Tag Archives: ARGRA


{This week, the Calgary Gay History Project is pleased to present a guest article from the U of C’s Connor MacDonald!}

The Paradox of Queer Sport Stories in Calgary’s History

The following is a summary of an honours thesis completed by Connor MacDonald in 2019. Connor’s work was supervised by Dr. William Bridel in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary.

It is sometimes difficult to think about sport critically. Sport, after all, provides opportunities for people to witness and celebrate (or even perform) what seem to be superhuman feats. Sport also allows us opportunities to cheer on local teams as well as athletes representing our country in international competition. And, sport is proposed to provide opportunities for physical, mental, and social health benefits through participation. Those critical of sport, however, point to the ways that it has been and continues to be exclusionary. This is no less true for LGBTQ+ persons and communities where sport has often held a paradoxical role: it is well documented how LGBTQ+ persons have experienced discrimination, harassment, and abuse in (largely) mainstream sport while also experiencing sport as a form of community building.

Lesbian Softball in 1965

Lesbian Softball in Calgary circa 1965

As Kevin Allen notes in Our Past Matters: Stories of Gay Calgary, there were two lesbian softball teams in Calgary during the 1960s, who would play games and then meet afterward for drinks and food in the backroom of the Cecil Hotel. I was curious what other examples there may have been of LGBTQ+ sport at the time and in the decades that followed. This was of particular interest to me given the conservative political and cultural backdrop of Calgary in the 1980s and 90s. Thus, for my undergraduate thesis, I interviewed three self-identified gay men who all resided in Calgary in the 1980s and onward, and who had varying levels of involvement in local sport and physical activity. Interviews lasted between 2.5 and 3-hours and we covered many topics, with many similar ideas raised by each of the three participants.

LGBTQ Sport Organizations & the Calgary Community

Beyond the two lesbian softball teams in the 1960s, it appears that the first organized LGBTQ+ sport association in Calgary was Apollo—Friends in Sports. According to Apollo’s website, Facebook page, and interviews with participants, the organization was established in 1981 with a humble beginning of only four members initially. Apollo has grown since that time to over 400 members at present. The primary purpose of Apollo in the beginning was to organize a multi-sport event, presumably modeled after LGBTQ+ sport organizations in other cities in North America, leading to the inaugural Gay Games held in 1982 in San Francisco. The Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association (ARGRA, now CRGRA—Canadian Rockies Gay Rodeo Association) was created in 1991 with its first event held in 1994. With the growth of LGBTQ+ sport in Calgary, the city hosted the first North American Outgames in 2007.

This growth all took place while relationships between LGBTQ+ persons/organizations and Calgary and Alberta politicians were tenuous. As Allen notes in his book, Al Duerr, who was mayor of Calgary from 1989 to 2001, proclaimed his support for Apollo and for Pride, but later backed out on that support. More generally, it was difficult to receive sport-related funding from the provincial government and municipal governments, despite growing financial and policy-support for sport in Canada more broadly. This compounded the difficulty for LGBTQ+ sport fund opportunities in Calgary. However, this did not stop organizers from tirelessly gathering resources, funding, and partnerships with local businesses to host provincial, nationwide, and international sport tournaments. Despite resistance, prejudice, and discrimination, the growth in LGBTQ+ organizations, including sport, allowed for connections with the wider Calgary community—and with each other.

Sport and physical activity acted as an access point to socialization, connecting these groups to other community organizations (e.g., Rocky Mountain Singers, Imperial Sovereign Court of the Chinook Arch (ISCCA)), as well as forging national and international relationships with other LGBTQ+ sport groups (e.g., The Gay Games). One participant spoke specifically about the relationship between ARGRA and the ISCCA, noting that in early years ISCCA would sponsor a belt buckle for ARGRA, who in turn would support ISCCA events through ticket purchases and attendance. As he stated, “you scratch our backs, we scratch yours”. Both organizations benefitted from the relationship through exposure to community members who otherwise may not have known about their respective events and fundraising initiatives.

LGBTQ+ Sport Organizations as “Safe Spaces”

Beyond these more general ideas about emerging LGBTQ+ sport groups and events and their place in the Calgary queer community and city more broadly, the men I interviewed also spoke quite specifically about LGBTQ+ sport organizations and teams as “safe spaces” and places used for socialization and friendship building.

They’re definitely safe spaces for people to come out early, and later in life. Like, I witnessed it. I can remember volleyball back in the early 90s… I saw a guy that was in his late 20s showing up and playing volleyball with us, and not identifying as gay, and then, you know, a couple weeks later, “I’m questioning.” Then, you know, two or three months later, “I’m comfortable…a little bit more comfortable, but still struggling.”

I think that sports played, for me personally, sports played a big part of my fitting into Calgary. If I hadn’t had that connection. I probably would have left Calgary. I probably would have moved somewhere else, back to Montreal. And I actually contemplated it in the first six months, and it took me a good two or three years to feel comfortable here.

 My gay best friend, one of his first parts of coming out, was coming out to the Frontrunners (an LGBT running club founded in 1991). It’s so safe to just go out [and] try a drop-in running group…. That was a great way to meet people and bring them into the community.

Competitiveness and Exclusion

While being presented as “safe spaces” in terms of coming out and finding community, many of the sport organizations and teams in which these men were involved also followed mainstream sport models. Instead of focusing on fun and participation, competition and performance took precedent, lessening the potential of these so-called inclusionary spaces. The stratification of certain sports into “beginner” and “expert” levels, such as volleyball, sometimes resulted in cliques and feelings of tension in an otherwise social and supportive environment.

These spaces were also often not welcoming spaces to lesbians and queer women. One participant commented specifically that he recalled having conversations with women about this issue.

Women would say to me, “A lot of women won’t come out because they’re gonna’… they feel that… an all-women’s team, playing against an all-male team, there’s an unfair, it’s not level. They also don’t feel welcome on mixed [teams]”. So, you know… this team has one woman, or two women on it, and five or six guys, and they found that they weren’t getting played enough, or, you know… enough time on the court.

Sport and “Healthiness”

Despite the close relationships between some of the sport and community organizations, it was also evident that sports such as volleyball, running, curling, and spaces of physical activity, such as the YMCA in Eau Claire, were positioned as “healthier” alternatives to the bar scene, which was one of the predominant forms of community building in early queer Calgary:

I don’t know, it’s like… like-minded people so that’s what their comfortable with, that’s who they want to be around. I don’t say this in a bad way, but I know a lot of guys who would go to Apollo weekend, ‘cause they [were hoping] to date a healthy guy. If guys who wanted to date healthy men, they thought—in their opinion—it was an easier way to get a date out of it. “Let’s go to Apollo weekend, those guys are healthy.”

While a paradoxical distinction was made between sport participation and “healthiness” and alcohol consumption and the bar scene, the men interviewed also commented on the importance sport organizations and teams had for Calgary and area men who were living with HIV and AIDS.

[W]hen I first joined Apollo…. a couple of their earlier founders had been diagnosed HIV positive, and some had passed away, some were too ill to participate anymore…. That was also my first sort of contact with HIV in the sense of knowing people who were positive. I would say that would probably be the biggest secret in the leagues at that time. And people didn’t talk about status…. But it never… it never kept people from participating. There was no, “Oh, you can’t participate.” You know we encouraged people, and for some people, it was their only outlet. It was their only way out of the house. Their only social activity…. I know some of the members made sure that, you know, they would pick people up to take them to bowling, even if they weren’t bowing, they were just sitting there and watching, and having a beer. It was a way out of their house…. And to forget their illness, and things like that.

Apollo and AIDS

Local AIDS Calgary advertisement featuring Apollo members.

Calgary sport organizations seemed to provide a safe and supportive space for men living with HIV and AIDS at a time of significant (and unfounded) fear in sport about HIV+ athletes as well as tremendous amounts of AIDS-related stigma in the broader cultural context.

Summary and Next Steps

While each interview participant had unique histories with sport and physical activity in Calgary, many similar ideas or themes were generated in our conversations. The ideas of community building and safety, as well as competitiveness and positioning sport as a “healthier” alternative to bars, are consistent with research done on LGBTQ+ sport in other parts of Canada and internationally. That these groups and spaces emerged and grew during a time of strong conservatism in the province and the city speaks to the power and potential of sport. I was thrilled to be able to gather these stories from the three participants and am grateful for their willingness to share their experiences and their knowledge. There are, to be sure, important stories remaining to be gathered from other Calgarians who participated in sport and physical activity during the latter part of the last century—women, trans, and gender non-conforming persons in particular—so that a richer and more complex history can be recorded. As such, the possibility of extending this research project is being explored.

 Additional Reading

Our Past Matters: Stories of Gay Calgary by Kevin Allen, published by ASPublishing in 2018.

The Gay Games: A History by Caroline Symons, published by Routledge in 2010.

It’s Good to Talk: Oral History, Sports History and Heritage by Fiona Skillen and Carol Osborne, published in The International Journal of the History of Sport in 2015.

Transgender Inclusion and the Changing Face of Lesbian Softball Leagues by Ann Travers and Jillian Deri, published in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport in 2011.

Sport, Sexuality, and the Production of (Resistant) Bodies: De-/Re-Constructing the Meanings of Gay Male Marathon Corporeality by William Bridel and Genevieve Rail, published in the Sociology of Sport Journal in 2007.

Therapeutic Landscapes and the Regulated Body in the Toronto Front Runners by Cathy van Ingen, published in Sociology of Sport Journal in 2004 (pp. 253-269).