Calgary

Calgary Pride Parade's grand marshal opens up about her coming out in the 1960s

In 1964, 28-year-old Lois Szabo sat down with her best friend and husband of 10 years and told him she had fallen in love with a woman. She went on to co-found one of Calgary's first gay clubs and stayed married to that man for more than 50 years.

Lois Szabo stayed married to her best friend for more than 50 years after coming out to him

Lois Szabo, 81, co-founded one of Calgary's first gay clubs in the '60s and will lead the 2017 Calgary Pride Parade as grand marshal. 3:44

Lois Szabo was 28 when she told her husband, Les, she was a lesbian.

It was 1964, and Szabo sat down with her best friend and spouse of 10 years to tell him she had fallen in love with a woman.

"His response was, 'Well, you're a good wife. You're a good mother. You're a good homemaker. And that's the most important thing — is the home and the children," said Szabo.

She and Les agreed that their family and two kids came first, so they kept their marriage intact. 

Szabo, right, stayed married to her husband, Les, for more than 60 years, up until his death earlier this year. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Szabo knows she was lucky to have that mutual understanding with Les in that era.

"Because a couple across the street, [the wife] came out to her husband, and he immediately had her committed for — I think she was six weeks in the hospital," Szabo recalled.

"Then she came home promising never, ever, ever to go that route again. And then a month or two later, she did, and he caught her, and he took the children away from her," Szabo said.

Szabo has had four long-term relationships with women over the years: a 12-year partnership, two five-year-long relationships and a recent girlfriend of 23 years — all while married to her husband of more than 60 years.

She gave Les her blessing to leave, and the two had regular conversations about whether to separate.

He had other relationships too. But he didn't want to end things. Neither did she.

"I said to a couple of the women who wanted me to leave, I told them right at the beginning, 'I had a relationship. I have a family, and I had those before you, and they take priority. And if that's not okay, then we have to end here,'" said Szabo.

Creating a safe space for gays

In 1967, Szabo became involved with a group of gay men looking for a safe space to socialize in Calgary.

There was a mixed gay and straight disco club called 1207 on First Street S.W., but the gay community was boycotting it.

The owner was selling tickets to straight people to "watch the queers dance," Szabo explained.

Szabo said the boycott worked. The owner went bankrupt, and she and her friends were able to take over the lease and open Club Carousel in its place.

It was an official private membership club, chartered under the Provincial Societies Act.

"As far as I know we were the first one in Western Canada," Szabo said.

This memento from the One Voice Chorus concert focusing on Club Carousel's legacy is proudly displayed in Szabo's home. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Working with the cops

With no liquor licence, the club was essentially an illegal bottle club. Police would regularly show up, and Szabo would go around warning members to hide their drinks, she recalled.

It was a dangerous period in Calgary's history for the gay community. Gay bashing involved severe beatings.

Szabo said she developed a rapport with the police. She knew who her regular patrons were, and the cops trusted her to help reduce violent encounters outside the club.

"They said, 'If you say there's people there you don't think should be there, call us, and we'll move them on.' And they did," she said.

The club operated for nearly 10 years.

2017 grand marshal

These days, Szabo is as busy as ever.

The 81-year-old leads a seniors lesbian group at the Kerby Centre. She walks her dog and attends rallies on her motorcycle.

Lois Szabo, 81, still rides her motorcycle around Calgary. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

When she was asked to be the grand marshal in this year's Calgary Pride Parade, Szabo didn't say yes right away.

"Once I gave it a little bit of thought and got over the shock, I was really proud and honoured to be asked — partly for my own ego, and mainly because of the people I worked with [at] Club Carousel back in the '60s."

The other four founding directors have all passed away. So has Szabo's husband, Les. He died earlier this year, with Szabo caring for him right to the end.

"He was an exceptional man," Szabo said.

Szabo acknowledges her own life has been rather exceptional too, but she says she just lived it one day at a time. She encourages others, especially the younger generation, to do the same.

"Just live your life, and don't be so sensitive to names. Names don't mean a thing. You are who you are."