We take a trip down memory lane to discover the history of Edmonton’s Gaybourhood
Most major cities have a neighbourhood that has clearly defined itself as the “gay” neighbourhood, an area where LGBTQ2S+ folks can build a community together while living, working, shopping, and eating at welcoming businesses. Toronto’s Church Street and Vancouver’s Davie Street are just two that come to mind. Edmonton breaks tradition by having not one but two gaybourhoods that have come together to form a community for LGBTQ2S+ Edmontonians.
Edmontonian Ron Byers was 18 years old when he moved from Laurier Heights into his first apartment in Downtown Edmonton. The year was 1969, the same year that Bill C-150, which legalized same-sex relations between consenting adults, was passed under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Not coincidentally, that was also the year that Edmonton’s gay community started to truly develop. 1969 also marks the year Club 70, Edmonton’s first gay bar, opened Downtown.
It lasted three days before being shut down.
The history of Club 70’s first attempt at building a safe space for gay men to socialize, the subsequent lawsuit against the landlord that locked them out the moment he realized it was an establishment catering to gay men, and the club’s eventual victory and reopening in a new location is all chronicled online as part of Edmonton City As Museum Project (ECAMP). ECAMP, an initiative of the Edmonton Heritage Council, includes a website, a podcast, and events (in non-pandemic times).
BACK IN THE DAY
Byers and Rob Browatzke, one of the owners of Evolution (Edmonton’s current queer-friendly club), wrote a detailed five-part series on The History of Edmonton’s Gay Bars for ECAMP. Their work includes a list of every known gay bar that has existed in Edmonton from 1969 to 2018. While compiling the list, they realized that only two of the gay establishments in Edmonton’s history have fallen outside the borders of Oliver or Downtown—Club Aquarius, located in Old Strathcona (1971) and Pink Noiz Ultralounge, located on Yellowhead Trail (2018).
This did not happen by accident.
“Downtown and Oliver have always been the homes to LGBTQ nightlife,” said Browatzke.
“The history of the gay community started Downtown,” agreed Byers. “Back in the late 1950s to 1960s, there was no place for gay people to go. When I moved here in 1969, my best friend from junior high school somehow clued into me being gay—I didn’t even know it at the time—and he dragged me downtown to Jasper Avenue between 105th and 106th Street.”
Byers said that was a very popular place for gay people to hang out. There were two coffee shops there but no bars there at the time.
“One of them, called the Pig N’ Whistle restaurant, was kind of the more popular spot. Some of the trans folk would go there quite regularly. The other one was just a few doors east, in the space that is now Rocky Mountain Icehouse. That strip of Jasper Avenue is where people cruised and got picked up. The police used to sit across the road and watch, observe, and take pictures of the gay people. And they periodically arrested the drag queens and trans people just for fun. Because that was the start of the gay community, gay people started living nearby.”
WHERE TO LIVE?
In what is now the El Mirador apartments, there was a rooming house. “That was filled with a lot of gay people,” recalled Byers. “It was grungy, dingy, and cold but it was cheap, and it was Downtown.”
“I think gay people as a community have always gravitated towards Downtown, partly because of safety in numbers,” explained Browatzke. “Back in the 1950s and 1960s, a lot of these people were disowned by their existing family and friends, so they were looking for a new one. By socializing and living all in the same area, they were able to create these communities.”
Club 70 was located at 10593 Avenue and 101 Street, just a five-minute drive from the El Mirador. Another popular cruising spot, known as “The Hill,” was also nearby, on the road between the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald and the Chateau Lacombe (which opened in 1966), on the edge of the River Valley.
But there was a problem, and it led to Edmonton’s somewhat unique double gaybourhood situation.
There weren’t a lot of apartments in the Downtown core, so the gay community began to spread west, to Oliver, which began development in the 1960s. At that time, there weren’t a lot of apartments in Oliver either, but that quickly began to change. As development in the area continued, there was eventually an abundance of apartments and apartment-style condos to rent.
“There weren’t a lot of places [in the 1950s and 60s] that accepted gay people,” said Byers. “If you moved in with another guy and you appeared to be gay, landlords kicked you out. And they could do that. They could get away with it and nobody complained. There was nothing that anybody could do about it.”
“As more gay people began moving to Oliver, it became a kind of a hub,” said Byers.
However, Oliver didn’t have a lot of commercial buildings in the 1960s and 1970s, and it lacked the big performance spaces needed for events popular within the gay community, such as drag shows. “There was never really any spots for a gay bar to move into,” remembered Byers. “That was kind of the drawback.”
“But the combination of Oliver and Downtown— residences in Oliver and commercial businesses and socializing Downtown—created a nice symbiosis,” said Browatzke. “Especially because, until recently, with the push for more housing Downtown, there weren’t a lot of people living Downtown. They were all just living on the other side of it—a nice stumbling distance from the clubs. But Oliver was always peppered with little gay businesses. I think they are fairly spread out, but Oliver definitely still does have that reputation as the ‘gaybourhood,’ especially for people of a certain age.”
THE COMMUNITY EXPANDS
Multiple LGBTQ2S+ community and support groups have had a home in Oliver, Downtown or both throughout the years, including the Gay and Lesbian Community Centre of Edmonton (GLCCE), the AIDS Network, and the Pride Centre of Edmonton. Browatzke and Byers also point out that many “straight” bars and restaurants are now very gay friendly and very welcoming to Oliver’s LGBTQ2S+ community—and not only when Pride celebrations are happening. “There have certainly been a lot of gay-friendly watering holes in Oliver,” said Browatzke. “When Woody’s Pub (2002-2016), which was on Jasper Avenue and 117th Street closed, people that had been going there basically seven days a week for a decade were looking for a new watering hole. They found that On The Rocks welcomed them with open arms and have been there ever since.”
It’s certainly fitting that Oliver is where early Pride events also took root. The first Pride celebration was a small gathering in 1980, with the first week-long celebration not taking place until 1983. At that time, the Edmonton Pride Centre was run out of the basement of a building on Jasper Avenue and 124th Street.
“It was certainly a much different Pride than the one you know. It was a much smaller thing. I don’t think the first parade was even until 1991 or 1992,” said Browatzke.
“The first Pride events were limited, and I didn’t even go to the first ones,” remembered Byers. “The first one had people with paper bags over their heads so that they couldn’t be identified. People were still that afraid, and it was a very real fear. You could get fired for being gay. Very few people even wanted to be associated with the parade. But the Gay and Lesbian Awareness Association (GALAA), they’re the ones who organized that first parade, which was more a protest than anything.”
“I was talking to Michael Phair [former Edmonton City Councillor and Alberta’s first openly gay elected official] yesterday and he said the first parade—from what he remembers—was just down the sidewalks and the street. They didn’t even have the influence as a group with the city to close down even part of the street,” added Browatzke.
Byers said it took quite a few years to get the City of Edmonton on board with Pride. In 1991, then-mayor Jan Reimer issued the first proclamation for a Gay Pride Day. “The first proclamation from the City for the festival as we know it now happened in 2003, which would have been Bill Smith’s last term [as mayor], under the threat of a complaint that had been filed with the Human Rights Commission by the Pride Committee. He finally gave in, very publicly and loudly against his will. But then Stephen Mandel took over as Mayor, then Don Iveson, and it’s been smooth sailing ever since—there’s been no issue getting that proclamation,” explained Byers.
In 2001, Byers helped reformat Pride from what it started as—a small parade down the side streets of Oliver and Downtown—into a festival-style event. “The parade started at 116th Street and 100th Avenue, and then we went down Jasper Avenue and ended up at the Oliver Arena,” remembered Byers. “In the arena itself, we held a carnival-type atmosphere with shows, beer gardens outside, food service. The Edmonton Rainbow Businesses Association (active from 1998 – 2013; reborn as Queer YEG) had booths set up. Drag Queens did drag shows. There were a couple of carnival games.”
Pride has retained a similar format ever since. “It’s obviously grown in size, but that format was such a success that there wasn’t really much to change,” said Browatzke. “I think it stayed in Oliver until 2004. I believe 2005 is when the parade started going the other way down Jasper Avenue and ending up in Churchill Square, where it stayed until 2014. They moved it to Whyte Avenue in 2015.”
While the last Pride celebrations, in 2018, did happen south of the river, it’s not necessarily indicative of where Edmonton’s queer heart beats the loudest.
“Edmonton never really had a gay ghetto-like Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto but Oliver was always the closest that we had,” said Browatzke. “A lot of other Canadian cities are seeing their gay ghettos get non-ghettoized as gay people get more comfortable moving out to the suburbs. They’re choosing to live where they want to live, not necessarily in a gay area for safety or community.”
To learn more about Edmonton’s gay history and read more of Browatzke and Byers’s work, visit the Edmonton Queer History Story Portal.
NEW TO THE GAYBOURHOODS?
Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada by Tom Warner
Glass Bookshop, an independent bookshop that focuses on Canadian writing with special attention paid to queer and racialized writers. It’s currently online only due to Covid-19.
Edmonton Queer History App or Tales of the LGBTQ+ with Douglas Parsons