Since 2006, the Marda Loop Justice Film Festival has presented essential documentaries that are thought-provoking and move social justice forward. As part of their justREEL series, they are featuring the recent Canadian doc, Sex, Sin & 69, which explores the human rights trajectory of the LGBTQ2 community using the 1969 Federal Bill C-150 as a pivot point.
Bill C-150 modernized the Canadian Criminal Code and was in response to Calgarian Everett Klippert’s Supreme Court case. Kevin Allen, who has written extensively about Everett, will be doing a post-screening queer history chat with the Film Festival’s Lily Cai.
This screening is online and free, but you need to reserve a ticket. Join us on Tuesday, June 8th—the screening window will be from 5:30 PM-midnight!
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.
Thanks to One Voice Chorus, the Calgary Gay History Project recently hosted a live presentation on the history of Calgary’s first LGBTQ2 chorus, the Rocky Mountain Singers. At a well-attended zoom event on April 19th, former choristers shared poignant memories and together we created a history narrative of the choir.
Attendees then spent an extra hour visiting and are even considering a reunion concert—if we Calgarians are so lucky! This is the first of several blog posts recounting some of the history we uncovered as part of this commissioned research project.
The Rocky Mountain Singers (RMS), 1989-2002, became an important focus of artistic expression in Calgary’s LGBTQ2 community. We conducted interviews with 12 former members; everyone expressed very fond and cherished memories of RMS. The chorus actively built and strengthened the LGBTQ2 community in Calgary and through their participation choristers created enduring friendships that have lasted into the present.
RMS had a well-known public presence and performed regularly; they were musical ambassadors for many gay community organizations including Calgary Pride. The chorus participated actively in the growing gay choral movement of the 1990s and represented both Calgary and Canada at the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) Festivals. RMS paved the way for future LGBTQ2 choral organizations in the city, including the contemporary Calgary Men’s Chorus and One Voice Chorus.
Luke Shwart, an RMS founder, recounted his memories of the origins of the choir.
“When my Vancouver Men’s Chorus buddy Dan Worsley insisted that I attend the 1989 GALA Chorus Festival in Seattle, I had no idea what to expect. But, countless individuals will tell you how GALA Festivals have a powerful way of transforming people through music. Imagine a world of black and white suddenly turned to colour; or the sound of a vinyl record turned into the experience of a concert. Everything was like before, but different, better, filled with promise. It happened to me. GALA demonstrated that the world is filled with gay people who love to sing. I realized that people like that lived in my city and province too.
I made a few decisions on the flight home from Seattle:
1.To attend the next GALA festival, in Denver in 1992
2.To attend with a chorus from Calgary, because that was the only possible way to have a better experience than I had in Seattle.
3.The choir’s name would be Rocky Mountain Singers.
I spent the summer networking, and met Karl Siegfried – who was trying to get a group of Calgary singers to go to Gay Games in Vancouver in 1990. We joined forces, and recognized that we had a few small problems – neither of us could conduct or play piano, other than the two of us we didn’t have any other singers, and if we ever did find some, we didn’t have any music, nor a place to practise.
We worked hard, and one by one resolved the issues. On October 3, 1989, at the MCC (Unitarian) Church on 16th Avenue NW, eight singers joined together with our first music director Bill Bradley—who conducted from the piano, and we started learning Christmas music. The choir grew from those humble beginnings.”
Michael Wright remembers that their very first concert was at Columbia House, a seniors’ residence in Bridgeland, noting, “they were a pretty generous audience.”
Suzanne Dextraze went to an RMS Christmas concert in 1989 at the Unitarian church and immediately felt the need to join: “I thought it was so cool and I wanted to sing there too.”
The choir was incorporated as a non-profit society on January 23, 1990. By then, they had found a critical mass of singers and a purpose. 1990 would prove a crucible year for RMS as they sorted through issues of gender, being open about their sexual orientation, AIDS, and the Gay Games—all to be explored in the next RMS history post.