Stitch by stitch: weaving the story of queer Edmonton

My search for Edmonton’s queer history was the search for my own history

Illustration Dominic Bugatto

I remember the day 40 years ago – 1977 that Anita Bryant took a pie in the face on live television. I remember it because it was an ugly media moment – an angry gay activist tossing baked goods to score political points; a homophobic crusader and former Miss America covered in whipped cream, tearfully praying for the soul of the attacker but not before she quipped, “At least it was a fruit pie.” It was the decade of the Moral Majority, a political organization in the United States with roots in the Christian right.

The other reason I remember that moment so clearly is because it’s the moment I realized that the stories on the news about the nation-wide anti-gay crusade by Bryant and Jerry Falwell were actually about me. I was 13, and had pretty much figured me out. That pie in the face showed me that there were gay people fighting back. And that mattered to young me. It was rebellion, defiance. I had never seen that before. I wondered if I would ever be able to put my sense of outrage into action.

It was the post-Pisces pre-AIDS era – a period that lasted several months. Then, the growing fear as people started to die

In 1981 I read about the raid of Edmonton’s Pisces Health Spa (a gay bathhouse) in the pages of the rightwing magazine Alberta Report, which wasn’t exactly the best way to glean info about the gay community I was planning to move to, but it was what I could find. I wanted to move to Edmonton from my small town because I needed to find people like me, whatever that meant. Edmonton was starting to sound like a dangerous place as well, but at least I wouldn’t be alone. What I wasn’t reading about – because it wasn’t being reported – was the emergence of simple, effective activism in Edmonton’s LGBTQ community (an acronym not in use back then). When the gay community made the news, it was usually bad news. To hear the positive news, you had to hear it from within the community.

That same summer I was driving up and down Main Street in Rocky Mountain House after school one day (gay or straight, that’s what teenagers did) when I spotted him: my first real gay man in my hometown. I had seen men I had suspected before but had never seen one so obvious that I could tell immediately. And because it was a small town, I knew he wasn’t one of us. He was well-dressed, for starters. He was new in town, and visibly queer. It frightened me, and I knew I had to meet him. When I finally did meet him and his partner, I learned he wasn’t just gay, he was a drag queen from Edmonton. When he told stories of the trials and tribulations of Edmonton’s community, it was with relish and abandon. Fighting back was simply part of their mindset. Complacency wasn’t an option. Being defiant was part of the gay experience. My dread began to shift to excitement, not only for the freedom I was about to experience, but also because I felt I was about to become part of something more important just by coming out.

By 1982, I was living in Edmonton. When I arrived I immediately heard legends of queens that predated me. Some had already moved on and others had passed away. A few still lingered, gazing upon young queens like me with a quiet reserve and a gentle nod, a signal that, yes, we were the next ones. But there was already a sense of nostalgia, the shared history was just over a decade old and yet there was already a pining for the way things used to be. The new freedoms had erased some of the old codes that had underpinned the dictates of gay culture, and there wasn’t yet a new set of rules for this emerging world.

It was the post-Pisces pre-AIDS era – a period that lasted several months. Then, the growing fear as people started to die.

When I write about that decade, I prefer to focus mostly on the parts covered in rhinestones and crowns. But it was the growing body count that forced me to write down some of the stories of the vanishing royal sisterhood and the mythical family trees they created. I wanted there to be something left other than faded glamour shots and broken, rusty tiaras. I could feel history erasing us.

Silence equalled death.

When I did finally commit the 1980s to the page, I became an unofficial repository for archives, mostly in the form of photos, posters and stories. People shared them with me. They wanted their histories gathered. They wanted their memories heard.

Darrin Hagen, far right, in one of his theatre productions

So when the University of Alberta contacted me to ask if I would lead a Queer History Bus Tour, of course I said yes. I’m the expert, I wrote that book, after all. But I lived it from 1982 on, so I can attest to what I saw and heard; my husband lived a similar history, but beginning a few years earlier. Beyond this timeframe, queer history in Edmonton is largely unwritten. How to learn about the rest?

My search for Edmonton’s queer history was the search for my own history. Even though there was no bloodline, there was an inherited sense of responsibility, an ownership of something that wasn’t written, only experienced. It was something that belonged not only to the community I had adopted and that had adopted me, but to myself.

Whenever gay life pre-1969 achieved any notice, it was more notoriety rather than notice, and served as a warning to those living in secret.

On the Queer History Bus Tour, the menu of locations that played a significant role in our history expanded year by year, starting at a dozen locales, with me at the front of the bus, like Karen Black in Airport 75, hanging on for dear life as the bus wove through Edmonton’s omnipresent construction, and with gay political groundbreaker Michael Phair (a piece of history himself) heckling me through a bullhorn. The tour expanded to 30 stops, then 50. Within a few years it was a two hour-plus trip weaving through downtown and a few points north of city centre, repainting the map of Edmonton with a rainbow brush. The bars, the discos, the cruising places, the meeting places where the radical lesbians began to distance themselves from the radical feminists. It was so popular that we added a south-side tour exploring Fringe Festival history where so many LGBTQ theatre artists found an uncensored free market for their work. We talked about early activism at the University of Alberta and the parking lot of the Jubilee Auditorium, where a young Phair and his cohorts slid pro-gay pamphlets under the windshield wipers of hundreds of cars belonging to the audience for the anti-gay evangelist Anita Bryant.

The history was there all the time, buried under the prairie dust and oil profits. But until collected, the bigger picture was hard to see: the decades of persistence, small battle by small battle, that slowly inch forward the measure of equality. Viewed from afar, the story looks impossible. But zoom in and every tiny act of defiance, every pamphlet, every charity drag show, every committee, court case, every single challenge to the laws, norms and establishment was not only achievable, but unavoidable. Inevitable. “Justice demanded” eventually became “justice reluctantly served.”

Everyone had expected life to get easier after 1969’s big decriminalization moment, but those better times were still decades away

Every time a blank spot in the history gets filled in, it provides the luxury of allowing the gaze to cast further back in time, looking for what came before … and then what came before that. And before that.

And so I searched ever further back to a time when the triumphs were, by necessity, invisible; when support came in the form of looking the other way. In the years before there were gay bars, the taverns and hotels like the King Eddy, the Corona, the Vega, and the Royal George tolerated one corner of their establishment being an unofficial queer meeting place, invisible to everyone except those who knew to peer through the clouds of cigarette smoke to find their own people. Or the world of show business and theatre and opera where a queer person could hide in plain sight, where pretending to be something you’re not is in the job description. All of those giant old hotels and grand theatres are gone now, razed by booms and busts.

Everyone had expected life to get easier after 1969’s big decriminalization moment, but those better times were still decades away.

Travel further back in time and the history is much murkier. The essential invisibility necessary in the years before decriminalization acted also as an eraser, scraping our presence from the record. Rumours and suspicions and assumptions are there, but except for the occasional tragedy of a life destroyed by a charge of gross indecency, or the posthumous confirmation of someone’s secret queer life once the aspersion couldn’t cause any more damage, LGBTQ folk didn’t usually announce their presence.

Whenever gay life pre-1969 achieved any notice, it was more notoriety rather than notice, and served as a warning to those living in secret.

In 1961 the criminal code was amended to address homosexuality more specifically but in doing so, it created so-called dangerous offenders out of men who admitted that they couldn’t or wouldn’t change their orientation. It was a Calgarian arrested in the Northwest Territories who became the example of how flawed that legal shift was: a man who posed no threat to anyone suddenly had a permanent criminal record. His case was debated nationally, and was the case that spurred the national grassroots movement of unapologetic activists who began writing letters to federal politicians. One of those activists was a drag queen named Mr. ted northe in a decade when female impersonation was still illegal. A Vancouver drag queen who led the movement, Mr. ted northe was born in Cooking Lake, Alberta, and later formed a Canadian organization of Drag Societies, which still exists. She was the self-proclaimed Empress of Canada, and when Trudeau the Elder celebrated the decriminalization of 1969, he called her on the phone, saying, “Congratulations, Your Majesty.”

Our history in the 1950s would be marked by quiet furtive arrests, careers ended and futures shattered as queer folk were forced out of their jobs with government, military, police forces. The Cold War paranoia sought out people that were different and blamed them for blackmail that might happen some day, or named them as security risks, shaming them out of their careers. In 1942, a witch hunt took place that resulted in the arrest of a dozen gay men on charges of gross indecency. They came from many walks of life but three of them were prominent in Edmonton’s theatre and opera scene.

Taken into evidence, as proof of their deviance: a newspaper clipping on the life of Oscar Wilde, as well as a biography of Wilde; address books full of phone numbers, journals, and intimate letters. These letters are a rare treasure: candid, detailed gossip of the gay goings-on in the thriving Edmonton performing arts community. They hint, they inform, they name and – by their very frankness – they condemn the recipients of the letters and every gay man referred to within.

The tragedy was repeated in 1947 when another round of arrests happened. I’m still looking for information on that witch hunt. So far, very little is available.

Being outed usually came about when one was actually caught or reported as having gay sex. Therefore all the mentions of early gay life lie in the coded phrases and damning files of the arrested, the convicted, the ruined. The rest of them – the ones who passed through history like ghosts, their invisibility their key to survival –  remained silent. The price for openness was just too high. The price was the end of your career, time in prison, being shunned by family. Even worse, it could mean mental institutions, electroshock therapy or chemical castration. Silence equalled survival.

But there are clues to the queer ghosts in our early history.

To this day there are buildings standing that were designed by a pair of female architects prominent in Edmonton’s early decades, both smashing gender barriers, and living together, partners in business and perhaps more. But nowhere does it say they are a lesbian couple. If you look even further back, to Edmonton’s first decades there’s almost no evidence to find. The only way to track the presence of sexual minorities from those decades is to interpret the court records of men being charged with creating disturbances or public indecency after being arrested hanging around in the abandoned mine shafts of the river valley, or a park or washroom that had a notorious reputation. The history is there if someone can unearth it.

The bus tour was unique because everyone on the tour had something to add, such as a detail, or a new point of interest, and suddenly there was a place to share those memories. One day someone shouted “That’s where k.d. lang lived before she was a star!” as we drove past a small house in Riverdale. It was added to the tour the next year.

Stitch by stitch, the fabric of our history was slowly being woven. Until then, it was so hard to follow, because the threads fell in every direction, leading nowhere, tangled and random. Gradually they began to form weaves and connections, coming together into larger pieces that were finally substantial enough to examine.

Alberta has a very queer history. When the more populous gay-friendly metros in the country (all three of them) refer to Edmonton, it’s generally with a sense of pity. But I would offer that the stories from my home province are as compelling, if not more, than the big-city marches and riots and movements that dominate the national narrative.

The fact that my government worked diligently to oppose those rights for the first half of my adult life demonstrates that it was a high priority. The fact that before the local police busted the Pisces bathhouse in 1981 they actually contacted the Toronto police to learn what Toronto would have done differently, places Edmonton at the centre of that history. Toronto had just made headlines with a series of bathhouse raids, the largest mass arrest at that point in Canadian history. Edmonton’s boys in blue wanted to know how to avoid causing the same revolutionary reaction the activists gathering in the streets – that Toronto had experienced.

In spite of that, a few short hours after the Pisces raid, Edmonton had its new generation of gay activists. One of them became our first openly gay city councillor. A few years later, the plague years inspired a new generation of artists, and Edmonton’s LGBTQ world began to influence the culture of our nation. Long before I wrote The Edmonton Queen, the legendary Flashback nightclub was first immortalized in Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. Opening night in New York (off-off-Broadway) I was able to hear our queer culture shared with the theatre capital of the world. k.d. lang was high-stepping at the Roost before her brand went internationally supersonic. (Fun facts: the old Roxy Theatre that burned down was not only where Brad Fraser wrote his first play in the lobby while volunteering as a teenage usher, but also where k.d. lang was seen in her first acting role.) Renowned painter Attila Richard Lukacs sometimes lingered at Boots & Saddle prior to his global star exploding. The doors they, and artists like them, opened, released a flood of LGBTQ artists whose work has had international impact. Edmonton queer stories: recorded and shared.

But before the voices got loud enough to hear and too angry to ignore, the story of the fight for the rights of sexual minorities was largely written by the persecution of those who stood out, and by the battles of those who had little to lose.

My search for history is the search for where I belong. I found that place in Edmonton’s history, with one foot planted in pre-equality, the other stepping into a bold but fragile future. It’s in the context of the gains we have achieved that we can see how cruel history sometimes was. It’s a poignant reminder of how new and recent these victories are that the world is still shifting and adjusting to accommodate them. Only our vigilance will keep them in place.

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