Mark has had people around him affected by HIV and remembers the first time he saw somebody visibly suffering from AIDS-related illnesses. It was decades ago, back in his small home town in Nova Scotia. He felt compassion, a feeling that he thinks is so important. “I don’t care if a person is straight, gay, trans, bi, you name it. In this bar, they are treated with respect and compassion, and expected to do the same with others. I’m just making sure that everybody is having a good time. Sometimes, I see people make a remark that they don’t think is offensive, but then you see the other person’s face. I learned from a very young age how that hurts,” he says.
Mark was adopted at birth by a white family. His birth mother, a missionary, came back pregnant from Africa and spent part of her pregnancy in the house of a nurse who was good friends with his current family. “My parents are pretty awesome people. They had two children, but my mother had some complications from polio, and the doctors told her not to have more kids. So they adopted me. I remember going somewhere with only my mom or my dad and the looks we would get. Back then, there was still kind of taboo to have interracial marriages,” he says.
Mark left his home town in his 20’s. He wanted to see Canada and also because he wanted to come out. Afraid of rejection, Mark only told his family when he was 28 that he was gay. “At the Backlot, I’ve talked to a lot of young kids or even older guys who are coming out and are unsure what to do or say. Because of my personal experience, I can give them a little bit of advice and tell them, ‘it may not turn out as you want. You had all these years to think about you being gay. Most parents will still love you unconditionally, but they will still need time to process,’” he explains.
Mark is happy that his parents are now so supportive of who he is. “My father was in a musical group with 70+ members. There was this young gay couple, they wanted to sing and they weren’t allowed. My father stood up for them and I was so proud of him,” Mark adds.
Mark believes it is important for him to be there for his community. “As a gay bar, you have to realize that you have a responsibility. You can’t be a safe place for the community unless there’s compassion behind the bar too,” he explains. That’s why maybe his place is sometimes compared to Cheers, “the bar where everybody knows your name.” “Without the hard work from my manager Ryan and great staff, it wouldn’t be the Backlot!” he adds.
The Backlot is a busy place, especially when the bar hosts events for non-profit organizations. During the summer, they have one almost every week. The Backlot supplies the burgers, the buns, the BBQ and the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Chinook Arch, a non-profit with international affiliation to the drag queen community that is dedicated to raising funds for local charities, supplies the condiments and the cook. All the money goes to local charities, including HIV Community Link. “I think everybody should support any event because you never know when you, a family member or someone you love is going to need help. To stand by and not do anything is the worst travesty,” Mark concludes.
You can still donate for the Scotiabank AIDS Walk & Run at scotiabankaidswalk.ca/calgary. You can make a difference today by supporting HIV programming in your community!