‘I’m desperate to preserve it’
Historian tries to save fragments of Calgary’s LGBTQ past from being forgotten or destroyed
Perhaps the most important staging ground in Calgary’s LGBTQ history is hidden down the stairs of a restaurant, in the basement.
In 1970, a group of five men and women led the charge to create a members-only space where the city’s gay community could gather. They painted the walls red and yellow, like a circus tent to match the name — Club Carousel — and thwarted police attempts to shut it down.
Today, there’s no outside trace of the building’s historical significance. Club Carousel moved from its original location at 1207 1st St. S.W. in 1972, before closing in 1978. But Kevin Allen, who has been researching Calgary’s LGBTQ history since 2012, says pieces of the space are still there.
“The owners have let me go down to the basement, and one of the walls ... is still painted. It’s almost 50 years old,” he said.
“I’m desperate to preserve it. That’s amazing ... It’s kind of the dawn of the organized gay community in Calgary.”
Allen is currently the Calgary Public Library’s historian in residence, and his new book, Our Past Matters: Stories of Gay Calgary, is the culmination of a years-long deep dive into the people and places that formed the foundation of the city’s LGBTQ community. He hopes his work will shield these oft-forgotten stories from the passage of time.
His book highlights key people and moments, from Treaty 7 negotiations in 1887 to the 1998 Supreme Court case in which Delwin Vriend successfully challenged the Alberta Human Rights Act after he was fired from an Edmonton college for being gay.
Allen said Club Carousel was one of the most essential developments in that history for Calgary — the first time the city’s gay community boldly established its own space.
Until 1969, it was a criminal offence in Canada to have sex with someone of the same gender. Before that, spaces where gay people could meet were known only in whispers.
Allen uncovered one of those places by accident, when a conversation with his parents about where gay people used to hang out in Calgary revealed a rumour about the Kings Arms Tavern at the Palliser Hotel.
“(My dad), as a straight man, just somehow knew that if you don’t want to be potentially thought of as gay, he knew not to drink there,” Allen said.
Like Club Carousel, there’s now almost no sign of that important landmark for the city’s LGBTQ history. It’s been replaced by a Starbucks.
Since then, Allen said, learning about the city’s LGBTQ history has taken over his life. He quit his arts administration job in 2014 to devote more time to it, launching a Kickstarter campaign that led to the book.
“I’ll probably be engaged with queer history for the rest of my life,” he said.
Other important pieces of the past include activism by the Of
Colour Collective, which challenged white dominance in queer spaces during the 1990s, as well as the founding of the first gender clinic at Calgary’s Foothills Hospital, where transgender people could access care.
A Calgary bus driver was at the centre of the case that decriminalized homosexuality in Canada, but before Allen began researching the book, he’d never heard his name.
Everett Klippert is recognized as the last person in Canada to go to prison just for being gay, but “his story had completely disappeared,”
“Our history was not well recorded by institutions,” he says. “Before the ’50s, there’s almost no first-person accounts.”
Allen continues to interview LGBTQ people in their 70s, 80s and 90s to ensure their stories aren’t lost.
“Calgary’s history narrative is dominated by the Stampede, by energy and oil exploration, kind of the mavericks,” he said. “And those are all important stories, but there’s a lot of other stories and a lot of other histories in Calgary.”
Kevin Allen in front of Calgary’s Lougheed House, on 13 Ave. S.W., known as the city’s gay prostitution stroll during the 1980s — at the time called “the Fruit Loop.”