As a young gay teenager growing up in Calgary, Kevin Allen discovered his own culture was taboo – something that was reinforced as he grew up. That fueled his passion for history but he found that the records and memories of the LGBTQ community had been poorly documented. Seeking to fill the gaps, Allen created the website Calgary Gay History to end decades of silence and persecution.
Allen attended high school in Calgary in the late 1980s. As a gay teen, he had a tough time coming to terms with his identity. That’s because there were so few representations of the gay community in the city.
“You couldn’t see any examples of gay life when you were a teenager growing up in Calgary here. I just didn’t really know what these feelings were about,” said Allen, “But it wasn’t a safe place to come out in high school.”
When Allen moved on to university, he felt he was in a safer space and came out when he was 18. Once that happened, he became very active in the gay community.
That led him to write freelance stories for various gay publications. Speaking with people he could identify with and hearing their struggles pushed him to keep going.
“That was sort of my safe space to go so, interviewing people and finding out their stories and meeting people in sort of a professional context, that helped me a lot.”
He learned that there were a lot of people within the gay community with stories of struggle – from gay bashing on 17th Avenue during pride parades to an AIDS outbreak in the 1980s in which Calgary was the fourth largest hit city in Canada with the virus.
But he found there were very few records about these stories.
“We went to the provincial archives a couple years ago, and I walked in and said, ‘Give me everything you’ve got on gay people in Alberta’. And the archivist typed a search and said, ‘There’s only two citations.’”
Allen uncovered a story that he says marked the beginning of the gay community in Calgary. Four gay men and one lesbian established a private members club at Club Carousel in the 1960s, back when homosexuality was a criminal offense that could lead to jail time.
“I feel like it’s about reconciliation and there’s sort of an outstanding debt that needs to be paid by society.” – Kevin Allen
“It became a super important gathering place for the community,” said Allen. “It took a lot of courage to, you know, put their names on the dotted lines. There were a lot of problems with police right off the top, and they [created] a charitable society. But they just really put their necks out in a time when it was scary to do that.”
This story and many others have been gathered by Allen and are part of his online project Calgary Gay History.
The project was established in 2012 out of Calgary Outlink: Centre for Gender & Sexual Diversity, where he became historian in residence. It provides a space to document and tell stories, such as Club Carousel and many others, that have been lost.
He says it is not society’s fault for this loss. As a result of discrimination, the gay community was very secretive so storytelling wasn’t a priority.
For Allen, stories are “really important for a species” and are the basics of what his project hopes to achieve, with the help of many volunteers, to document the history through story.
Tereasa Maillie, one of the first researchers with Calgary Gay History, says one of the primary objectives of the project is to “engage the entire Calgary community in the dialogue” by researching the stories of the older queer community and sharing their stories as well as hosting Gay History walks along Calgary’s Beltline.
She also says Allen brings a certain talent to the project as well.
“He doesn’t come to the table with a bias. He doesn’t say, ‘These people are horrible,’ or ‘This is horrible.’ He just comes to the table with his eyes open and says, ‘Okay, this is what happened. This is what these accounts are saying. These counter accounts are this.’ [He’s] very good at pointing out both sides.”
Allen and his team initially began with “oral history interviews” and would seek out their interviewees based on age and mostly at pride events.
Kelaine Devine worked with Allen previously at the Alberta Media Arts Alliance Society and has provided graphic arts design for the Calgary Gay History website.
She says Allen’s openness to others regarding the project is one reason why it has done so well. Many different people, including friends, family and even strangers, have offered their assistance on the project.
“He has open arms. He’s not like, ‘It’s my project, everyone stay away,’ and that’s what I think makes other people embrace and get excited about it.”
Allen’s Calgary Gay History project has produced hundreds of stories since its creation with thousands of visitors. The next step, says Allen, is to complete his book, which he hopes will see publishing later this year.
“One of the sources of my passion right now, is not forgetting our past, not forgetting the hard times we went through…So, I feel like it’s about reconciliation and there’s sort of an outstanding debt that needs to be paid by society. So that’s what is motivating me now.”
The editor responsible for this piece is Tayari Skey, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org