Tag Archives: University of Calgary

Our History with the Police

This week’s announcement by Calgary Pride, editing the presence of the Calgary Police in the Pride Parade, has stirred deep waters. Calgary’s LGBTQ community has a decidedly conflicted history with the city’s police: ignoring that fact or conflating the past with the present is equally unhelpful. Mayor Nenshi says: “Blaming current people for historical oppression would be like saying: ‘previous mayors of Calgary have refused to proclaim Pride Week, therefore the current mayor of Calgary isn’t invited to the parade.’ I have a challenge with that.”

Yet, as an analogy of the situation, his response is far too superficial.

Redistribution of power is the existential issue of our generation. At every level in society, we see social justice combating social conservatism. There has been a lot of fallout. Although Canada seems to be managing this redistribution slightly better than other places, dealing with atonement, integration and resistance to change has been a weary-making struggle for everyone.

One of the strategies in progressing forward is to know our history and to look at it unflinchingly.

Fact: We were surveilled and incarcerated in large numbers, particularly in the period between World War II and 1969. In 1967, Everett Klippert, a Calgary bus driver received a life sentence just for being gay which triggered a change in the laws around the criminalization of homosexuality in 1969. Calgary leaders, including our politicians, were vehemently opposed to decriminalization. Then police chief Ken McIver described homosexuality as a “horrible, vicious and terrible thing. We do not need this in our country.”

Ken McIver 1968

Police Chief Ken McIver examines police graduates in January 1968: Source Glenbow Archives.

Fact: Calgary Police tracked gay student activists in the 70s, asking the University of Calgary for their records (the University courageously refused), showing up at their apartments and purposefully intimidating them.

Fact: Calgary Police routinely harassed gay men in Central Memorial Park in the 70s and 80s and would sometimes incarcerate them overnight without cause. This was not challenged until 1981 when gay University of Calgary Law Student, Henry Berg, filed a formal complaint against Calgary Police regarding abuse of police power after he spent a night in the drunk tank when he was not inebriated.

Fact: I (Kevin), personally, was stopped by a Calgary Police Officer in the summer of 1996 walking home after work in the late afternoon.  The male officer kept me for 15 minutes, and it became evident during his interrogation that the only reason I had been targeted was for my sexual orientation which he identified by the “funny way I was walking.” Although defiant at the time, I regrettably never pursued a complaint.

Fact: Goliath’s, a gay bathhouse in Calgary was raided for being a common bawdy house in 2002 with both found-ins and operators charged. The Crown eventually stayed the charges citing changed community standards.

Notwithstanding these facts, the Calgary Police have made great strides in transforming their culture concerning sexual and gender diversity – which could not have been easy. The first gay/police liaison committee began in the early 80s and was not a sincere effort but a cynical, placating move. However, over time, the two historically opposing communities built more trust. The police were actively trying to prevent hate crimes against our community throughout the 90s. Now they have diversity officers and actively try to recruit LGBTQ individuals to their ranks. Most recently they courageously opened their archives to the Calgary Gay History Project. It was courageous because a peek in their closet wasn’t pretty.


A visit to the Calgary Police Archives with the Pride Flag flying at half mast for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida.

We in minority communities have some unattractive things in our closets too. But I firmly believe that we need to seek and share empowerment as we are able. I am a fan of creating braver spaces, as opposed to safer spaces. The viral video of Michelle Obama’s 2016 university commencement address, “Living Without Privilege Makes You Stronger” resonated forcefully with me.

If I had to decide whether Calgary Police could march in the Pride Parade in full uniform this year, I would not know what to do.  I understand and sympathize with the arguments from both sides. I have met Calgary Police officers who are decent people and great allies.

Intellectually, I want to trust police: there are many good reasons to do so, but emotionally – because of my lived experiences – I cannot say that I do. My deepest reflex is to not trust them.

Can my feelings change?  I am not sure.  I earnestly hope so.




Sir John Wolfenden in YYC

Sir John Wolfenden came to Calgary in 1973 as part of the University of Calgary’s distinguished lecture series. His public lecture delivered at MacEwan Hall on April 4th was titled: ”Crime and Sin: The Distinctions drawn in the Wolfenden Report.”

NPG x165818; John Frederick Wolfenden, Baron Wolfenden by Godfrey Argent

John Frederick Wolfenden, Baron Wolfenden by Godfrey Argent (Creative Commons © National Portrait Gallery, London) from Notches Blog

Sir Wolfenden, Vice Chancellor of Reading University in the United Kingdom, was appointed to head an inquiry into British homosexuality in August 1954. The impetus for the public inquiry was the uproar about the Lord Montagu scandal. Edward Montagu was a British Peer found guilty of having had consensual homosexual sex and was imprisoned for 12 months along with two others, Michael Pitt Rivers and Peter Wildeblood who received 18-month sentences each. At the time they joined over 1,000 men in British prisons due to same-sex sexual activity.

Wildeblood was the only defendant to admit to his homosexuality, and in 1955 released a book about his experience suffering at the hands of the law and the British establishment. The book called, Against the Law proved very popular. He wrote a second book on the subject of homosexuality the following year, called A Way of Life, which included twelve essays positively describing a number of homosexuals he had known.

Wildeblood became a key witness into the Wolfenden Inquiry and helped inform the inquiry’s unexpected recommendation that: “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.” The report further stated: “homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects.”

Wolfenden’s report titled the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution was published in September 1957 and sent ripples throughout the Commonwealth. It took ten years, and a different government, to translate the report’s recommendations into law, but decriminalization of homosexual behaviour in the UK happened in July 1967.

Wolfenden Report

Archival copy of the Wolfenden Report

At his lecture in Calgary, Wolfenden told the audience “there are areas of private life that are outside the law.” He explained that his report took the stand that homosexuality was possibly immoral, but not illegal. He asked how far should a government legislate the behaviour of people and what are the boundaries of morality and legality and where do they join?

Wolfenden Distinguished Lecture Series_Apr 73 copy

Advertisement in the Gauntlet Newspaper on March 28, 1973.

At the time the report was written, he explained that 90% of all blackmail cases in the UK were related to male homosexuality. Wolfenden said that by relaxing the laws against it, the legal aspect of the blackmail had been removed.

Individual freedom was paramount for him. “The function of law is to ensure to me the freedom to do what I want to do, so long as my freedom doesn’t impinge on someone else’s freedom to do whatever he wants to do,” he concluded.

As an interesting historical footnote, Peter Wildeblood, one of the UK’s earliest gay activists, left the UK in the 80s and became a Canadian citizen. He died in Victoria, BC in 1999.


p.s. Recently I had the chance to see an archival copy of the Wolfenden Report – it was a real thrill to see an original of the document that so influenced Canadian legal thinking!

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.