New LGBTQ film tracks 'enormous personal risk' Calgarians faced

The historical documentary, Outliers, debuts Friday. It documents LGBTQ history in Calgary.

Documentary shows how survivors of persecution built resilient, supportive community

More than 60,000 people turn out to Calgary's Pride Parade each year. When it started in 1991, some people marched in masks due to the persecution they would face should their identities be revealed. (Pride Calgary)

Calgary's LGBTQ film festival celebrates 20 years this week with the launch of a new documentary chronicling the community's history in this city.

Outliers debuts Friday at 7 p.m. at the Plaza Theatre.

It tracks the community's history from 1960, when being gay was illegal in Canada, to 2010. In Calgary, people faced severe persecution, imprisonment and violence, and yet found ways to come together in resilience, love and celebration.

"If it's illegal for you to exist and it's illegal for you to communicate or congregate ... that makes it really difficult to put a bunch of you in one place," activist and film director James Demers said Friday morning.

Demers, one of three directors of the documentary, spoke with the Calgary Eyeopener about some of the key historical stories he found in the making of the film.

In the 1960s, Calgarians turned to unofficial meetups at old railroad or hotel bars, such as the Palliser Hotel and the Cecil Hotel, which became a common hangout spot for lesbian women.

"Everybody was taking an enormous personal risk," Demers said. "We're social creatures, all human beings are. And so the desire to seek connection is innate and it's always going to exist, and we're always going to find a way."

James Demers has been involved with non-profits and transgender education for years. He leads the Calgary Queer Arts Society, which runs the Fairy Tales Film Festival. (CBC)

The last person imprisoned for being gay in Canada was a Calgarian, former bus driver Everett Klippert, who fled the city due to persecution. Once he arrived in Northwest Territories, he told the RCMP he had relationships with men and was sentenced to jail indefinitely.

His case galvanized media and politicians to push for the decriminalization of homosexuality, which didn't happen until 1969. Kippert remained in prison into the early 1970s.

Everett Klippert was sentenced to remain in jail indefinitely, but was finally released in 1971. He died in 1996. (Submitted by Kevin Allen/Klippert family )

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for the state-sponsored discrimination last fall.

"Klippert is really important," Demers said. "He had a really rough time."

Canada’s pride movement has roots in a groundbreaking amendment to the criminal justice act by then justice minister Pierre Trudeau, who in 1969 tabled Bill C-150, decriminalizing homosexual acts for consenting adults. Trudeau said the state had ‘no place in the bedrooms of the nation.’ (Peter Bregg/Canadian Press)

As a local activist and Calgary Queer Arts Society executive director, Demers has worked with non-profit groups, youth initiatives and transgender education efforts across Alberta. Yet in working on this documentary, he found there's always more to learn.

"We had 11 gay bars in Calgary in 1983, which is fascinating, which is also the same year that the AIDS crisis came to Calgary," he said. "The Olympics was a big part of the reason we received our first Pride permit, which is interesting. I was not expecting to find that connection."

The first official public pride rally in Calgary was in 1990, left, and the first parade was in 1991, right. (CBC Archives, Joey Sayer)

The international attention on the city and its leaders created by the 1988 Winter Games forced the hand of local politicians, who for almost a decade had been blocking the LGBT community from receiving a permit to have a pride march.

'We took that ball and ran'

The excuse had been they worried such a public demonstration would incite violence, Demers said. 

"They just assumed the event would turn into a blood bath, and so we fought that for a really long time," he said. "The international attention on what was going on politically within the city of Calgary and within city hall gave them reason to make a change.

"And so we took that ball and ran with it, and we're doing really well now."

The first Pride Parade held in Calgary was in 1991.

At the 1990 Calgary pride rally, some LGBTQ participants wore Lone Ranger masks to hide their identity. (CBC Archives)

The film also documents the old Club Carousel, a LGBT-run, members-only bar incorporated in 1970. One of its founders, Lois Szabo, was honoured for her work last summer, as she was appointed Calgary Pride Parade's grand marshal.

The Fairy Tales Film Festival runs until June 2.

  • Hear more from James Demers about Calgary's LGBT legacy:

With files from Lisa Robinson and the Calgary Eyeopener.