FFWD REW

Don’t let the sun go down on us

A response to a controversial gay viewpoint

Earlier this month Toronto’s weekly magazine The Grid (formerly Eye Weekly ) published a wordy ill-conceived and sloppy treatise on gay life in that city entitled “ Dawn of a New Gay” by 25-year-old writer Paul Aguirre-Livingston. Introducing the concept of the “post-mo” Aguirre-Livingston proclaims the modern-day queer lad as one who has very little interest in or connection to the gay lesbian bisexual and transgender (GLBT) world around him and is more than willing to cut ties to the broader gay community and altogether dismiss the importance of gay pride.

According to Aguirre-Livingston “My generation has the freedom to live exactly the way we want. We vacation with our boyfriends in fabulously rustic country homes that belong to our parents who don’t mind us coming to stay as a couple. Hell we even marry our boyfriends if we choose to on rooftops overlooking Queen West. Most of us have come to resent the stereotypes and the ideals associated with preceding gay generations. It’s not that we hate gay culture; we just don’t have that much in common with it anymore.”

Preferring the suggestion that gays are simply dudes who “just fuck dudes” Aguirre-Livingston makes grandiose sweeping claims from his privileged Toronto viewpoint. He suggests this supposed “post-mo” generation as the living embodiment of what our forefathers and mothers were fighting for in the first place — so what’s the use remembering and paying tribute? His net stretches no further than a few streets’ radius in Toronto focusing squarely on bearded white boys decked out in ties and button-up shirts a supposedly modern rejection of “typical” homo fashion. (Please — I’ve been kicking the beard-and-tie look for close to two decades and know full well I’m in no way original with it.)

If Aguirre-Livingston was simply writing about his own life instead of speaking for the rest of us “ Dawn of a New Gay” would be a worthy viewpoint for consideration — shouldn’t we be able to find at least some joy in knowing how free and unobstructed this young gay man feels in his life? As it stands however the piece’s blanket suggestion of ignorant entitlement remains tragically unbalanced and the queer corners of the Internet have erupted with commentary.

When asked by Fast Forward Weekly to respond to these notions of “Today’s Gay™” through a local lens I knew immediately that an attempt at summarizing the GLBT experience in Calgary would be just as clumsy and ineffective as the original Toronto-based work that prompted the idea. I can only attempt to describe my own experiences and how the Calgary I know today has changed from the one I grew up in; I’m hoping this prompts further discussion and growth.

GROWING PAINS IN FOREST LAWN

I was raised in West Dover and Forest Lawn where the go-to term of male-to-male rejection is typically “faggot” and lived in fear of being outed. As a teen I stayed up late for Showcase Revue in hopes of something homoerotic something German (why hello there Fassbinder). I signed up for a subscription to the International Male clothing catalogues little more than page after page of men in their underwear and developed a thing for men in bathrobes — which still haunts me. Now 32 years old my teenage years were before the ubiquity of the Internet made this kind of exploration incredibly simple. There was no real outlet in rough-and-tumble Forest Lawn.

Pride in Calgary during those formative years felt a bit sad. My first pride parade was rained out. Later I was a summer staff member at CJSW radio when the Westboro Baptist Church announced via fax they’d be bringing a load of their infamous “God Hates Fags” picket signs to Calgary. Every night for a week after closing up the office we Sharpie-blacked two sheets of paper and taped them end-to-end into an endless loop and faxed it back draining their ink supplies. Sure as activism it wasn’t particularly groundbreaking but it felt good to take some sort of stand for the inside silent person that I knew I was hiding.

I only first felt comfortable with living a purely “out” life when I did what many in my age group did and left for greener (as in gayer) pastures. My path took me from Edinburgh to New York between Paris Rome and the U.K.’s seaside gay capitol of Brighton. There I worked in a two-level gay club called Envy (our biggest competition was Revenge right around the corner) as the coat check.

Yet like Aguirre-Livingston that gay world wasn’t one I was particularly interested in engaging in. I went to Brighton searching for some form of Queer utopia and didn’t find it. What truly changed and moulded me at the time was a movement centred on a series of parties and clubs primarily in London referred to as Gay Shame. Despite the name for me this was a major cause for celebration.

We weren’t ashamed of ourselves or our history in the least and in fact we looked to celebrate the people we were and those who had come before us. We wore T-shirts silkscreened with portraits of gay-movement icons Christopher Isherwood Quentin Crisp and Harvey Milk. Books were handed around and dog-eared. Gay Shame was simply a rejection of what we saw as pride events rapidly transitioning towards corporate sponsorship and targeted marketing. Assimilation into mainstream straight culture — what is often referred to as appearing “normal” — wasn’t of interest to us. Rather than fitting into anyone’s mould of acceptability under some multinational corporation’s banner we wanted to be accepted for exactly who we were. We’d continue the good work that had come before us by living our lives however we wanted to.

The brightest light of inspiration however came from Toronto. With a scene based around the enterprising work of cultural force Will Munro his club Vaseline and the band The Hidden Cameras it looked as though we weren’t alone — that queers just like me were alive and well in Canada. When my mother mailed me the Cameras’ life-changing debut album The Smell of Our Own my life had a soundtrack. Even up until his death from cancer last year I’d always wanted to write Munro a letter thanking him for creating a world that I was able to witness first-hand when passing through his city.

What was going on in Toronto seemed above all else inclusive and welcoming. The normal-bodied go-go dancers wore balaclavas and the clubs were stuffed with boys girls and those posing as either. It was fun and non-judgmental and you can still feel that presence in present-day Toronto venues like The Beaver and The Henhouse. Toronto’s streets are free because of many people and bands like Munro and The Cameras.

I left Edinburgh after my first heartbreak and came back to Calgary hopeful the community I’d experienced in the orbit of Gay Shame and in Toronto would have made its way here too. But Calgary is different. Our city with over one million citizens and so few gay venues sticks out as a North American anomaly. It’s not as though we’re not here in numbers — the population of the Beltline reportedly identifies as 30 per cent GLBT — but at times it doesn’t quite feel as though we as a community are truly present.

CALGARY LACKS ‘GAY SPACE’

Hanna Kassa of CJSW’s That’s So Gay! suggests “Relatively speaking we’ve got it pretty good but being out and proud is about being present and counted. This would encourage more people to come out and with greater participation the community itself would evolve beyond the stereotypes. You don’t have to go to the gay bar but you do need to get engaged.”

I’m not a participant in the gay-bar scene — as a non-drinker I’m not a participant in the straight-bar scene either — and my pair of visits to Twisted Element since its opening isn’t enough to make any generalizations about those who go there (although it’s cool to see it as a Sled Island venue this year). But clearly Calgary is lacking in a gay-space equivalent to Toronto’s artsy and independent Beaver or Henhouse. That’s not to say queer art isn’t here — I’ve acted as a member of the board of the Fairy Tales Queer Film Festival and also co-curated this year’s Q: The Arts festival alongside some fascinating individuals — but a casual non-neon-lit gay gathering place hasn’t popped up yet.

When I first met my 24-year-old Calgary housemate Mathew-John Chyzyk he told me “Things are different for my generation than it was for yours” which admittedly struck a chord with me — even with a mere eight years in age difference our experiences are entirely different. As for Calgary Chyzyk believes “Men find other men then stay at home. We don’t have a village like Vancouver Montreal and Toronto — the only places are gay bars. Sure we’re accepted ‘everywhere’ but a homo thinks twice before holding their boyfriend’s hand walking past Melrose or Flames Central.” Dallas Barnes of Pride Calgary agrees. “Calgary does not have a village. We barely have an address.” Other than a night out at the bar where do we go?

Gordon Sombrowski the past president of Fairy Tales suggests we’re not limited in our choices here. As a longtime active member of Calgary’s GLBT community he does not see the lack of a village as a deterrent to an open-and-out life in the city.

“In a young modern city like Calgary the gay ghetto in the old sense doesn’t really exist because it is not necessary” he says. “Calgary is a truly ‘post gay’ city because it didn’t develop a large enough or strong enough gay community until after that stage of development where such a labelled ‘gay ghetto’ mattered — but that is different than saying there is no gay community. It is likely the case that the modern city of today is in its totality a gay ghetto — gay people live in all parts of the city and interact in an ‘out’ way with straight people all the time. There is no need to hide in one quadrant because gay people are accepted or at least tolerated in all parts of the city.”

I’ve never been physically attacked in Calgary for being gay nor do I know anyone directly who has been. I know my definition of queer utopia is out there in cities like Portland Brooklyn and Berlin but in Calgary I have also managed to build a safe space for myself and my closest friends and that works for us. I feel lucky to live in a place where I feel comfortable to be myself. Much like local designer and fellow 30-something Kevin Persaud I consider living my life as a form of quiet activism. “I believe that every time I answer the ‘are-you-gay?’ question truthfully I make one more step forward for the GLBT community” he says.

Major or not our pride events also play a part for the greater good. For Jessica Dollard festival director of Fairy Tales “When it comes to pride marches — that’s sacred shit. Due to the lack of equality that many queers face in the world you need to be at the pride march. You go to show respect for the work that’s been done to gain the rights we currently enjoy. You go to stand up for those in other parts of the world that so need a pride march but can’t go because they’ll be killed to do such.” Recent crowded screenings at Fairy Tale events of such films as Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride We Were Here and Gen Silent prove our community is interested in our past and how it affects our present and future. But how can we do more?

I’m a middle-class white male and I come from a decidedly non-religious family — even within the GLBT community in Calgary I know there’s far more difficult scenarios to deal with than mine. I’m here much of the year and it’s still the only city I’ve lived in where I’ve been called “faggot” as recently as this spring while riding my bicycle in Ogden. Yet we have safe zones throughout the city a growing queer arts scene programming at local gems like the Good Life Bike Co-Op and our “is-he-or-isn’t-he?” mayor is certainly supportive of those initiatives. Think twice before calling me “faggot” — my name is Mark Hamilton and I’m not going anywhere.

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