A Few Minutes With...Michael Phair

There aren't many more folks in Alberta who have been as active in almost every aspect of our province than Michael Phair, one of the first openly gay politicians in Canada, which is why we needed much more than just a few minutes with him...


It was only a few seconds after Michael Phair walked into the Roast Coffeehouse in downtown Edmonton that he had spotted someone he knew. A few people actually, including Ward 6 Councillor Scott McKeen. I certainly wasn't surprised, knowing Phair is a well-connected Edmontonian who's involved or has been involved in countless groups and organizations throughout the city, and for many years now.

Michael Phair is currently an adjunct professor and education facilitator with 
iSMSS (Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services).

But most folks around here know Michael Phair most as an advocate for the LGBTQ community, a hat he's been wearing since the '80s, when being openly gay in Alberta and in the public eye wasn't exactly a walk in the park.

"I used to get a lot of people saying some pretty nasty things to me," remembered Phair, who when he was first elected to Edmonton's City Council in 1992, was the first openly gay elected official in the province's history, and one of the first in the country. Referring to a particularly tough period in his career, during the whole Delwin Vriend debate, Phair said that he "got hundreds of emails, phone calls and letters that were just awful."

Phair told me that it got so bad that City Hall had to have security and the police on alert, and that he was asked to take different routes home every day, so that he wasn't followed. "It wasn't just me, [but] a lot of it got aimed at me because I was a public figure, so people knew where to go."

Despite all the ignorant feedback he received, Phair refused to back down, remaining a City Councillor for 15 years before giving up politics in 2007, just as a young Don Iveson had entered Council. Years later, in 2013, Phair was asked to be a part of Iveson's Mayoral campaign. We all know how that turned out.

Now, Phair works with the iSMSS (Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services), and continues to be active in all sorts of events and organizations throughout Edmonton. In fact, I'm not sure how he found time to sit down with I Heart Edmonton for this interview, but I'm grateful he did. Over a chocolate croissant and a cranberry cocktail, I learned just how important Phair has been--amongst other things--to the change in attitude towards gays and lesbians in Alberta.

Let's spend a few minutes with...Michael Phair.


IE/ Do you believe that gay celebrities, athletes, and other public figures have a sort of responsibility to come out, to establish themselves as role models for gay youths who are in desperate need of one?

MP/ Yes. There certainly has been over the years some question or debate whether your sexuality was private, so you didn't have to identify that you were gay or lesbian. I don't agree with that, I think it is important to come out, particularly if you are in some way identified in the public; because it does say a couple of things: not only to young people that people are gay, lesbian, trans, etc., are part of society, and some of them are figures that are quite exemplary because of the skills they have. But also I think it says to everyone else that we're part of society and get used to it. I think the more people that come out the better, quite frankly.

What I have seen over the last many years is that when individuals know someone who's gay or lesbian, it starts them to rethink a bit about what their notion is or their understanding begins to change, because if they know someone personally, it's hard then to say gays and lesbians are bad and awful people...I think it's very valuable for people to be out and that other people know about their sexuality, and how they identify and to be part of the larger community.

Michael Phair with then City Councillor Don Iveson
at Edmonton Pride, which Phair helped organize.

IE/ I agree, especially in sports right now, I think.

MP/ Looking backwards 30 years, there are so many people who identify as gay or lesbian at an age of 13, 14, 15, and that is a period of time when most adolescents are kind of not sure exactly what to do or how they fit into society. So I think it's a time of a lot of flexing of 'who I am' and 'how I will do in society.' It is extremely important that they have role models, to see and understand people who have gone through that period and who are doing fairly well in life, so that they are able to deal with it at that early age, and not late 20s and early 30s like many people did before; and many haven't at all. I know too many that are in their 50s and 60s who are still in the closet...gimme a break!

IE/ Being gay, I didn't have a lot of role models growing up, and I imagine you didn't either. When you first discovered that you were gay, did you fight against it, ignore it, or accept it?

MP/ I think that when I first became somewhat aware I was probably 15, 16, 17, somewhere in that age range. I think that I found myself being attracted particularily to physical aspects of men, without kinda knowing why; because there was nothing about gays or lesbians around. I think that I just didn't  act on it or try to understand much about it at that time, as a teenager. It was a few years later, probably about when I was 18, 19, 20, that I started to realize that I was really actually attracted to men and that I wanted to be with them. At that point I wasn't prepared to identify myself as gay to anyone else, or really to myself. I was afraid to identify with that.

I was finishing up my studies and became a teacher, teaching kindergarten, in a day when the common thinking was gay men prey on children, so I was very much afraid of that. Later, I think it became more comfortable to me because it was clear to me that I was gay and that I wanted to be with gay men. But I was also living on my own then, working, paying my way, and I think I felt kinda comfortable...well, whatever anyone says, I can manage, including my family. Not living at home, being on my own, working, paying the bills, etc., I decided it was kinda time, and things worked out.

With my brothers and sisters it's always gone very well and not been a problem. I think my father was not surprised, and I think my mother was completely taken aback. But they managed too...and eventually it was not an issue. It goes away.

IE/ Can you tell me about your 'coming out' struggles, in terms of telling your friends, and just being publicly out?

MP/ At the time a few of my friends had said that they had figured it out a long time ago! When I publicly came out, which was more than just with friends, there were a couple of friends of mine--who were gay men--who clearly pulled away and didn't want to be seen with me. I think because that they were in the closet they worried. I think that that has changed more or so these days, partly because there are more people who are out, and of all ages, and that it's not that big of a deal.

I have to admit that when I was telling some long-term friends of mine, I was really hesitant. A couple of them were really angry with me that I wouldn't confide in them. It was a hard lesson for me to learn, and that's something I regret.

IE/ In terms of attitudes towards the LGBTQ community, how far do you think Albertans, and particularly Edmontonians, have come since your early days in City Council?

MP/ Just massive changes, and in generally very positive. When I first came out here in Edmonton, which would have been about '81, '82, my sense about the gay and lesbian community at the time was that they were sort of low-key and kinda quiet, and people leave you alone. Then there were the bath raids, and that was a real turning point in that there was this acknowledgement, like maybe we aren't so quite hidden. From that came a whole lot of activity that was aimed at changing both legislation and people's minds, and the growth of the sports groups and social groups, a lot of direct advocacy at the province to get the legislation changed, nationally as well. And with that, a bit of beginning of change of attitude too.

The arrival of HIV/AIDS, which was a very difficult period--and I was involved with the establishment with what today is called HIV Edmonton--however, in terms of the broader society, it was such a major disease and it effected so many all across North America; and with no cure and no drugs to help in those early years, it was always in the media. I think what also started to show was gay men helping other gay men, and the whole notion of service and support, and the recognition that you needed to be out and open so that you got the kind of care that you needed, and that these were not nasty, bad people that were 'sexually-crazed.'

There certainly is some homophobia still left, and there are some people that are still negative. But all the recent polls show that that is way down in Canada, including Alberta. I remind people these days that Albertans are wrongfully looked at as being [homophobic]. Somewhere between 75-80% of Canadians think that homophobia is wrong, and Alberta is right about 78%, right in the middle of that. Same thing with gay marriage. I think it's changed significantly and generally positively.

Along with Phair, Delwin Vriend was an important advocate
in changing the attitude towards gays & lesbians in Alberta.

IE/ Has there ever been a time in your life when you didn't want to be most known publicly as a gay advocate?

MP/ Before I came out and I was teaching 5-year-olds, I didn't want anyone to think I was gay. I was very concerned about that. I liked teaching, I enjoyed the work. Anita Bryant was doing her orange juice thing, saying gay people shouldn't be teaching in school. Most school systems couldn't exist [under such a theory]. And the statistics have always shown that like 95% of people who abuse children sexually are straight...they're not gay at all!

IE/ Was there ever a time when the negative comments and threats you received made you rethink your career in the public eye?

MP/ I don't know whether they made me rethink, but I did get those. When I was in Edmonton and out publicly, I did get letters at home and other things that happened that were aimed at me. I did a number of call-in shows on the radio, and I used to get a lot of people saying some pretty nasty things. And when I was elected, a couple of incidents at City Hall.

The most difficult time, again when I was in City Hall, was when the Delwin Vriend case was decided nationally at the Supreme Court, indicating that Alberta had to put laws into their legislation protecting people in terms of discrimination, including sexual orientation. At that point the provincial government stalled and there was talk about not doing it, and there was that period of 5 or 6 days where I got hundreds of phone calls and emails and letters that were just awful. At City Hall the security and the police met with me, and somebody was pretty much watching all the time. I was asked to take different routes home during that time, and I think there was probably somebody watching where I lived most of that time as well.

And it wasn't just for me...a lot of it got aimed at me because I was a public figure. People knew where to go. A lot of gays and lesbians, personal friends of mine, were also terrified. I remember when a friend of mine from the East Coast who's parents called and asked him to come home, because of what they were hearing in the media.

That whole [negative] voice has really started to disappear, and people just don't listen to them anymore. It was a really difficult time.

IE/ How were your fellow City Councillors? Were they supporting you?

MP/ Some of them were clearly very much in support of me, and even the others that had some hesitation also felt that the kinds of things we were hearing were just awful, and that that was totally unacceptable. Some were very supportive and others found some of the behaviour unacceptable, as it should be. 

IE/ Why did you get into politics in the first place?

MP/ Oh God! I don't come from a family that's political. My parents always voted and that kinda thing, but we were never otherwise involved in politics, and neither were my brothers and sisters. For me I was active politically relatively early. When I started teaching I was also working in day care with pre-school kids, and I got quite involved with advocating for better programs for pre-school kids; and then I also worked with handicapped children as well. I was usually pushing the government, so I had some understanding of some of that. And I worked on a political campaign for a couple of people that I was interested in in the early-'80s, including a candidate who was interested in changing the laws around discrimination, including sexual orientation here in Alberta. And he won! He pushed me [into politics].

I was also president of the Edmonton Social Planning Council, as well as working with the provincial government at that time, and so a number of friends of mine started saying, 'you should think about running.' One day I thought, 'I don't know, maybe I'll think about it.' And so I decided I would run for City Council, and I was fortunate, and ended up winning that first time, which was a miracle when I think backwards. I was the first gay candidate. 

IE/ And why did you leave politics behind?

MP/ I worked hard at it and I liked it, and it's a job with a lot of challenges and that took a lot of time and energy, and I felt that I had done many things that I wanted to do...it was time for me to move on to some other things. And also knowing that there were other people that would be elected with new ideas, bringing new things to it. I feel really fortunate, because the person who got elected was Ben Henderson. So I just decided that after my fifth campaign, that's it, I'm not gonna run again. I didn't say anything to anybody until a few months before the next election. 

IE/ What do you think about Edmonton having its own LGBTQ district, like those in many other cities across North America?

Phair spent a year studying in San Francisco, and spent a lot of time in
the Castro neighbourhood, the world's most famous LGBTQ district.

MP/ Well you know, in some ways, there was a little bit in the past. I mean right here [near the Roast] there were two big bars here, and then a block away on 6th there was the other one. Across the street was Flashback, and then right next door here was The Roost. And then Boots & Saddles was a block away on 6th. Particularly on weekend nights the traffic between the three was hundreds of gays and lesbians, and drag queens prancing up and down the streets in between. And then the Boardwalk had a novelty store that was run by two gay men, and was a hangout as well. So there was a bit of a district at that time. 

I went to school in San Francisco for a year and lived on Castro, which I liked a lot. And there's something really nice about that, but at the same time what's important is that one is able to find gay connections, whether it's through clubs or organizations. I think that in Edmonton, even though there isn't a district like there was before, there are enough organizations--and people know about them--that people can engage as they want to. Having an actual district is hard to pull off, only a few cities have had that able to happen. Even these days in San Francisco, in the Castro, it is much more diverse than it used to be. 

IE/ I know you've worked with many issues over the last 25 years, including homelessness, affordable housing, recycling, the arts, and of course, LGBTQ issues. What are you most proud of being a part of, and why?

MP/ I was on the board of Edmonton Homeward Trust, which is the major organization that provides money and support for dealing with homelessness, and that was a really good experience; I learned a lot. The other one for me that I learned a lot at and that was really fun was [when I was a member of the Public Arts Committee of] the Edmonton Arts Council. I don't have an artistic background at all, I was there as a citizen at large...it was fascinating! It's important for the city, and I've been a strong advocate for better design, more support for culture and arts in the city, because it's the heart and soul of a place. 


IE/ Best book you ever read? 

MP/ 'Love in the Time of Cholera' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

IE/ Favourite movie of all-time? 

MP/ Elia Kazan's 'A Streetcar Named Desire', and Bernardo Bertolucci's 'The Conformist.'

IE/ Last album you purchased?

MP/ '2012-2013 Live at the Winspear Centre' by Pro Coro Canada.

Pro Coro Canada's '2012-2013 Live at the Winspear Centre.'

IE/ Best concert you attended?

MP/ B.B. King in Tampa, Florida, and The Rolling Stones in Edmonton.

IE/ TV show you don't miss?

MP/ The news. 

IE/ Favourite place to eat in Edmonton?

MP/ Madison Grill in Union Bank Inn.

IE/ Country you'd like to visit that you haven't already?

MP/ Turkey.

IE/ Cat person or dog person?

MP/ Dog. 

IE/ Favourite Edmonton festival?

MP/ The Fringe and the Pride Fest.

IE/ If you could spend the day with any person, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

MP/ Abraham Lincoln, and Tony Kuschner, author and playwright of 'Angels in America.' 

Below is the original trailer for one of Phair's favourite films of all-time, Elia Kazan's 
'A Streetcar Named Desire' (1951), starring Marlon Brando.

Thanks, Michael!


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