35 years ago, Stephen was one of the people sitting around a kitchen table discussing the possibility of creating an AIDS support group in Calgary. They named it AIDS Calgary, and it was the grassroots organization that would later become HIV Community Link. There were a few other people in that old, two-storey house in the Beltline: Bob Humphries, Damien Pepper, Jim Lang. AIDS was already affecting the gay communities in North America, with the ones in San Francisco and New York City being decimated. The virus had only recently been identified as being sexually-transmitted, after months of speculation. Calgary hadn’t had its first diagnosed case yet.
When AIDS Calgary moved into its first office, the organization was housed in two cramped rooms above what was then called ‘Dick’s’, a gay club in the old Model Milk building on 17th Avenue, with a bathhouse down in the basement. The offices themselves were either freezing cold or sweating hot, and the volunteers were constantly calling the bathhouse to please turn up the heat, or to please turn it down.
This small and mighty group of people set up a phone line and designed training manuals for volunteers. The office quickly filled up with safer sex pamphlets, condoms and lube. “My background was with Gay Lines, so I knew how to get a phone thing going and how to record the calls to keep track of them with log sheets. I remember getting the same calls over and over again: ‘Can I get it from sharing a coffee cup? Can I get it if someone coughs on me? Toilet seats?’ We would also get calls saying we should all die and bomb threats being called in. We didn’t publicize where the office was for the express purpose that we didn’t know if that was safe to do. It was highly controversial. How dare we have an AIDS organization in Calgary?” Stephen adds.
It took them years to find funders for the organization, but in the beginning they managed to do the important work with support from gay clubs and the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Chinook Arch. “Funding came from the community. The drag queens would put on shows to raise money for us, so would get a couple of hundred bucks. $200 kept our rent paid, so it was a real struggle for us for the first years until various things like United Way and government funding kicked in. Bob and Damien were putting their own money into it. They didn’t make a big deal about it, but I know Bob paid the rent sometimes, paid the phone bill sometimes, and they didn’t have a lot of money themselves.” Not long after they started the organization, the AIDS crisis started affecting the gay community in Calgary. The group started losing friends to the epidemic. “Over the years, I lost maybe two or three friendship circles of people. It went quite quickly between diagnosis and death.
It wasn’t unusual to attend two or three funerals or memorials in a month, and it got to the point that those were social times. It’s like you don’t see your family except at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs, and it was kind of the same thing. They were sad, but they were more celebrations of life. I look back and think of the people I have lost and were close to me, and I still have dreams about some of them and they are still with me in some way,” Stephen says.
Jim, Damien and Bob passed away, and Stephen is grateful for the time they had together. “Jim was quite a character; he was born about 30 years too late. He was Roman Catholic, but he incorporated Native spirituality, Radical Faeries, Pagan, and meditation into it all. He often carried an eagle feather with him. Jim would have fit right in with the hippy movement of the 1960’s. He was also involved in the Faithful Companions of Jesus, the Sacred Heart Convent on 18th Avenue. Jim used to work reception for them and they got to know him quite well and absolutely adored him. So when he died, the bishop wouldn’t hold a mass for him because he was gay, so the sisters held one for him. One of them, Sister Una Conran, who was very involved with AIDS Calgary and was close to Jim, got up during the service. Sister Una quoted Jim as saying that if St. Peter wouldn’t let any of us through the main Pearly Gates, all we had to do was come around back and Jim would open those gates right up!
Stephen was politically active and, at that time, his main focus was to get sexual orientation included in human rights legislation in the province. There was a lot of discrimination in regards to housing and employment. There was just nowhere you could go to get any sort of justice if you were discriminated against.
“..who amongst us could have known the fight would go on for 35 years?”
Stephen believes those early days made a definite impact on the community, saved lives and offered critical support to those affected. He later worked for AIDS Calgary as the Coordinator of Volunteer Services in 1990-1991, when the AIDS Quilt was being displayed in Calgary, a memorial to and celebration of the lives of people lost to the AIDS pandemic. “It doesn’t seem like 35 years since we were sitting around that kitchen table on 12th Ave at Bob and Damien’s house drinking far too much coffee and smoking too many cigarettes and trying to hammer out what this organization would be like. Who amongst us could have known the fight would go on for 35 years? Bob, Damien, Jim and the others never lived to see what AIDS Calgary became, but I like to think they know.”