A story of the early days of HIV and AIDS in Edmonton, a fight for LGBTQ equality, and the birth of an organization.
By Leah Cavanagh
Michael Phair came in to chat with us during a workshop we hosted a few weeks ago, and shared his experience as a founding member of HIV Edmonton (then the AIDS Network of Edmonton). Starting the session by donning a silver-sequined news boy cap, Michael strutted the gallery ‘catwalk’ before sitting down next to Brook.
Brook asked about the Edmonton community before the first case of HIV was diagnosed and Michael recalled a time when “the community was pretty much underground”. The Pisces Bath Raids in 1981 kicked Michael’s activism bone into gear, and he became involved in one of the groups helping those who were accused and had to go to court. He describes himself as “a spokesperson by mistake” which at that time might have been true, but is hard to imagine given his role as community advocate since then.
The early ‘80’s reported some news of AIDS diagnoses, mostly out of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Michael talked candidly about a certain sense of denial in Edmonton, that AIDS couldn’t come here, “it’s too cold”, he said with a laugh. It’s easy to make judgment about that in hindsight, but at the time nobody knew what was causing any of it – “the virus hadn’t been discovered yet, no one was sure what it was, and it seemed to be concentrated in a couple major cities, which soon of course, went beyond a few major cities across America and in to Canada as well.”
Michael moved to San Francisco in 1983 to do a master’s degree, and while there gained some exposure to the realities of AIDS and how it impacted the gay community. Two days after moving in, Michael’s roommate lost a friend to AIDS and Michael went with him to the funeral. His roommate had lost a number of friends at this point and was reluctant to go to the funeral at all. Michael said “I’ll go with you,” and that he did.
Without knowing the person who passed away, Michael was still affected attending the service. He “knew people were dying of AIDS, but that was really the first time [he] was at something where someone had died, the people there were friends, and many of them had been mourning other friends as well”. It might have been the first funeral he attended, but unfortunately, this would not be the last.
A bright spot in the whole thing occurred in November 1982 when the US and French governments released that AIDS was caused by the HIV virus, “that was the first definitive notion of what in fact was causing it”.
Fast forward to 1984 – Canada Day – Michael was hosting a party to celebrate the birth of our nation and his homecoming. The very next day he received a call saying the first case of AIDS had been diagnosed in Edmonton. It wasn’t known yet, but it would soon be learned that Ross Armstrong was the first man in Edmonton to be known to be living with HIV.
Thinking about the media call, Michael said “I had just enough sense to say ‘yeah, we’re working on it, I’ll get back to you in a few days’”. He assembled friends from the gay and lesbian community saying “I had some sense of what might be done, or what would need to be done” but they met the next day to discuss exactly what Edmonton’s response would be. They assembled around Michael’s kitchen table, and so the wheels were set in motion.
One of the keys to the early response was to “look at what we could do and what others could do, and that’s where network in AIDS Network of Edmonton came from. We had a role but others had to be part of it, we were really clear on that from day one.”
The “little fledgling group that didn’t really exist” met the media a week after that first kitchen table meeting.
Brook asked if there was any concern that any progress made with respect to LGBTQ equality would be hindered because “now this thing is coming along and everyone is afraid of us, everyone thinks they’re going to get this from us”. Michael responded honestly saying that it probably did take away from those efforts early on. However, he went on, “I also think that it energized some people early on…. You think, there are people dying – you have to push for what you need… In retrospect, the work was successful with the general public in opening the door for broader discussion for people who were LGBTQ.”
Activities by the AIDS Network of Edmonton focused on education and support, particularly within the LGBTQ community. The Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose gave the organization its first donation, and many of the outreach activities happened at the gay bars and bath houses. There was a hotline that came direct to Michael’s living room, and the educational posters in those days were geared toward gay men.
The first time dealing with a funeral for the organization was very hard. Coupled with inexperience and heartache, the volunteers for the AIDS Network of Edmonton had a tough time even getting funeral homes to deal with bodies of individuals who had died of AIDS-related illness. The individual who passed away was from a rural Albertan town, his family may or may not have known he was gay, and Michael was unsure whether they even knew he was in the hospital. It was then that they realized “they needed to expand [their] work to work with families and partners of others”.
Talking about Ross Armstrong Michael recalls the importance of connection. They were in Montreal for the first Canadian AIDS Society meeting and “all the people who had HIV got together and that group couldn’t stop seeing each other because they all felt so isolated. For him it was a hugely uplifting experience, even though he wasn’t well, and he knew that, to be with 30 other people who had HIV was one of those things that was so significant for him”. Our drop-in is now called the Ross Armstrong Centre and it remains a place for HIV-positive individuals to gather and share meals, stories, or just their time.
Ross died on July 1, 1986, two years after his diagnosis. “In some ways it was the end of an era,” Michael remembered. It was around this time that the landscape of HIV and AIDS activism changed drastically – AZT became available in 1987 and hinted at an era in which people might be able to live with HIV. Unfortunately AZT was later proven ineffective to manage HIV, but it did represent a psychological shift. If it could keep people alive a little longer who knew what would happen – maybe another treatment, maybe a cure.
We have come so far since then in both LGBTQ equality issues and HIV treatment options. Neither of these issues are put to bed, unfortunately. This week is an opportunity to recommit ourselves as a community to the quest for equality across all sexual and gender identity divides – in communities where inequality persists surrounding LGBTQ rights we see burgeoning HIV epidemics, they go hand in hand.
Our Heroes for Zero will be marching in the Edmonton Pride Parade tomorrow, make sure you come say hi! We are also honoured to have a place in the Queer History Project at the Edmonton Art Gallery (FREE to the public June 5-21), and are delighted to be sponsoring the Pride Awards on June 10th.
We’ve got our PRIDE pants on – see you all there!
For a full list of the Edmonton Pride Festival Activities, click here.