Mapping Edmonton’s Queer History

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“You’re standing on very hallowed ground.” 

Darrin Hagen stands on the sidewalk in front of the Excelsior Lofts on 104 Street. The luxury condos opened in 1994. 

In another life, the building was home to Flashback, one of the most influential gay bars in Edmonton between the late 1970s and early ‘90s. It was right across the street from another iconic queer club, The Roost.

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Two men stand at a 45 degree angle to each other with their shoulders touching.
Kevin Hendricks, left, and Darrin Hagen in the loading elevator at Flashback in 1989. Courtesy of the Flashback Collection.

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A man in a purple dress and cowboy hat poses in front of a crowd of 20 men sitting or standing on the loading dock of a building.
Crowds gather outside Flashback to watch the club’s annual drag races to crown a Ms. Flashback. Courtesy of the Flashback Collection.

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Preserving and sharing stories

“[Flashback] was one of the only places where straight people and gay people could go hang out,” says Hagen, an award-winning playwright, queer historian, and drag artiste. He’s also the artistic director of Guys In Disguise, a legendary theatre company that specializes in drag comedies and got its start at Flashback in 1987.

“You could actually bring straight friends and they’d go: ‘Wow, this place is amazing.’ It was welcoming to everybody, for the most part. It made Billboard’s list of top clubs in North America, Graffiti [magazine]’s Top 5 list of underground clubs in Canada, and it was immortalized in Brad Fraser’s play, Unidentified Human Remains and The True Nature of Love.” 

Hagen is part of the Edmonton Queer History Project (EQHP), a group dedicated to preserving and sharing stories about the city’s LGBTQ2S+ community and its fight for equality, respect and inclusion. 

 The project’s latest initiative includes a map, walking tour and website of 27 significant queer locations in downtown Edmonton—including Flashback and The Roost, which now belongs to the Canada Border Services Agency.

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Three cars are parked in front of a brick condo building.
Flashback used to be located in what is now the Excelsior Lofts on 104 Street...

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Two cars are parked in front of a brick office building.
...and The Roost was right across the street in what is now the offices of the Canada Border Services Agency.

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Significant sites

You can pick up a copy of the map (with two suggested walking tours) at all Edmonton Public Library locations or download it at edmontonqueerhistoryproject.ca. The website also features more details, photos, videos and other digital documents for each of the map’s locations. 

Some of those 27 sites include: 

  • Pisces Health Spa, a bathhouse where Edmonton Police arrested 56 gay men on May 30, 1981. The brick building, on the corner of 109 Street and 105 Avenue, is now home to a furniture store. 
  • GATE (or Gay Alliance Towards Alliance), a former community centre and advocacy group, had an office on 104 Street. It’s now part of the Phillips Loft.
  • Centennial Plaza, the site of the first gay rally in 1989, located just south of the Stanley A. Milner Library. The event took place after Edmonton’s City Council refused to declare a Gay and Lesbian Awareness Day. Four years later, Gay Pride Day was officially declared by then-Mayor Jan Reimer.

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A brick building with a parkade and a student residence in the background.
A furniture store now occupies the former site of the Pisces Health Spa, on the corner of 109 Street and 105 Avenue.

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Learn from the past

Dimple Thomas took one of the EQHP’s walking tours during a recent visit to Edmonton. She’s an engineering manager from Ottawa.  “I am part of the queer community,” she says. 

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“I think it’s important to learn about the sacrifices it took that generation to make [the world] a safer place for us. I think it’s very easy to forget how it was, and we’re not all the way there either, so it’s important to learn from the past.”

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Michael Phair, a member of the EQHP, was one of the men rounded up in the Pisces Health Spa raid. He was found guilty, but unlike most of his peers, he successfully appealed his conviction. 

“That was certainly a harrowing experience,” he says. “We had to go before the courts and the judges. It was a long, drawn-out affair and it weighed on you. And for those who pled guilty, it certainly weighed on them, because then they had a criminal record. A number of people left the city to never return.”

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Michael Phair, dressed in a yellow jacket and red sequined ball cap, stands on some wood chips in front of a mural of trees.
Local LGBTQ2S+ icon Michael Phair stands next to a mural in the downtown park named in his honour.

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Fighting for equality 

The experience fueled Phair’s activism, and in 1992, he became the first openly gay politician elected to Edmonton’s City Council and served for 15 years. His name now adorns a small downtown park on 104 Street—a few steps away from GATE’s former location and two blocks from Flashback and The Roost. 

Not surprisingly, Michael Phair Park is the first stop on the EQHP’s map and walking tours. Phair is also the first guest on the project’s new podcast, From Here to Queer, hosted by Hagen.

“I wish I thought everything was going to be just fine in the future,” says the retired politician. “But knowing how so much of the past of people who are gay and lesbian has been erased, disappeared or hidden, I think it’s extremely important that this [history] be documented for people in the future to look back and say: ‘There was this going on.’ 

“And I think it gives people some reassurance about the credibility of who they are, that their status in society is just like everyone else’s, and that they are respected.”

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A small lilac tree and a few other trees stand in a small downtown park surrounded by buildings.
Lilacs in bloom at Michael Phair Park.

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Mixed feelings

The EQHP was launched in 2015 with an exhibit to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Edmonton Pride Festival. The display, which debuted at the Art Gallery of Alberta, featured photographs, videos, and archival records. (A timeline of Pride’s history is now available on EQHP’s website.)

Dr. Kristopher Wells, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair at MacEwan University, leads the project. Other members include researchers Dr. Michelle Lavoie, Japkaran Saroya, Kyler Chittick and Rob Browatzke, who co-owns Evolution Wonderlounge. It’s a queer club in downtown Edmonton—about three blocks from the former sites of Flashback and The Roost—and the 15th stop on the EQHP’s map. 

Wells says the group’s work always stirs up mixed feelings for him. 

“Half the time, I'm angry,” he says. “I feel like I was denied access to this important history and a sense of community while I was growing up. The other half of the time, I'm excited by what we're discovering, stories we didn't even know about—and we're pretty well versed in the LGBTQ community.”

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Two groups of men take part in a tug of war in a gravel alley next to a brick building.
Flashback used to host gay drag races as part of the club’s annual Ms. Flashback contest. Courtesy of the Flashback Collection.

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Four Ms. Flashback contestants standing on stage.
One of Ms. Flashback’s crowning ceremonies. Courtesy of the Flashback Collection.

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Celebrating resiliency

Support from the larger community has been critical to the growth and success of the project. It receives funding from several organizations, including the City of Edmonton, Edmonton Heritage Council, Stollery Charitable Foundation and Edmonton Downtown Business Association. The EQHP represents a powerful example of community-engaged research supported by the MacEwan Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity.

Wells is excited about the EQHP’s next potential projects—adding historical plaques to some of Edmonton’s significant queer locations and mapping other areas of the city, such as Old Stratchona, 124 Street and other neighbourhoods.

“I think it's really important that our young people, in particular, have access to this information and that our elders and history makers are the ones who are celebrated for their amazing work and the resiliency that they've exhibited, which allows all of us here today to enjoy the rights and privileges that we have,” he says

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“There's still a lot of work that needs to be done, but I think it's important to set the record straight (pun intended).”

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For the summer of 2022, in partnership with the Downtown Business Association, EQHP is offering free guided walking tours and bus tours

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