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Closeted gay community of Alberta still avoiding altar
Just 5 couples wed on first legal day of same-sex weddings
Wyatt Buchanan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005 - San Francisco Chronicle
Calgary, Alberta -- On the first day that gays and lesbians in this conservative Canadian province could get a license to marry, just five same-sex couples did so.
But this province is known as the Bible Belt of Canada and is the only one in the famously liberal nation that celebrates family values with an official holiday.
Canada on Wednesday became just the fourth country in the world to allow same-sex marriages, but many in Alberta simply aren't ready to accept so radical a notion. Eight of the nation's 10 provinces and one of its three territories have in recent years allowed gays and lesbians to marry, but most people in Calgary, which culturally is closer to the red states of the American heartland than the progressive cities of Toronto and Vancouver, are only grudgingly following suit.
"You could transplant here from Dallas and there's no difference, other than the accent and the weather," said Darcy Schack, the spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Association in Calgary, who also runs a firm that builds oil drilling equipment. "It's very much an oil-driven town, very redneck and very conservative."
Calgary, a thriving city of about 1 million people roughly 450 miles northwest of Spokane, Wash., is the province's largest city, and it guards its image as a frontier town of rugged individualists. Even its gay community defines itself differently than most. Here, the most popular event of the year is not Gay Pride, but the Gay Rodeo, where serious cowboys ride bulls and serious drag queens wrestle steers.
The city's gays and lesbians say they are more cautious about protecting their sexual orientation in a province considered Canada's stronghold of resistance to same-sex marriage. And though they've won a right that would have gays and lesbians in many parts of the United States lining up to be married -- as was the case last year in San Francisco -- many here chose to stay home instead.
"It's a very closeted gay community," Schack said after learning the small turnout for marriage licenses Thursday. "One couple was planning to marry but ended up just going on holiday. A couple of people were looking at it but just backed off. It's a little shocking."
When the change came, it came quickly. Overnight, marriage licenses throughout Alberta went from denoting "Bride" and "Groom" to "Partner 1" and "Partner 2."
"Growing up, you knew that you would be unable to marry or, if you did, you would be unhappy," said Woody George, 31, who has been with his partner, Scott Middleton, for five years. The couple participated in a mock Newly Wed game Wednesday night at a Calgary bar, though neither they nor any of the participants were newly married. "Now that we can, it defines what Canada -- and I would think the United States -- is all about: Everybody is equal."
But the change has dumbfounded some members of the gay community in Calgary, where the first Pride celebration was held in just 14 years ago, and many participants wore masks or placed bags over their heads out of fear.
"For it to happen here, it's like, 'Did somebody make a mistake? Did somebody stamp something that shouldn't have been stamped?' " said Karyn Mackenzie, night manager of Calgary's lesbian bar, Money-Pennies.
One lesbian couple in Calgary said they planned to obtain a license Thursday but refused to let a reporter accompany them because one of the women has a high-profile corporate job and did not want the attention. Two gay couples in Edmonton obtained licenses Wednesday evening, shortly after the law became official. Another Edmonton couple received a license Thursday.
But there appeared to be mounting interest. Keith Purdy and Rick Kennedy, an activist gay couple from Calgary, visited a license registry office to learn what documents they needed to obtain a marriage license, which they plan to do today.
"We now feel like full Canadian citizens instead of second-citizens," said Purdy, 43, who has been with Kennedy 15 years. The couple had a holy union ceremony in 1992 and is planning an August wedding. "Now we can refer to each other as husbands and feel free to do so. Not that we haven't done that already, but in certain areas we haven't," he said.
At Money-Pennies, Mackenzie questioned how long same-sex couples would have the right to marry, noting the strong resistance from the province's government and promises by the national leader of the Conservative party to revisit the issue should it prevail in the next election.
She said she's waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"I feel like as quickly as it happened, maybe tomorrow you can't," Mackenzie said.
Alberta's Conservative premier, Ralph Klein, has said the province will honor the federal law, though many believe the will of the people has been thwarted on the issue -- echoing claims made by conservatives in those states in America that have tried to legalize same-sex marriage.
"The government in general has felt that yes, this has been forced upon the province," said Klein's spokesman Jerry Bellikka. "Alberta didn't really feel like it had a choice; we've grudgingly accepted this."
In response, the government plans to enact legislation allowing marriage commissioners and others with the power to conduct marriages to abstain from same-sex ceremonies on religious grounds. A Roman Catholic cardinal testifying before the Canadian senate said the Church would refuse to baptize children of same-sex couples if both parents sign the certificate of baptism.
That clash of liberties -- civil freedom versus religious freedom -- has raised the same questions in Canada as it has in the United States. Can a church have its tax-exempt status challenged -- or be accused of committing a hate crime -- if it discriminates against same-sex couples? To what extent is religious freedom a reason to refuse to conduct such ceremonies? Will it include those who object to marriages between Jews and Gentiles? And what about people who have previously divorced?
"I think we definitely do need to be the province in the country to show some leadership in resolving this issue and covering bases the federal government wants to ignore, and that's equality on both sides of the argument, " said Brian Rushfeldt, executive director of Canada Family Action Coalition, one of the leading opponents of the same-sex marriage law. The organization, based in Calgary, has 6,000 members.
Those on the other side of the debate agree that such questions will not be answered quickly.
"That's going to be the issue in the next couple of years," said Stephen Lock, who oversees Alberta for Egale Canada, the country's largest gay rights organization. "How do you balance rights and make sure neither one is being inordinately restricted?"
E-mail Wyatt Buchanan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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