Queer History in Downtown Edmonton

June 26, 2020
Category: Blog Posts

Queer History in Downtown Edmonton

By Kayla Shapka

Just across the street from Rogers Centre, on 104 Street, you’ll find the Neon Sign Museum, a collection of vintage signs now on public display.

Part of that glowing collection is the Georgia Baths sign — and it’s a great launching point when it comes to Downtown Edmonton’s Queer history. Public steam baths used to be very common. In 1913, Edmonton Turkish Baths Limited opened in the Flat Iron Building on Jasper Avenue and later moved to the Brighton Block at 9666 Jasper Ave. As written by Neon Sign Museum administrator David R. Johnston in Ornamentum, the baths “were considered very luxurious.” “Georgia” was added to the name in 1937. According to Johnston, it wasn’t until the 1940s that having showers built into people’s homes became more common. But once they did, bathhouses, became popular among gay men.

Before gay bars, those in the Queer community had to get creative with how they met one another. Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized across Canada until 1969. Before that time, it was difficult, but not impossible, to meet same-sex partners. According to Edmonton Queer historian Darrin Hagen, from his piece in RETROactive: Exploring Alberta’s Past, in Edmonton, it was known that you could scope out the taverns at Downtown hotels and find the corners dedicated to members of the gay community. Similar schemes would play out in Edmonton bars. Gay men would, by their presence, unofficially create gay nights at local establishments.

Once the decriminalization of homosexuality was enacted by parliament in 1969, Club 70 was born. It was the first legitimate gay bar to open in Edmonton and was originally going to be called Club 69. But, as Hagen told the Edmonton Journal in 2012, “It was 1969, but they decided to call it Club 70 because they thought Club 69 sounded too saucy.” Club 70 was a members-only facility, located in the basement of what is now the remnants of the Milla Pub at 10593 101 St. It was exclusive to gay men. Since members still wanted their privacy, they would use aliases when visiting the club. You couldn’t just walk in off the street either. To get in, you would need someone to sign you in, vouching for your sexuality. It wasn’t just for secrecy, but for safety.

As recounted in Darrin Hagen’s Edmonton Queen, customer John Reid wanted to go to Club 70 to meet other men, but couldn’t get in because he couldn’t prove he was gay. He had no one in the community to vouch for him. This incident is what pushed him to open his LGBTQ establishment Flashback, located in an old warehouse, currently the location of the Excelsior Lofts (10330 104 St.) It became the destination queer club in Edmonton, so much so that Graffiti Magazine listed it as one of the top five bars in North America. Flashback was for more than just gay men — it was a shared space for everyone. Straight people could go and see queer people weren’t a threat. Queer people could go and see straight people weren’t always enemies. It had a regular “Drag Race” contests held on Sundays.

In 1991, the same year that the Georgia Baths was the last such business to close in Edmonton, Delwin Vriend was fired from his teaching job at The King’s College, which was then located on 97th Street, because his sexuality did not conform to the religious creeds adhered by school. He turned to Alberta’s Human Rights Commission, but it ruled that sexual orientation wasn’t protected under the province’s human rights laws. Many rallies were held on the front steps of the Legislature. After a seven-year fight, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that no provinces could exclude a person from human-rights protection because of his or her sexuality. By then, the College had moved out of Downtown Edmonton

Return to the Neon Sign Museum and that Georgia Baths relic. Across the street is another reminder of Downtown Edmonton’s Queer history. At 10345 104 St., you’ll find the rather institutional Canada Border Services Agency office. But, from 1977-2007, that building was home to one of Downtown’s truly legendary gay nightclubs — The Roost. Like Flashback, it had drag events on Sunday nights, and straight partygoers were not barred from entry. It was famous for having two of the liveliest dance floors in the city. 

If you’d like to learn more about Edmonton’s Queer history, Dr. Jason Harley, a former professor at the University of Alberta who is currently at McGill University in Montreal, developed the Edmonton Queer History App. It highlights geographical landmarks and moments in history that affected the queer community. You can take a guided walking tour that will take you through time. You can download the app here.

Kayla Shapka is the Marketing Coordinator for the Downtown Business Association. Aside from being a tattoo and travel enthusiast, Kayla is a proud Edmontonian and puts the Q in LGBTQIA2S+. 

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