Many ask why Calgary’s Pride Festival is on the Labour Day weekend when internationally Pride Month is in June. In fact, Calgary Pride used to be a June festival but moved to September in 2009 to take advantage of drier weather and the potential for long-weekend tourism.
June is the month of Pride because it honours the Stonewall Riots in New York City, which began on June 28, 1969—a galvanizing event in the modern gay liberation movement.
Back in 1987, delegates from many of Calgary’s gay and lesbian organizations came together to form an umbrella organization called Project Pride Calgary. Inspired by the Stonewall Riots, they produced a Pride festival locally to celebrate community. Their first festival in June 1988 included a concert, workshops, a dance, and a family picnic – but no public rally or protest.
In June 1990, that changed. The Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild (CLAGPAG), one of the Project Pride partners, organized the first political rally, which they internally described as a media stunt. One hundred and forty people mustered at the Old Y to pick up lone ranger masks and then gather at the Boer War Statue in Central Memorial Park.
And then, in June 1991, CLAGPAG more ambitiously, held its first Pride Parade. Four hundred people at City Hall cheered gay Member of Parliament Svend Robinson, who gave an inspiring speech despite gloomy weather and even gloomier protesters, three of whom were arrested.
Over the next 18 years, Pride Calgary remained a June event. It was entirely volunteer-run, and the parade and festival waxed and waned based on the enthusiasm of that year’s steering committee.
In 2008, the organization was in debt and nearly collapsed, with most of the committee abandoning ship. Sam Casselman stepped up at that autumn’s AGM as President but was shocked to learn that Pride Calgary was not an incorporated society—just a group of volunteers with a bank account. By March 2009, the new board was actively fundraising to retire its debt and incorporated a non-profit society.
They also decided to move the festival to September. The 2009 theme was “Your Rights, Our Rights, Human Rights.” There was pushback from the community, who said they were not adequately consulted about the date change, and a handful of gay businesses refused to participate. However, on Sunday, September 6, 2009, Pride had its best attendance ever.
Quirkily, I used to be a freelance reporter for Xtra.ca and reported about Pride that year.
I wrote: “The day began at noon with the Pride Parade travelling east on Calgary’s historic Stephen Ave Mall. The event was 25 percent larger than in 2008, with 40 parade entrants and 400 people participating, but there were some noticeable changes in the lineup: mainstays such as Priape Calgary and Twisted Element were absent. However, there was more participation from the Calgary community at large, including a local financial institution, a local daily newspaper and a handful of politicians.
By 1 pm the parade spilled into Olympic Plaza as people took in the Pride street gala, which included a dance stage, beer garden, food, vendors and kids zone. Speeches were kept to a minimum by organizers and community leaders, while people checked out the vendor booths where they could enter contests, buy rainbow and cowboy swag, or learn about local queer community groups. The beer garden lineup was long, there were dogs and kids everywhere, and the dance stage was packed. Tourists took photos of themselves in front of the throngs. There seemed to be more young people than ever before at Pride.
As the afternoon progressed, people retreated to the lawns surrounding the Plaza or moved on to community events and fundraisers that were happening throughout the city. The sun broke through by late afternoon, rewarding the hundreds who stayed to dance in the Plaza. By this time the Pride Calgary organizers looked pleased, albeit a little tired, as the day had been seemingly executed flawlessly.”
The decision to move to September proved decidedly successful. Calgary’s Pride Festival was the fastest-growing Pride in Canada for much of the 2010s, with attendance growing to 100,000+.