Liz Massiah – Edmonton’s Lesbian Community Leader Extraordinaire

Author: Chloe Camara

Most foundational LGBTQ+ organizations in our city were influenced by Liz Massiah, Edmonton’s lesbian community leader extraordinaire. From GALA to Womonspace, the AIDS Network of Edmonton, and the Liaison Committee, Liz was there for it all. Her steady head has worn many hats as a community leader, civil rights activist, social worker, and psychologist.

Liz was an out lesbian when she moved to Alberta from Ontario in 1983 after graduating from Wilfrid Laurier University with her MSW. Like many lesbians of her time, she married a man before coming out later in life. Years earlier, she and her husband were invited along to a gay bar called the Robin’s Nest in Cambridge, ON. When two same-sex couples came twirling by, it finally clicked that what she saw felt right to her. She hasn’t looked back since and encourages everyone to live authentically out of the closet.

Liz’s upbringing as the daughter of a Royal Canadian Air Force Officer exposed her to authority figures from an early age, leaving her unphased by authority figures whom others might find daunting. Her can-do attitude is also influenced by the legacy of her Great Grandma Kate Massiah, who was the first female journalist in the House of Commons.

Notions of the independence of the Canadian soldier differed from the nature of the British military; Kate Massiah, a journalist, and mother of Trooper Hubert Massiah, wrote to the King, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and Lord Strathcona about the men’s mistreatment due to the fact that the British officers “failed to understand” that Canadians “are accustomed to being treated as intelligent men, not as an automatic body”

Kate Massiah
“The seal set on our nationhood”: Canadian Literary Responses to
the South African War (1899-1902)
Page 180

As far as Liz’s concerned, if something needs to be done, she’ll do it! So, naturally, she wasn’t intimidated by what other people thought and didn’t feel shame about being different. She was frequently astonished that people could be so prejudiced against LGBTQ+ folks because she never felt that being a lesbian was wrong.

When she arrived in Edmonton, Liz joined Womonspace, Edmonton’s lesbian social organization, as a public relations board member. Her position gained her an invite from John Doyle to join Edmonton’s first Pride committee, leading to the creation of GALA (Gay and Lesbian Awareness). GALA was the gay and lesbian social hub during a time when it was common to be closeted.

The dances, baseball games, picnics, potlucks, and other community events that GALA planned are still fondly remembered as an essential part of LGBTQ+ people’s lives throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. In fact, GALA’s long tradition of New Year’s Eve dances began when Liz and her partner at the time, Kathryn, wanted to ring in the new year at a fancy dance and organized the first with Womonspace.

Among many other memories from her time with GALA, Liz recalls a baseball game where the players banded together to ensure that a young sex worker could make a home run and his thrilled expression when he made it.

She remembers standing alongside Michael Phair with the big feeling of not knowing whether people would show up for Edmonton’s first Pride and the swell of emotion when they looked up to see a crowd.

She remembers seeing one gay friend hold another’s head in his lap at a picnic, stroking his hair with pure intimacy. Liz believes that change is made up of a bunch of little things, like these simple moments, all coming together.

Throughout her life, Liz’s efforts were fuelled by the joy of knowing and being in the same space as fellow LGBTQ+ community members. Despite the serious causes they were fighting for and the associated risks, it was important to approach their fight with good humour, love, and fun. If they weren’t laughing and eating potluck dinners together, it wasn’t working!

Ever so cheeky and forthright, Liz remembers sneaking GALA brochures onto car windshield wipers in parking lots. Even with no clue and no budget, their power was evident in their care for each other. Liz believes that being firm, respectful, polite and insistent was the key to their success – because at the end of the day, they were fighting for what was right.

Amidst it all, Liz also sat on the first board of the AIDS Network of Edmonton, an organization created in response to the first AIDS case in Edmonton in 1984. She emphasized the importance of education and networking, insisting on using the word “Network” in the organization’s name.

As the Individual Rights Protection Act’s (IRPA) revision date neared, a clear need for activism was also apparent and GALA divided into subcommittees to manage the work. At the time, sexual orientation was not a protected ground in Alberta. When the Alberta Human Rights Commission refused GALA’s requests to include sexual orientation, GALA ramped up its efforts.

In the analog age, you couldn’t rally people together with an email blast. Liz recalls furiously typing letters on her typewriter, mailing them off, and awaiting responses. She approached politicians directly (once in line at the supermarket!) and attended meetings at the Alberta Legislature, even sneaking through the side door when necessary. She spoke about the issues wherever she could – to journalists at press conferences, to political organizations, to church organizations, and to other groups.

Growing up without media representation, she felt pride and hope when community members reached out to tell her that it made them feel safe to see her in the media.

However, there were also times when she personally met resistance in her workplace, the media, and social groups. The receptionist at the WPRL asked her to stop ordering magazines with articles about AIDs, lest people consider her a “pervert.” Even her boss called her into his office to question her extensive public involvement with the LGBTQ+ community and identity as a lesbian.

Dishearteningly, conflict took hold at Womonspace leading to Liz’s eventual expulsion. During this time, many lesbians were deeply afraid of the consequences of being out as visible members of the LGBTQ+ community.

As Liz and her partner’s public activism became even more visible, her openness about her sexuality was threatening to many fearful members. Shortly after being expelled, Liz was back on the lesbian scene on her own terms. She and a few others organized the Jane Rule tour, inviting prolific lesbian writer Jane Rule to Edmonton for a week.

As Liz and her partner’s public activism became even more visible, her openness about her sexuality was threatening to many fearful members. Shortly after being expelled, Liz was back on the lesbian scene on her own terms. She and a few others organized the Jane Rule tour, inviting prolific lesbian writer Jane Rule to Edmonton for a week.

Professionally, Liz continued to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community when providing social work and counselling services. As a psychologist, she navigated therapy with deeply closeted military members who needed the support of someone who understood.

Liz’s relationship with the police and military enabled her to be a unique liaison between EPS and Edmonton’s LBGTQ+ community. In 1992, she and George Davison from GALA’s civil rights committee met with EPS members to initiate the Liaison Committee, which morphed into the Sexual Minorities Liaison Committee, which addressed the LGBTQ+ community’s public safety concerns, bringing their voices to the table and offering support to those reporting crimes.

This legacy continues today through EPS’s Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression Advisory Council.

Liz Massiah and Sadie

Without Liz’s countless contributions, Edmonton would not be the same for LGBTQ+ people today. Her tenacity, resourcefulness, and dedication are an inspiration for community leaders of the future, especially for lesbians with limited representation in LGBTQ+ histories.

Funding for this story made possible by the Edmonton Heritage Council and the City of Edmonton

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