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Calgary queers weigh into Pride dispute

Bitter feud gets community talking

'NO COMMUNITY WITHOUT UNITY.' Participants in the 2008 Calgary Pride Parade march down Stephen Ave. This year's parade takes place Sun, Sep 6 at noon, see pridecalgary.ca for details. Credit: Arthur McComish photo

At this Sunday’s Pride parade in Calgary, gay restaurant owner Jason Wheeler plans to make a statement about the divisions in the local queer community.

‘There’s no community without unity’ is the theme of his business’ float. But otherwise, Wheeler is trying not to get caught in the war of words between Sam Casselman, head of the Pride committee, and RJ Fafard, owner of Calgary’s biggest gay bar, Twisted Element.

“I stay out of the politics,” says Wheeler, who runs a restaurant called Money Pennies.

A few days ago, Casselman went public with complaints about Fafard. She says he’s been calling Pride sponsors and spreading what she calls “misinformation,” including the suggestion that none of the sponsors are gay.

Wheeler hasn’t been contacted by Fafard, but he’s not surprised. “He wouldn’t phone me,” says Wheeler. “We’re on two different pages.”

Another sponsor, lesbian artist Lisa Heinricks, says she hasn’t been called by Fafard, either. “Those guys at Twisted always try to cause a fuss,” she says. “I just avoid the whole issue.”

Still, Heinricks supports Casselman’s decision to take on Fafard. “Absolutely,” she says. “Somebody probably does need to.”

One sponsor willing to take on Fafard’s claims about Calgary Pride is Steve Polyak, owner of Gay Calgary newspaper.

“He feels he’s the centre of the gay community,” Polyak says of Fafard. He rejects Fafard’s contention that this weekend’s event should be called Straight Pride because of the Pride committee’s willingness to accept straight-owned sponsorships.

“Why should we turn around and say no to straight sponsors?” Polyak asks. “Without that money, Pride would not be as successful. There’s only so many gay dollars for the taking.”

In his defence, Fafard points out that many gay-owned businesses, including his own, aren’t entering floats in the parade. The other non-participants include Goliath’s Spa and Texas Lounge, Priape men’s wear and Outlooks magazine.

Andrew Brassard, co-owner of Goliath’s Spa and Texas Lounge, says his business has only entered the parade once in the last few years. He says he’s not a Pride sponsor because no one from the committee asked him to be.

“I don’t have any problems with Pride,” he says. But when it comes to sponsorships, he doesn’t feel businesses should make the first move. “I’m not gonna call you to give you money,” he says. “You call me.”

He doesn’t agree with Fafard’s assessment that straight-owned businesses — like the nightclub Belgo, which is hosting this Saturday night’s fundraiser — should avoid Pride. “Money doesn’t have a sexual preference,” says Brassard, who is straight. (His two business partners are gay).

Jim Heaton, manager of Calgary’s Priape store, agrees with Brassard that straight money and support should be accepted by Pride. He was approached about being a sponsor but declined because, he says, “the levels of sponsorship they were asking for were out of my reach at the time.”

Likewise, the store isn’t entering a float in the parade because Heaton feels it costs too much to design one, pay the entrance fee and put it on the road. “It’s not appropriate to spend that kind of money,” he says, in light of the recession and the fact that his staff salaries have been frozen.

Heaton offered to sell tickets to the Pride fundraiser at his store, but no one from the committee dropped them off. “They’re in a learning mode,” he says.

Brett Taylor, owner of Outlooks magazine, agrees with Heaton’s assessment of the organizers. “It’s a young Pride committee,” he says. “They’re trying what they think is the best thing to do.”

By that, he means this: “They’re modelling it after larger Prides, which is difficult for a community that hasn’t had a large Pride and is working towards it.”

No one from the Pride committee asked Outlooks to be a sponsor or enter a float in the parade, Taylor says, but he figures that’s because Gay Calgary signed a deal for exclusive media rights (meaning no other publication can be distributed at official Pride events).

As far as the dispute between Casselman and Fafard, Taylor says, “I agree with some of it and only to a degree.” But he’s reluctant to get into details, except to say he doesn’t have any problems with the venue of this Saturday’s fundraiser. “Anything is a step up” from last year’s fundraising dance at a community centre, he says.