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Gay in Alberta

In the 'province of the severely normal' the anti-sodomite crusade has waned.

By Bethany Lindsay 11 Apr 2007 |

Bethany Lindsay is a Vancouver-based journalist.

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Only some cowboys were welcome in the Alberta of the Alberta Report.
  • Queer Youth in the Province of the "Severely Normal"
  • Gloria Filax
  • UBC Press (2006)

Call your TV co-star a faggot in 2007, and you'll be sent to rehab to recover from homophobia.

But fewer than 10 years ago, you could condemn the "fatuous and sinister new acceptance of the gay lifestyle" in a major magazine, and no one would blink an eye.

Link Byfield wrote those words in the 25th-anniversary edition of Alberta Report, a conservative rag that was published for 30 years in its namesake province. In the 1980s and '90s, the magazine carved a niche for itself as a defender of traditional and Christian social values, when it became clear that, in editor Byfield's words, "weirdo things like radical feminism and gay rights could [no longer] be dismissed."

In Queer Youth in the Province of the "Severely Normal," released in paperback in January, Alberta academic Gloria Filax explores the experiences of growing up and constructing a gay identity in the Alberta of Alberta Report. The book mixes academic scholarship with interviews and rehashed newspaper reports to depict the lives of young queers in a province where the government was openly fighting the expansion of gay rights.

What comes across in the book, especially the 60 pages dedicated to Alberta Report's war on queers, is just how much and how fast the mainstream public discourse on homosexuality has changed in this country.

From mainstream to marginal

Even with headlines like, "What exactly was it that gained for sodomy such a fine reputation?" and "The adverse health effects of homosexuality should be taught," Alberta Report was hardly marginal in Alberta in the 1990s, according to Filax.

"It had a ubiquitous presence," she said in an interview with The Tyee, "you could get them free in banks, schools, libraries, doctors' offices, at the dentist."

In fact, it wasn't uncommon for Alberta Report to be the only source of information about homosexuality -- or "sodomy," the term preferred by the Report's writers -- allowed in Alberta's public high school libraries in that period. You won't, however, find new copies of the Report in those libraries today. It folded in 2003, when decreasing circulation and loss of advertising dollars left Byfield unable to pay his staff.

'Sea change' in public opinion

In an e-mail conversation, Byfield said the magazine's downfall was directly related to, "a shift in social values, from those of the war-era generation that built us, to those of the Boomer generation.... This brought with it a severe restriction in what one is socially -- and even legally -- permitted to say."

In other words, it's just not possible to build a mainstream magazine on an anti-sodomite stance anymore.

Even Ann Coulter can't use the word "fag" without provoking a hullabaloo these days -- it was less than a year ago that she used the word to describe Al Gore, and the public response was a whisper compared to the outcry after her joke about John Edwards.

"There's been a sea change in public opinion since the 1990s," Filax said, "People have had time to become more informed." She credits the growing number of high profile comings-out, particularly in the entertainment industry.

It's 10 years now since Ellen DeGeneres came out in real life, and on her sitcom. Since then, talk-show hosts, former child stars, boy-banders, and even a professional basketball player have stepped out of the closet. There are gay cowboys on the big screen, and lesbian and trans-gendered characters have snuck into the usually conservative world of soap operas.

Law mirrors pop culture

Changes in public policy have mirrored those in pop culture. Over the last 10 years, Canada's same-sex couples have earned the same benefits and obligations as married straight couples, and, finally, the rights to marriage and divorce. Catholic school students are now allowed to bring their same-sex partners to the prom, and the military has performed gay marriages.

Down south, the law is moving more slowly, but most changes have been in the direction of more rights for homosexuals. The Supreme Court declared anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional in 2003, and same-sex civil unions are performed in three states. Sexual-harassment law now encompasses inappropriate remarks made by someone of the same gender -- though gay sex doesn't count as adultery in New Hampshire.

In Byfield's words, "the official culture has been wholly converted to the gay faith, from the judges to the jesters... looking back over 30 years [of Alberta Report], I realized that what we had done was to chronicle in great detail a social catastrophe -- the reduction of a virtuous culture to an incoherent and irresponsible one."

Byfield might not be thrilled with these developments, but Filax believes that Alberta Report may have actually played a small part in increasing public acceptance of homosexuality. "It gave a public presence to alternative sexualities. You could open it up and read about what was going on in the gay community -- learn about a gay rodeo, for example."

Most 'still don't like it'

As for Byfield he concedes that he's lost the battle on this social issue, for now. During his tenure as editor-in-chief, Alberta Report equated homosexuals with pedophiles and sexual predators, and opposed public health coverage for HIV and AIDS. Nearly every issue contained at least one or two articles condemning the gay rights movement. Now he's a weekly columnist for the Calgary Sun, and his writing focuses mainly on economic and fiscal issues. In fact, he didn't write a single editorial on gay issues in all of 2006.

But Byfield thinks that traditional Christian views on homosexuality will eventually win out. "I've noticed that most people still don't like it, still don't respect it, and still try politely to avoid its company," he said. "I get no sense that the much larger unofficial culture...has been converted to anything, only to some degree cowed into silence."

If he's right, the question now is: will the personal opinions of "most people" change to match public discourse, or vice versa? Will the Isaiah Washingtons and Ann Coulters of the world be cured of their prejudices in rehab, or will their repeated slurs inspire others to give voice to their own homophobia?

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