Tag Archives: Ruth Simkin

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.

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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.



Homophobic Hoteliers Created Activists

The catalyst for the formation of the Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild (CLAGPAG) came out of an act of discrimination. In the Autumn of 1988, a group called Project Pride was arranging a special fundraising event to help send a Calgary contingent to the 1990 Gay Games in Vancouver. They had just completed Calgary’s first Pride Festival that June and were on a roll.

The event was to be a banquet at a downtown hotel with high profile Member of Parliament Svend Robinson as the keynote speaker. Robinson had recently come out as gay, which was a precedent setting first for a Canadian MP.

The Delta Bow Valley Hotel happily entered into a contract with Project Pride to rent their hall and provide a banquet dinner for 70 people. In February 1989, Project Pride’s Co-Executive Director Cheryl Shepherd went into the hotel to make the final arrangements and informed the hotel about her organization’s constituency: lesbians and gays. She was then told that there had been a “misunderstanding” and that the Delta was not prepared to rent to such a group.

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The Family of Man statue in front of the Delta Bow Valley Hotel in Calgary 

Sexual orientation was not a protected ground under the Alberta Human Rights Act then, so the Delta’s decision was completely legal. The rejection prompted outrage among a couple of movers and shakers in the gay community. Dr. Ruth Simkin, an outspoken physician often labelled a lesbian feminist in the media, and John Steen, a gay man who was a Liberal Party Organizer, aimed to tackle the injustice.

Both Ruth and John were members of Calgarians Networking Discretely (later the Calgary Networking Club, an organization for gay and lesbian professionals), which was a partner to Project Pride in organizing the banquet. As neither Project Pride nor Calgarians Networking Discretely had any appetite to be political, Ruth and John thought an organizational name behind their protest would be advantageous: a working title of Calgary Lesbian and Gay Political Action Guild was created.

They sent protest letters to the Calgary press, the Delta Hotel’s head office in Toronto, federal MPs, the provincial and federal human rights commissions and the provincial Labor Minister Rick Orman, who was responsible for human rights. They got an immediate response and a flurry of excited local and national media coverage.

The president of Delta Hotels, Daniel Oberlander, called Ruth from Toronto to apologize personally and sent a complimentary bottle of wine. Local Delta general manager, Tom Matthews, was on the record calling the incident a misunderstanding. He said, “If we offended this group or any other group, that was not our intention and we apologize.” The Delta then made a cash donation to CLAGPAG, which turned out to be seed money for the organization.

The Palliser Hotel stepped into the breach and offered to host the banquet, which they did, and as the controversy died down, CLAGPAG became an official entity, with a 15-person steering committee by May, 1989. CLAGPAG was active for ten years and had many achievements, not the least of which was organizing the first Pride Rally and first Pride Parade in Calgary.

{Note: the Delta Hotel of the past is not the same Delta today.  This year, the hotel hosted  the sold out, 40th Anniversary Coronation of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Chinook Arch}