Dr. Kristopher Wells imagines this: A traveller arrives at the Edmonton International Airport. When the visitor gets to the baggage claim, that person will be able to pick up a map of the important places in this city’s LGBTQ2S+ history.
Basically, a tour of these important places would be as prominent as ads for the West Edmonton Mall or posters promoting sporting events and festivals.
“When you land in Edmonton, I want people to see Edmonton’s Queer history,” says Wells.
Wells is the lead investigator for the Edmonton Queer History Project, MacEwan University professor and Canada Research Chair (Tier II) for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth. He’s played a major role in organizing The Queer History Project’s walking tour of 27 downtown sites. Maps and the accompanying online resource for the tour are set to be available by early March.
The walking tour, which will take 90 minutes to two hours to complete, will begin at Michael Phair park, and move to the sites of nightspots like Club 70 and the Roost, to the local headquarters of the AIDS Network. Walkers can get the broad strokes by using the map, or they can access the digital archive for deeper dives into each site.
“We’ve written pretty much encyclopedic descriptions of these 27 sites, five to 10 pages each,” says Wells. “We didn’t shy away from anything. Our community is getting older, and some of these knowledge keepers, we want to make sure we capture and document it before the knowledge is lost.”
As well, it was important to bring in voices that aren’t white.
“We tried to be as intersectional as we can, because this is a white, colonized history, even in the LGBTQ community.”
Wells know time is running out when it comes to getting first-person testimony from major events such as the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada (more than 50 years ago) to the Pisces Bathhouse Raid (41 years ago).
“We talked to people who were arrested 40 years ago and still have records,” says Wells of the Pisces raid, where in 1981 nearly 50 police officers raided the Edmonton bathhouse and arrested 56 people.”The government still hasn’t expunged those records.”
Included in that raid was Michael Phair, who later became a city councillor and long-standing proponent of gay rights in Edmonton. He also co-founded the AIDS Network. It’s no accident that the tour begins at the park named in his honour.
“I’ve told Michael he’s not allowed to sell anything in his house. Everything is an artifact,” laughs Wells. “He’s got gloves and bats from the first Pride softball games. If I ever see a garage sale, I am going to buy everything.”
And that’s the thing — Wells sees the tour as a first step. Could there possibly a book in the future? A way to display artifacts? More tour stops in areas outside of the downtown core?
With COVID affecting the hospitality industry in so many dire ways, Wells is worried that Edmonton could soon be a place without gay bars. The sites of some major nightspots of times past,, such as the site of The Roost on 104th Street, will be on the tour. You can learn about how patrons would park a few blocks away and then dash to the club, to make sure they could avoid baseball-bat wielding homophobes who patrolled the area near the club.
“We’re losing Queer spaces, and it’s important to be in places where you are part of the majority,” says Wells. “In Queer history, these clubs and bars have played important roles in establshing our history.”
And, Wells hopes that the tour can be a shining light when it comes to the push to place Queer history into our textbooks, as well.
“The Alberta curriculum debates that are out there, well there’s still no LGBTQ component to this. How do you envision a future when you have no past?”