Calgary·Q&A

Find out about Calgary's gay history as Pride Week continues

The Calgary Gay History Project offers a walking tour of the city's gay history, from Club Carousel to the Boer War Memorial, where the first Pride event was launched in 1990.

'We have to remember the human rights struggles that started Pride'

Calgary Gay History Project research lead Kevin Allen would like to see the city's first gay bar, Club Carousel, recognized with a heritage site designation. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/Radio-Canada)

Six years ago, Kevin Allen started the Gay Calgary History Project, in order to tell the stories of Calgary's gay history through the eyes and ears of the people who lived it. Allen spoke with Radio-Canada's Charlotte Dumoulin on Monday when he took her on a walk through Calgary's gay history.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What's special about 1207 First Street S.W.?

A: [It] was the site of the very first gay bar in Calgary, called Club Carousel.

This was at a time when homosexuals were criminals and challenged by police — and the police tried to shut this bar down. But they got a local lawyer involved who managed to get them to create a charity. They formed as a private member's club in 1970 and the judge threw out the police's court case against them. It became very popular: 600 members.

The dawn of the organized gay community in Calgary was this club, and there's only one founder still left alive. Her name is Lois Szabo. She's 82, and last year, in 2017, she led the Pride Parade as its grand marshal. She's a really important person in the community's history.

Q: Why is it important to get this site designated as a heritage site?

A: In the basement where the club was, it never was a bar after they left. It just became storage space.

And it was very dark, low ceiling, kind of a firetrap space. It was amazing they got so many hundreds of people down there. But they decorated it like a circus, because they wanted to make it brighter. So it was red walls and yellow circus tent walls — and one of those walls still exists.

It's faded and cracked, and I'd really like that preserved, somehow.

Q: Who was Jay Harris?

A: In the late '80s, there was a 37-year-old nurse called Jay Harris who was walking to a bar called the Parkside Continental.

He saw something out of the corner of his eye, and then he was hit in the head with a baseball bat, and three assailants bashed him to within an inch of his life.

He had 27 fractures in his skull and face alone.

He managed to stagger to the bar after some Good Samaritans chased off his attackers. There was an off-duty fireman in there who called an ambulance and, ironically, they took him to the hospital where he worked. He was beaten so badly, his co-workers didn't recognize him.

The assailants were caught. But throughout the '80s and '90s, there was a lot of gay bashing in this city.

Some people believe it's connected to the AIDS crisis that was happening. There was a general fear, of AIDS and gay people, so quite often we were hunted and attacked on the streets of Calgary.

Some people died.

Many people who were attacked wouldn't report it, because they were still in the closet. So there was a bit of a dark period in Calgary's history for the gay community — and that was replicated all over Canada in all Canadian cities.

It was often young men, in pickup trucks, with baseball bats, or some other kinds of weapons, who would go around, hunting.

I remember as a young person in the '90s seeing the hunters.

Lois Szabo was the grand marshal for the 2017 Calgary Pride Parade. Szabo was a founding member of one of Western Canada's first gay bars, Club Carousel, in Calgary. It operated from 1967 to 1977. (Kate Adach/CBC)

Q: Recently, the police apologized for their treatment of the LGBTQ2 community. What did you think of that?

A: The police were brave to apologize because they do have an ugly history with our community. And I do think Canada is in this period of reconciliation with a lot of its past, for First Nations, for queer people. And for us all to move forward as a country, we have to look at the messy bits, and heal. And get past it.

Q: Why did you add a walking tour to the Calgary Gay History Project?

A: People were interested in learning more about Gay History in Calgary. Because so many of the locations seem close together — and I like walking — I thought it might be nice to do a walking tour of the sites.

People have responded really positively to the walks.

They like the idea of seeing the old gay community physically, in real time, where everything was in relation to each other.

Q: It's Pride Week in Calgary. What do we need to remember?

A: Pride has really become a sense of celebration and party — but we have to remember the human rights struggles that started Pride.

There are still social justice issues today that we have to grapple with as a community.

I would hope that Pride never loses sight of those important discussions and issues that we need to discuss.

Twisted Element on 11th Avenue S.W. is one of the few remaining gay bars in Calgary. "In the 1970s, there were many more gay bars and gay coffee shops and gay places than there are today, because the community felt more marginalized, and needed to stick together more," says Kevin Allen. (John Gibson/CBC)

With files from Charlotte Domoulin, Radio-Canada.