Tag Archives: Gay history

‘Twas a full week of Gay History

Calgary Pride 2017 was very energizing for us at the Calgary Gay History Project. Our history walks and the festival booth were well-attended, and we received a lot of positive comments about the project.

It is important that we honour community trailblazers and in 2017 we certainly did. Lois Szabo was a stunning Parade Grand Marshal in her purple tights. She was also delightful in her many media interviews.

The YYC Legacy Project harvested lots of community feedback on what a LGBTQ2S+ history commemoration could be. They had an impressive display at Pride in the Park as well as a great interactive map of Calgary.

A very special thank you to Ayanna and Gordon who helped volunteer at the Calgary Gay History Booth. We would also like to thank project donors and all of those who came out to speak to us and were enthusiastic about our work. Finally, a big shout out to Gary Evans, a professional photographer who came to both gay history walks, documenting them, and then sending the photos to us.

Consequently, here is a photo summary of our week:

Lois and Premier

Lois Szabo, Parade Marshal with Premier Notley and a friend. Source Twitter: @RachelNotley.

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Ayanna and Gordon sharing history at Pride in the Park. Photo: Kevin Allen.

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Meta media image: Steve Polyak, Gay Calgary Magazine, taking a photo at the beginning of the history walk. Photo: Gary Evans, Full Frame Fotography.

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Telling the story of Angels in America in YYC. Photo: Gary Evans, Full Frame Fotography.

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At the site of the historic Club Carousel. Photo: Gary Evans, Full Frame Fotography.

Downtown Gay History Walk Aug 31 2017

Spontaneous sidewalk photo with walk participants – what a good looking group! Photo: Gary Evans, Full Frame Fotography.

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YYC Gay History Input & Walking Tours

Gay History is important.  The new YYC’s LGBTQ2S+ Legacy Project is looking for community input. What do you imagine a permanent commemoration of our history could be? CALGARY NEEDS YOUR STORY × SHARE IT WITH US.

Also, Pride will be here in no time. The Calgary Gay History Project is offering two history walks again this year. The event is free and for all ages. Everyone welcome.

Thursday, August 31st, 7:00 – 8:30 pm

Downtown Gay History Walking Tour

Downtown History Walk

Join the Calgary Gay History Project’s Kevin Allen on a walk through the city centre. We will highlight significant political and social events that affected the gay community. On the way, we will pass by several former watering holes where Calgary’s LGBTQ community gathered.

Meet: Hyatt Regency Calgary (700 Centre Street SE) specifically at their 8th Avenue Entrance.

Saturday, Sept. 2nd, 2:00 – 3:30 pm

Beltline Gay History Walking Tour

Jane's Walk 1

Join the Calgary Gay History Project’s Kevin Allen on a walk through the Beltline. We will travel to significant historical gathering spots for the LGBTQ community in this inner city neighbourhood, including Calgary’s first gay bar, Club Carousel.

Meet: CommunityWise (The Former Old Y) 223 12 Avenue SW

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Pre-WWII Calgary and its Queers

Calgary was incorporated as a town on November 7, 1884, with a population of 506, and grew phenomenally over the next 60 years to be a city of approximately 100,000 by the end of World War II. This period’s gay history is challenging to research for a number of reasons. Firstly, people organized their sexual lives differently then, and the concept of having a homosexual identity is actually a relatively modern one that solidified in North America after World War II. Men who had sex with other men could be perceived as normal as long as they presented a masculine gender identity and also showed a passing sexual interest in women.

Yet however normally these men were perceived, they were still criminals. Anti-sodomy laws were established in the United Kingdom as far back as 1533 and were updated in the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act to make illegal any kind of sexual activity between males. This crime was categorized and named “gross indecency.” Oscar Wilde famously was convicted under this amended law and given the maximum penalty: two years of penal labour. Canada, being a Commonwealth country, inherited the United Kingdom’s legal system and took its cues explicitly from it. Gross indecency entered into Canadian statute law in 1890, although Canada stiffened the maximum penalty to five years from two, and allowed for the lash as extra punishment.

Women were generally not considered sexual agents and were expected to be chaste until marriage. In common law, lesbianism was largely ignored. However, lesbianism was also targeted in the 1885 criminal law amendments, but Queen Victoria refused to sign it huffily explaining, ‘women can’t do that together.’ Rather than challenge Her Majesty, her ministers removed women from the amendment.

Another difficulty in researching gay history in this period is that there are very few references to its existence in the historical record, and even fewer people alive who remember these decades as adults. Gross indecency was prosecuted very rarely in these times: not often relative to the rates of prosecution and incarceration after the 1940s.

Nonetheless, the criminal record is one of the main sources of information we have about gay history at this time. For example, on November 18, 1911, a 27-year old Banff jeweler, John Ward, was found guilty of gross indecency in Calgary’s district court for having had anal intercourse with three different men that year. On June 11, 1914, Michael Noland was charged with committing an act of gross indecency with John Norman the day prior. The facts presented in the depositions divulged that it, in fact, was a case about oral sex.

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A group of Calgary men in July, 1912: Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

Men in trouble with the law due to “perversion” or “degeneracy” tended to fall into two categories. Some men had the whiff of notoriety about them due to effeminate gender presentation; others were unlucky enough to have had sex with another man who was indiscrete. Often there was an outraged family behind many gross indecency investigations; they were seeking to punish the man who “perverted” their family member.

For much of Calgary’s early history, it existed as a frontier town with a distinctively masculine character. Not only was there a staggering influx of single working class men who built the City in its first booms, there was also a sizable population of British remittance men: black sheep in their Victorian families who had been gently exiled to the colonies – often for their sexual eccentricities – and funded to stay away.

During the pre-WWI building boom, the city census reported that Calgary was 75% men. The Albertan newspaper in 1907 wrote: “There are so many young men and so few young women that somebody was bound to get left in the cold.”

Much has been written about “Bachelor Subcultures” in North American cities of this era, and their fluid and accommodating sexual practices. Poolrooms, saloons, and rooming houses were central to this homosocial culture and Calgary’s landscape was typical in this regard.

The Alberta Hotel, built in 1888-90, is a sandstone treasure we have on Stephen Avenue. It was the city’s pre-eminent hostelry in its heyday and is Calgary’s oldest remaining hotel building. The hotel was the preferred lodging and gathering place for well-to-do ranchers, businessmen, local personalities and remittance men. It was described as a “male Mecca.”

Alberta Hotel 1907

Alberta Hotel Postcard from 1907: Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

In contrast, the recently demolished Cecil Hotel was built for the working classes. Opened in 1914 with 57 rooms, the Cecil was purpose-built to accommodate travelers and blue-collar workers in the downtown east end. By 1924, it also housed a stable, blacksmith shop, grocery store, cafe and a tavern that took up nearly the entire ground floor.

After the roaring 1920s, the depression hit Calgary particularly hard. Its antidote, William Aberhart, brought a strange mix of socialism and social conservatism to the city. The high profile Crescent Height High School principal, also known as Bible Bill, started Alberta’s Social Credit Party. His crusade against the depression and conventional economics hailed “Poverty in the Midst of Plenty” made him premier in a landslide election in 1935. He brought Christian fundamentalist principles to his government’s administration and had a strong interest in regulating Albertan morals.

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William Aberhart portrait from 1937: Image, Provincial Archives of Alberta

By 1940, both Calgary and Edmonton had nascent gay communities, but the desire for “clean social conditions” brought Aberhart’s government to bear down on these loosely affiliated groups of men. In the high profile and sensational 1942 Same-sex trials in Edmonton, 12 men were investigated and convicted of participation in a “homosexual sex ring.” When several of the gross indecency charges were dismissed at lower courts, the Premier ensured that the Crown appealed these dismissals. He wrote: “I want to assure you that we want to do everything we can to curb the forces of evil.”

This sentence proved to be prophetic; for homosexuality, the moral tone in Calgary was now set for the next three decades.

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