Kevin Allen, a proud fourth generation Albertan, is astonished by how far we’ve come. Curious to know where gay people met before it was widely accepted to do so in public, he received a 2012 cultural grant and dug into the secret world of gay Calgary when both the city and nation at large were not tolerant.
In the mid ‘50s, Calgarian Everett Klippert was sentenced to four years in prison on a barbaric, gross indecency charge related to homosexual conduct. On his release in 1960 he fled to the Northwest Territories trying to keep a low profile and not bring shame upon his family. Five years later he was investigated in an arson case. Police cited his homosexuality, and he admitted to having had consensual sex with four separate adult men to avoid being charged with arson. Sentenced to three more years, the Crown declared him “a dangerous sexual offender.”
Klippert appealed his conviction, but it was blocked by the Supreme Court in 1967. That decision created a political uproar resulting in Pierre Trudeau’s successful bid, as the Minister of Justice, to decriminalize homosexuality between consenting adults. “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” proclaimed Trudeau ending a dark age in Canadian history. Although sadly, Klippert remained in prison until 1971.
If being gay meant going to jail, one can only imagine the type of ongoing harassment and persecution that occurred prior to changes in the criminal law. “People from that period were constantly at risk, “confirms Allen.
In addition to probable police brutality, Allen says that if someone wound up in court for homosexual activities public disgrace was par for the course with newspapers revealing their names. “If you were arrested, say in a department store washroom for having sex with someone of the same sex, not only would you face serious charges, but your name, home address and occupation was published in the paper the next day. It was pretty bleak.”
Allen claims that gathering together in a safe space was absolutely paramount. “People met and had parties in their homes. There would be a circuit where you were at Mary’s place on Saturday night and Bill’s on Sunday, something like that.”
Prior to 1968, a pub downstairs in the Palliser Hotel called the King’s Arms (The Pit), was one of the very few if not the only bar where gay people could frequent and authorities turned enough of a blind eye. “It wasn’t exclusively gay,” notes Allen. “Just a meeting place in the back.”
Then, as Trudeau rallied to give the gay community its dignity in the late ‘60s, a dark, underground party room called the Club Carousel opened its door in the basement of a building along 1 St. SW in the historic Radio Block between 12 and 13 Ave. “They painted it in bright, gaudy colours with a circus aesthetic. Orange and reds with green stripes and a big carousel horse on the wall. They had a glitter ball and tried to make it as bright and light as possible.”
Club Carousel still had its enemies, but a sympathetic cop guided the founders towards a lawyer who in turn helped to establish it as a private club. Doing so was “a real salvation for its members,” states Allen. “There was lot of depression, alcoholism, suicide and even murder back in the day within the community.” The club provided a sanctuary to bond, mend and pull together.
Paul Welch and Jonathan Brower are the artistic programmers from Third Street Theatre who are organizing the Club Carousel Cabaret performance for the Rodeo. “What we’re trying to do,” explains Welch, “is honour the legacy that Club Carousel created for the community. What it stood for, what it attempted to do and what its role was that allowed the community to evolve. A lot of active of members of the queer community still know very little about it. So it’s important to collect that history before it’s lost.”
Welch says the cabaret will first offer some insight about the history of the city in respect to the gay community along the timelines surrounding the decriminalization of homosexuality and other major global events. “We want to anchor the audience, and their perspective and highlight how far we’ve come. Just 20 years ago there were organized gay-bashings at the U of C. That’s jaw-dropping to think about.”
Then there will drag queens, burlesque dancers, singer-songwriters, spoken-word poets and theatrical artists who will perform something from the time period or reenact an event that Club Carousel might have done on a special occasion or for a fundraiser.
“Hopefully we can celebrate all the social action work that Club Carousel did,” says Welch. “It wasn’t a political organization. But they did raise a lot of money for charities that helped to improve the city as a whole, not just from a queer perspective.”
Jan. 30. Big Secret Theatre.
By B. Simm