Brave beginnings of Calgary Pride and gay rights movement

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Brave beginnings of Calgary Pride and gay rights movement
WATCH: Pioneers and historians take us back in time to give an in-depth look at the gay history in Calgary. Jill Croteau brings you to the places where the gay rights movement all started – Aug 30, 2019

Lois Szabo is the only surviving member of Calgary’s first underground gay club. It was March 1970 when Szabo, now 83 years old, and a group of friends were pioneering a path to the gay rights movement. They called it Club Carousel.

Painted walls still remain from the infamous historic club. Jill Croteau/Global News

The faded walls still tell a very colourful story. Visiting the old club with Global News was the first time Szabo walked into the basement since the doors closed 45 years ago.

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“It feels good. I must say, my heart is beating a little fast,” Szabo said.

“I wish the guys I worked with were here to see this.”

Faded walls of the former Club Carousel. Jill Croteau/Global News

Club Carousel was located at 1207 1 Street S.W. It’s changed businesses several times over the decades but the paint on the walls still remains. The yellow and red mimicked a circus tent.

“It may not have been a five-star nightclub, but it was our club,” Sazbo said.

The members-only club signified a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community — for the people who never felt they belonged.

“A lot of people came down to drink and party and go home but a lot of the younger ones would come down and tell us what was going on in their lives, about the loss of a job or they got kicked out by parents. So it was a place to come and be safe and talk about their life on the outside world,” Sazbo said.

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Each member often wore a patch signifying their membership.

Club Carousel patch. Courtesy: Kevin Allen

“Probably 90 per cent didn’t use their real names but we wanted something we could carry more visible to recognize each other when we were out and about,” Szabo said.

Gay historian Kevin Allen said the club was the dawn of the organized gay community in Calgary.

“Lois and her friends were courageous,” he said. “They had broad shoulders that carried a lot of people who couldn’t be that brave in their lives and it saved a lot of people’s lives by creating this safe space for them.”

It’s a history Allen has documented in the book Our Past Matters and he continues to keep it alive. The new tenants of the original Club Carousel — the owners of Home and Away, which used to be located on 17 Avenue S.W. — have only just realized the history in the basement and plan to incorporate the aged walls into the design of their new location.

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“The gay world for the 20th century lived parallel lives as the straight world and was underground and concealed,” Allen said. “My mission is to preserve that and save it from disappearing. It’s important to capture these stories and save these stories.”

83-year-old Szabo tours the basement where Club Carousel was located. Jill Croteau/Global News

Among those influential stories — the very first Calgary Pride march. It’s been almost 20 years since Nancy Miller helped organize it.

“It was a radical statement. We were out in public saying we were being denied our basic human rights,” Miller said.

“People’s self-esteem was being crushed because they lived in a society that told them they were not worthy.”

Central Memorial Park was the gathering spot where the movement in Calgary started.

“Back then, it was a different day. You could lose your job or get kicked out of your home or lose custody of your kids if anybody found out you were a homosexual,” Miller said. “We came up with the idea to provide Lone Ranger masks prior to the rally hoping to increase comfort and also to draw attention to what people were really afraid of.”

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Because of what the trail they blazed, Pride is what it is today.

“I sometimes look at the young people and I think what kind of difference this kind of event would have made to so many young people who felt alone and isolated and how powerful that must be to know there’s a whole community out there who supports them,” Miller said.

WATCH: Global Calgary’s award-winning series Pride Without Prejudice

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