Lois Szabo Commons officially opened yesterday, and although we could not be there, we hungrily read the press and social media accounts of the park’s launch. The honour is well-deserved.
Lois told me she received so many hugs from the assembled crowd that it may have counteracted her pandemic’s hug deficit! She was particularly chuffed to get a hug from Mayor Naheed Nenshi (two of them apparently).
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi announced Monday the creation of a new park in the Beltline: the Lois Szabo Commons. Lois is well known to many in the LGBTQ2 community as a tireless volunteer and one of the founders of Calgary’s early gay institution, Club Carousel, in 1970.
The park was one of six newly named parks in celebration of Calgary’s 125th anniversary. One Voice Chorus’ Jasmine Ing coordinated Lois’ nomination with support from Kevin Allen and the Calgary Gay History Project.
Lois watched the announcement on a livestream of the City Council meeting and was very moved. She said: “I’m really pleased—and not just for me—but for the recognition of the entire community. It’s great we can have a park to sit in and be recognized; it does my heart good. I’m sorry some of the other Club members are not around to share this, particularly Jack.* It’s a community park; it’s not just about me!”
In the nomination package, we wrote:
“For more than 50 years, Lois has been a leader and organizer of Calgary’s LGBTQ2 community. Lois is the last surviving founder of Club Carousel – Calgary’s first gay club, incorporated in March 1970 – despite Calgary Police opposition. She was one of five individuals who dared to sign the club’s incorporation papers when homophobia and discrimination were the norms in Calgary, and few would sign on the dotted line.
She also rolled up her sleeves and became the Club’s most dedicated volunteer. Lois was instrumental in organizing expanded Club programming including, camping trips, motorcycle rides, holiday capers, and more. Furthermore, the Club saved people’s lives by creating the City’s first truly safe space. Lois leant a sympathetic ear to LGBTQ2 Calgarians in distress—likely averting many suicides—pushing back against the tide of our community’s despair. The Club became the locus of early gay rights activism in Calgary. Moreover, it seeded sister clubs in Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, and Winnipeg, creating a regional human rights network.
Since 1970, Lois has maintained connections to and volunteered for dozens of LGBTQ2 organizations. Even in her 80s, she shows up to most community events today and is well known to many; she is proud to share our community’s history. Lois was given the 2015 Chinook Fund Hero Award and was the 2017 Calgary Pride Parade Grand Marshall—recognition well deserved.”
The Lois Szabo Commons is under construction and will be completed later this summer at the corner of 9 St and 16 Ave SW in the Beltline.
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.