unexpected passing of Lisa Fahey last month. The 47-year old Calgarian was an indefatigable ally to our community and a driving force behind the Pride Employee Network for Imperial. She was a massive fan of the Calgary Gay History Project: one of our biggest cheerleaders in fact. Lisa regularly marched in the Calgary Pride Parade with her rainbow-festooned wiener dog, Pebbles – who proved to be a media darling, year after year. Lisa’s big heart, enthusiasm, and deep regard for social justice will be sorely missed.

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Greg Cashin and Lisa Fahey of Imperial’s Pride Employee Network with Calgary Gay History Project’s Kevin Allen (centre) in November 2016.

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The Western Alienation Merit Badge

Every summer, I take it upon myself to read some gay history fiction while enjoying seasonal downtime. Last summer it was The Well of Loneliness; this summer, to my delight, it is a Calgary story. The Western Alienation Merit Badge is the first novel from author Nancy Jo Cullen, a former Calgarian, and recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. It has been gathering plaudits and praise.

Western Alienation Merit Badge

Our Summer Read for 2019

The book chronicles the staggering trials of the Murray family during the 1982 oil recession in Calgary. A death in the family, unplanned pregnancy and a coming-out story test family bonds against a backdrop of economic precariousness – a lot of drama, which Cullen deftly weaves with a poetic touch. My favourite aspect of the book is its use of non-linear time. The plot ricochets through the decades and only slowly reveals the larger tapestry of the Murray family’s sadness and regrets.

The Western Alienation Merit Badge has some eerie resonances to the Calgary of today. An economic slump mixed with anti-Trudeau rhetoric and general Calgarian embitterment makes one think distressingly about the cyclical nature of our city. After all, was it not that legendary 1980s recession that brought us the bumper sticker: “Please God, let there be another oil boom. We promise not to piss it away this time.”

The book also takes us to a period where gay identity was generally disparaged. In the early 80s, coming out was fraught with rejection, and new support groups like the Lesbian Infomation Line were saving lives.

It is fun to read a smart book where Calgary is given a starring role. The locations, the atmosphere, and the dialogue are all achingly familiar. Plus there is a queer protagonist at the heart of it – fans of Calgary gay history could not ask for anything more!

Tangentially, “Oh The Fun We Had” is the theme of this year’s Historic Calgary Week, which starts today. History buffs have a bursting smorgasbord of programming to feast on.

The Calgary Gay History Project will be part of Historic Calgary week again in 2019. In collaboration with the Calgary Public Library, we are hosting a lecture titled: Among friends: the history of LGBTQ2+ recreation and sport in Calgary. Join us on Saturday, August 3rd from 1:00 – 2:00 PM at the Memorial Park Library. There is a post-lecture screening at 2:30 PM of Outliers: Calgary’s Queer History (the Directors Cut) in partnership with the Calgary Queer Arts Society.

We hope to see you out and happy summer reading!

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