Oliver hasn’t always been LGBTQ’s chosen part of town. It owes its place as Edmonton’s “gaybourhood” to the 1970s and ’80s, when the gay-owned Flashback Nite Club on 104 St. and 104 Ave. was the city’s “in place.” In fact, Billboard once named it one of the 10 Best Clubs in North America. Paired with the Roost, another gay bar across the street, the roots of our community were forming in nearby Oliver as more LGBTQ started moving into its many walkup apartments. The only question about where to live was, “So J” (South of Jasper) or “No J” (North of Jasper)?
Today, Oliver is home to the majority of Edmonton’s gay establishments, but they are few compared to those transformative years, as social networking, acceptance and tolerance has diminished their need. But in the ’90s, we needed them as politicians both provincial and municipal stoked homophobic flames and dismissed us as lesser-thans. That only helped our community organize and thrive.
We often mobilized in a little coffeeshop called Boystown, located in a building on 124 St. and Jasper, with Woody’s night club upstairs and Edmonton Pride Centre in the basement. We had our successes, like in 1998, when we convinced the city to hold Pride Parade on Jasper, letting it roll down the high street before ending in Oliver Park, not far from the afterparty. Despite this significant milestone, we had a ways to go: Gay people could legally be denied housing; employers could legally fire them; and the then-named Alberta Individual Rights Protection Act still didn’t include sexual orientation in legislation. So we faxed, we postered, we petitioned, we protested. Being such a short stroll from the legislative grounds was handy.
One of our first protests on the legislature’s steps, in 1991, was after my friend Delwin Vriend was fired from King’s University College after telling his family and church he had a boyfriend. Allies raised money and awareness, and, sadly, had to force our own province to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1998—and we won! Alberta was ordered to include sexual orientation in its human rights protection laws. Little did we know the profound impact it would have, not just in our city but across Canada and beyond; it’s since become a studied human rights case in law schools worldwide.
The momentum continued when, four years later, former mayor Bill Smith refused to proclaim Edmonton Pride celebrations. Boystown cleverly confronted the mayor, adorning its front windows with a huge protest sign right on Jasper. Once newspapers took notice, the mayor had found himself on the wrong side of the fight. City lawyers advised him to sign the proclamation and not a year has since passed without this simple but important mayoral gesture— avalidation of diversity.
Our fabulous LGBTQ community and allies have come a long way from when we were reputed to be the Redneck Centre of Canada. Just as last spring we successfully fought against an egregious version of Bill 10, in order to protect our youngest with Gay-Straight Alliances in their schools, we continue to stand up for equality. It’s made us feel a bit safer in our awesome little gaybourhood, but it’s also solidified beautiful Oliver as the place to build and grow a vibrant community like ours.
So, won’t you be my neighbour?
INNER VOICES FEATURES THE OPINION OF A CENTRAL EDMONTON RESIDENT. EMAIL QUERIES TO EDITOR@THEYARDSYEG.CA.