Tag Archives: gay bars

No Straights Allowed

Many groups struggling against bigotry clamour at some point in their history for segregated spaces. The feminist community in the 80s started experimenting with womyn-only spaces. Calgary in the 90s had the Of Colour Collective, which was constituted by queers who were not white. And in the early 70s, Club Carousel, our first community space had an explicit policy of “NO STRAIGHTS ALLOWED.”

Despite the then, recent decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969, being an out gay man or woman remained fraught with difficulties and real consequences. Club Carousel’s origin story was the foundation for this exclusionary policy. Its predecessor, the 1207, was a mixed gay and straight disco, but when the gay community found out that they were the entertaining freak show which was bringing in the straights, they boycotted the club. The 1207 was out of business in less than a month. The Club Carousel founders then convinced landlord Henry Libin to let them take over the 1207 lease.

CC image2

Club Carousel Logo

They incorporated as a charitable private members club in 1970, and this is primarily how they controlled who got in the door. Club Carousel had layers of screening to ensure their space remained gay. Firstly, to join the club, one had to provide three pieces of ID, list three sponsors who were members in good standing, and pledge to adhere to Club rules. Secondly, a membership committee would vet all applications for approval (they reserved the option to interview applicants in person for those the committee was unsure of). And finally, the door person ensured that only members with membership cards could get in. Guests could be signed in, but there was also a suite of rules regulating their entrance.

Despite these barriers the Club proved popular, and membership had grown to 650 by 1972. It was a place that gay men and lesbians could let their hair down, socialize, and be surrounded by peers. Lois Szabo, one of the Club founders, remembers how much she enjoyed the Club in those early years and what fun it was.

It was a place to forget the straight world for a while with its culture of bigotry and intimidation that existed just up the stairs, and out the door of the underground club. Members of Club Carousel had significant fears of being outed; they did not want to run into anyone they might know in the straight world.

Making sure the Club remained a safe space, was a common refrain in the pages of Carousel Capers, the Club’s monthly newsletter. In April 1973, Ruth Simkin, wrote a strongly worded letter to the Club’s Executive Committee:

It is with great regret that I can no longer continue with my membership and support of Club Carousel. The reason for this is the Executive’s decision of hiring a straight band for the Anniversary Party.  I feel this is merely a first step in the total demolition of an all-gay club…..

I personally feel that a consolidated gay community is more important than a well-played guitar, at the only place in Calgary we have.  When policy changes back (if it ever does), I would be honored to once more be associated with what could be the best gay club around.

{Ruth would go on to be one of the founders of the important Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild (CLAGPAG).}

The Executive responded in the pages of Carousel Capers that the band had been a last minute substitution when their previously booked gay talent had had to cancel, and emphatically confirmed their commitment to the no straights policy.


April 1973 Editorial in Carousel Capers

Later that year, the Executive firmly noted that the newsletter itself should carefully be restricted from Straights.


June 1973 Notice in Carousel Capers

“Out of the closets and into the streets is a great battle cry for gays who don’t have too much to lose but then – there are the rest of us” referencing the generational divide as young gay liberationists were agitating publicly for social change (particularly at the University of Calgary).

As the 70s progressed the Club’s membership drifted to commercial gay bars which were flashier and less regulated, causing the Club’s eventual demise. Yet, it was Club Carousel which created the firmament for all sorts of gay spaces to flourish in Calgary.



The Kings Arms Tavern

The Palliser Hotel had a colourful watering hole when the hotel first opened in 1914.  Once known as the “Carriage House”, the pub is better known for its final name, the “Kings Arms Tavern” or as the gay community liked to call it, “The Pit.”

Tavern Sign in 1980

Tavern Sign in 1980

The Tavern was a known drinking establishment for gay men back into the early 1960’s.  You can still access the lower level entrance today on the 1st Street SW underpass, just south of 9th Avenue, into what is now a Starbucks.

Stop on a Gay History Walk in the Palliser Hotel - former location of the Kings Arms Tavern.

Stop on a Gay History Walk in the Palliser Hotel – former location of the Kings Arms Tavern.

The Pit was not an exclusively gay venue.  It was a popular spot for the business lunch crowd, old-timers in the afternoon and the gay crowd in the evening. Described as an old fashioned beer parlor, it was one of the last pubs in Calgary which kept women out.  Then, on July 2nd 1970, it reopened after renovations including new carpet and a new name: Kings Arms.  Ringing in the end of the men-only pub era in Calgary, the Kings Arms first female employees set fire to the Men Only Door signs with a little pomp and circumstance.

Calgary Herald Photo at Kings Arms, July 3 1970

Calgary Herald Photo at Kings Arms, July 3 1970.

Throughout the 70s, the organized gay community grew in Calgary and the Kings Arms developed a gayer reputation.  It was a popular pre-clubbing drink venue, and Club Carousel which was at the apex of its popularity in the early 70s, was just a few blocks south on 1st Street.

By the late 70s, after a bar management change, the Kings Arms started to be uncomfortable with its reputation and started behaving badly.  A popular rumour was that the establishment was trying to oust its gay customers by closing earlier.  Suspected gay patrons were denied service due to clothing regulations, same sex kissing or sitting too close together.  In December 1978, the harassment had built to the point that tensions erupted between gay patrons and the tavern manager.  After a heated verbal exchange there was a dramatic eviction of 20 customers from the bar, facilitated by six police officers and four paddy wagons.

The Kings Arms Tavern closed its doors on July 31, 1982.  A large crowd of patrons, many from the gay community, came out for its final night.  Many thought that the Tavern was being closed because the Palliser did not like the reputation of having a gay bar at its hotel.  Earl Olsen, the public relations spokesman for the CP Hotel chain denied the allegation, saying the tavern was making way for a much needed coffee shop.  Sentimentality reigned on that final evening, with many patrons taking a piece of the tavern with them.  By the end of the night, all of the plaques and coats of arms that had adorned the tavern walls, were gone.

One of the gay patrons lamented, “they should never close down an institution.  [The Kings Arms] is not really a cruisy bar.  It’s just a nice place to sit and meet people and not be hassled.”


Lesbians, Softball and the Cecil Hotel

Sports, and specifically softball, provided an important outlet for the development of lesbian subculture and identity in North America.  Sally Munt writes in Heroic Desire: Lesbian Identity and Cultural Space, “any sample of publicly identifiable US lesbians from the period 1960-1968 would have likely been corralled from the local softball team.”  Calgary was part of this trend and in the 60s had a couple of women’s teams that were predominantly lesbian in their make-up.

After a game, teammates would go to their favourite watering holes, which for many was the backroom of the Cecil Hotel.  Lois Szabo remembers being really excited when she discovered the Cecil.  “We stumbled upon it by accident – all these women – it was like finding mecca,” she remembers.

Cecil 1

Photo Credit: Del Rath

Carolyn Anderson’s 2001 Lesbian Oral History Thesis (available from the University of Calgary: here), contains more conversations about softball.  She recounts one story,

“I wanted to be involved with all these women but I didn’t particularly want to play softball. I actually thought it was a pretty boring game so I became the team doctor. It seemed to suit everybody just fine. I would always take something to read like my medical books or whatever lesbian stuff I was getting in the mail and I could just be around all the neat dykes. The coach still remembers me and how she would look up into the stands and there was this woman reading through this whole game. After the games, some of the women tended to frequent the bars.”

The Cecil Hotel had a notorious past as a saloon and boarding house, and was always described as a blue collar bar.  Built in 1912, the building became a locus for prostitution, drugs, murder in modern times.  The City eventually revoked its business licence in 2009; police were called to the Cecil 1,700 times in its final year of operation.

Jen Gerson, in the National Post quotes Leo Silberman one of the Cecil Hotel’s owners.  “When I bought the place [in 1968], the women were worse than the men,” he told the Calgary Herald before he passed away in 2007. “They fight like heck every day. Very, very rough.”

Lois concurs, “I remember that some of the women would get into fights, particularly the butch women if someone looked at their femme in the wrong way.”

However tough, softball and the hotel bar provided much needed gathering places for Calgary’s lesbian community in the 60s.  Another quote from the oral history thesis explains, “With the ball teams, you had your north side gang and your south side gang. We were the south side gang and we all went to the Cecil [hotel]. We liked the Cecil because there was a nice private backroom there. It was marked for Ladies and Escorts and we’d laugh because we didn’t know which we were! God, we used to have a lot of fun there. They used to cater to us because we were the best part of their business.”