Our Queer city
It turns out Edmonton might not be such a bad place
for LGBTQ+ people, after all
By Gwyneth Bignell
THIS STORY WAS inspired by a conversation in which someone suggested that Edmonton was one of the worst cities for Queer people in Canada, an assumption shared by many and one that is partly responsible for Edmonton’s drab image.
The city gets lumped in with the rest of the province, which, to be fair, is predominantly conservative to reactionary. Edmonton, on the other hand, is a fairly liberal and progressive city. Edmontonians overwhelmingly vote NDP, a political divergence that makes all the difference for Queer people.
But, still, it’s not enough.
“I think Edmonton hasn’t been the worst, as opposed to somewhere like where my family’s from, like Saskatchewan. I feel like Edmonton is pretty good for it. Especially where I live, on Whyte and downtown,” says Mika, who asked that we not use her last name for fear her previous church will respond poorly to her interview.
“Don’t say it was me because I’m really scared”
When asked to comment on the church’s position on LGBTQ+ folks, the pastor of the church in question says he believes all LGBTQ+ people are created in the likeness of God – then he cites the specific references to the exact number (six) of passages that “are often misinterpreted,” to outlaw people who experience same-sex love. Like Mika, he requested anonymity, because of “recent years of controversy” over allegations of homophobia.
Richie Ashton, a trans man, shares Mika’s opinion of the city.
“I’m from Calgary, which is terrible compared to Edmonton. I love it here. It’s incredible. I mean, I’ve experienced transphobia a lot here. But in Calgary, it was 100 times worse.”
“Officially establishing Pride Corner on Whyte Avenue,” is one way that Edmonton currently supports Queer people, a representative from the Pride Centre of Edmonton says. The city has also “created an Inclusive Language Guide.”
On numerous Top 10 lists of the most LGBTQ+ friendly cities in Canada, Edmonton ranks somewhere in the Top 5. On Moving Waldo, it’s No. 5; Expedia, No. 2; Curiocity No. 5; Travel Destinations Canada, No. 5.
“In Edmonton, I find that there are people who want to help,” Ashton says. “And there are things like the [gay and trans style shop) Quilt Bag. There are places like the Tickle Trunk, which is just a sex shop, but they’re so accepting that you feel good when you walk in just to ask questions. They have gender-affirming stuff there – which you don’t need in the sex store – but thank God that they do.
“And there’s the Pride Centre; if the government didn’t want to do anything at all, they would take that away, right? But like, at least the Pride Centre is around.”
The Pride Centre of Edmonton has the unofficial largest Queer library in the province, a sensory room, a vanity room with gender-affirming clothes, and a kitchen stocked with food. The centre is a not-for-profit, funded mostly by government grants; they also receive donations from fundraisers.
Like any city, though, Edmonton is not without its flaws.
‘Edmonton is not great
for gay people’
“Edmonton is not great for gay people,” says D.J., who asked that his real name be withheld.
He says that, even though his employers know he’s openly gay, he has been called in to work during pride celebrations – the same ones that were cancelled in 2019, owing to opposition among the LGBTQ+ community to the participation of the Edmonton Police Service (which has historically and continually been accused of mistreating Queer people, in particular, trans people).
A CBC.ca article describes the controversy. In 2019, Marni Panas, an LGBTQ+ advocate “filed a complaint … with the human rights commission against the police service related to a call with dispatchers” where they “repeatedly misgendered her and assumed her transgender friend was a sex worker.” Police Chief Dale McFee apologized shortly after in 2020, but little has been said since.
And policing isn’t the only crack in the foundation. The city lacks spaces specifically for Queer people, despite there being an abundance of by-and-large straight establishments that identify themselves as safe spaces for all.
“I think that there are definitely not enough dedicated Queer spaces,” Mika says. “I think that some spaces work to, like, be inclusive and affirming. But there’s not enough dedicated space that is just for the Queers and not a place for straight people’s entertainment.”
“I feel like the government needs to do more in being, like, ‘These are spaces for Queer people. If you don’t like Queer people, do not go to these spaces, then.’”
D.J. recalls being a key member of Living Positive, a foundation where people could receive HIV tests and connect with others who live with HIV. He worked with the foundation until they lost their funding. Living Positive appears to maintain hours between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., though its phone number is disconnected, and no website is available.
Funding seems to be another key issue that concerns Queer folks in Edmonton.
“I think putting more funding towards Queer and Queer-run projects is definitely something that should be realized,” Mika says. “I feel like it’s very rare.
“If funding were more accessible in some way, that would be very helpful. And also having necessities put in place for Queer spaces. Just having that is important.”
These types of projects and spaces don’t need to be extravagant; they just need to be attainable for small businesses or individuals, Ashton says.
“I would like to see, like, crafting nights or days. I feel like that’s a good way to just bond with people and be expressive. Or even just like, you know, a meetup – something like that for Queer people where you’re not scared to meet up with them.
“I wish that there were just more casual things like that.”
‘It’s definitely a culture that we don’t have
outside of Edmonton – and it’s very accepting’
On top of funding for projects and spaces for LGBTQ+ people, the city could also offer more support for members of the unhoused community (many of whom, Ashton points out, are Queer people who have been disenfranchised by their families). There is money in Edmonton; it’s just being predominantly funnelled, ironically, into policing.
The 2023 budget outlined on the City of Edmonton website contributes $481,360 to Edmonton Policing services and $17,965 to the Arts Council. No funding is being put towards MMIGW, Encampment and Unsheltered Homelessness Response, or expanding diversity and inclusion, and there is no direct reference to the LGBTQ+ community on the document.
Institutions are not the only thing that makes Edmonton’s culture unique, though, Ashton says. The people do.
“It’s definitely a culture that we don’t have outside of Edmonton. And it’s very accepting.”
These communities can better flourish with the support of local government, he adds.
“So, I feel like Edmonton actually has the spaces. I think they just need to be funded, so they can actually grow.”
One way to combat homophobia is education, which can be achieved through increased visibility of minority groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community and of the issues that affect them.
Ashton says he has had a hard time finding other Queer and trans people to spend time with in Edmonton and is feeling discouraged about them even being here, he says.
“There’s no visibility in the city. That’s why I’m still not part of the community.”
There is hope yet. For the first time, in 2022 the Canadian census included questions that differentiated sex and gender. At the very least, transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people are being recognized by the Canadian government. But still, it is important for Edmontonians to see one another, too.
“We can encourage acceptance in the community by taking the onus to be better allies,” the Pride Centre representative says. “For example, statistics show that more straight people watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race than members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Imagine if those viewers were allies and collectively took a stand against the anti-trans legislation being argued and passed in the U.S.A. – we can’t think that we are exempted from that here in Canada – and hate towards the drag community.
“It would be so impactful it could quell the anti-trans and anti-drag rhetoric happening in the media.”
When it comes to education and increased visibility, funding is, once again, paramount, Mika says.
“I think that visibility is something that could be improved upon in Edmonton. And that comes with funding for Queer arts projects, Queer sports teams, just making sure that Queer people have safe spaces to do all the same things that straight people can do. It’s really important to me.”
Just because you can’t always see LGBTQ+ folks, doesn’t mean we are not here. We deserve support. And love. And community. But, if you know where to look, you can find it.
In Edmonton, you might not have to look very far.
Resources for Queer people in Edmonton:
1.833.456.4566 – talk suicide Canada
1-800-268-9688 – The Lesbian, Gay, Bi & Trans Youthline (free peer support for youth aged 26 and under)