Born in 1936 in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, the youngest of nine, Lois Szabo ran away from her abusive home at 16 years old, landing in Hamilton, Ontario where she supported herself by working in a clothing factory. She met her future husband that same year, when he was just 17 years old. Two years later they married and went on to have two children. With Szabo’s husband in the military, the family moved to Victoria, then Germany and eventually landed in Calgary on New Years Eve, 1961.
In 1964, after 10 years of marriage, Szabo came out as a lesbian. Despite this, she and her husband were able to reach conciliatory terms, continuing to co-habitate as friends and raise their kids together. They remain married to this day, a partnership that has spanned 62 years, and even share the same home they first bought when they arrived.
In her six decades as a proud member of the gay community, Szabo is most famous for being part of the cooperative that ran Club Carousel, a legendary underground private members social club that operated from 1967 to 1977. Just days before her 80th birthday, we caught up with this tiny-but-mighty woman (her no-nonsense management style earned her the nickname “Little Napoleon”) to talk night clubs, motorcycle clubs and why it’s virtually impossible to start a social group for elderly lesbians.
How did you come to be involved in Club Carousel?
“After I came out in 1964, there were about three years where my partner and I thought we were the only gay women in the world. We couldn’t find anybody else… My partner decided that in 1967, the centennial year, she would have a drink at every bar in Calgary. We started in January and it took us to September to arrive at the Cecil Hotel, where we found all the gay women! Two of them took us to an after-hours club down on 1st Street S.W. that was supposed to be for gays only but [the owner] was selling tickets to straights. Because of that, the guys who went there decided to boycott the place.
“They asked my partner and I to go down there during the boycott and check how many people were showing up. We did that for a month on Friday and Saturday nights and reported back that the boycott was holding. After a while, the guy operating the place went bankrupt and a group of us bought him out, took over his lease, and took over the club – plus all the dirt and mess.”
Despite the condition of the place, that must have felt like quite the victory.
“The first night we were open we were charged by the police, so we decided to get a lawyer and apply for a Provincial Societies Act charter. There were four guys and they needed a woman to give it balance. The fact that I was a woman and the fact that I was married gave it some kind of legitimacy, so I signed and we opened and got charged [again]. Three of the guys were frightened off by the charges and they bowed out. That made me president and left the fourth guy and I to run the place.”
What was the club like in those first years?
“It was the place to be, because we were basically an after-hours illegal drinking club – at the beginning, we were only technically allowed to have liquor one night a month. In those days the bars closed at about 11:30 p.m. Most people, after they’ve been out drinking, aren’t ready to go home to bed at 11 o’clock.”
Did you let straight people in when it was the place to be?
“No, it was strictly private. Members were allowed one guest that was 21 years or over. Membership was $10 a year. We started with 20 members and the last year I was president we had 670 members. We had a membership list, but the members were also given a number and they could use a false name if they wanted in the club. We protected them. It was a safe place to be.”
So you were there for the beginning. What about the end?
“I was involved for about eight years and it operated for about two or three years after I stepped back. After homosexuality was decriminalized [by the Pierre Elliot Trudeau government in 1968-69], people felt more comfortable being out so they started going to other dance clubs. We had moved from the space on 1st Street, which was all low ceilings and smoky and wall-to-wall bodies up to a former furniture store at the corner of 16th Avenue and Centre Street because everybody wanted a bigger place. But, it wasn’t the same and it was expensive to run, so the club moved again to 9th Avenue and 11th Street. It was a nice little upstairs space, but I didn’t go that often by then. I was busy doing other things and I often said I’d been ‘clubbed to death’ because I spent so much time and energy on it. My partner and I did the janitorial work so we were often there until three, four, five o’ clock in the morning, cleaning up for the next night. We did the purchasing, lugged the empties out. I got worn out.”
You’re turning 80 this weekend and you say you have no regrets. What’s your secret to living a long life with no regrets?
“Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t carry grudges. Be honest with people up front. I have been up front and honest with my family, with my friends, with everybody, so I’ve never had to look over my shoulder or fear for anything.”
Considering you came out back when being openly gay was actually illegal, it’s unexpected to hear you say you never had to look over your shoulder.
“Well I did when I lived at home. I had the most wonderful mother anyone could ask for but my father was a maniac. Anything that could go wrong happened to me before I was 16. When I knew I was gay I told my family up front and my husband and I sorted out what to do, so my family knew and were very supportive. When your family is supportive, your loved ones, your friends, there’s nothing to fear. It bothers me that there are so many people living in fear to this day. They’re in their 70s and they’re still afraid of being ‘outed.’ Good god! Who cares!?”
Calgary is stereotyped sometimes as a redneck city. What would you say to that?
“I don’t know. I’ve never really felt the redneck component too much because I’m just me – like it, lump it, bugger off. I’ve never felt too intimidated. As I say, the worst that could happen to me happened before I was 16 so I don’t care what other people think.”
Did you ever consider leaving Calgary?
“Never. I travelled a lot. I’ve put 300,000 kilometres on my van in the last 20 years and I’ve ridden about 200,000 miles on my various bikes, but Calgary is home base. As a kid my favourite song was Roy Rogers’ ‘Don’t Fence Me In,’ and when I got here I thought Alberta was heaven. It was wide-open spaces, blue sky and no fences. It’s just always been really good to me and my family.”
These days do you see yourself as an elder stateswoman of sorts to young gay women?
“Not really. I do quite a bit of volunteer work in the gay community mainly because I want to see what the younger people are up to and what’s going on now – not that I understand a lot of it because it’s quite different from my era. I volunteer with the One Voice Choir and I’m a member of the Calgary Lesbian Seniors group. We meet at the Kerby Centre.”
How big is that group?
“Ha! Not very big. We have three strikes against us. A lot of women don’t want to be considered old, they don’t want to be part of the Kerby Centre and don’t want to be recognized as lesbians. It’s so ridiculous because some of them are so obvious! Do they think people walk around blind?
“But I keep busy. I visit friends that are in nursing homes. I volunteer at my church, Knox United. And I’m a member of the Women In the Winds Calgary Chinook Chapter women’s motorcycle club.”
How long have you been riding motorcycles?
“This year it will be 58 years.”
“Nothing serious, fortunately, a few drops and a few slide outs but nothing serious, thank God.”
Do you have big plans for your birthday?
“I have family coming in. My motorcycle group had a birthday party for me last week at our regular meeting.”
What’s the scene like at a women’s motorcycle club birthday party?
“Well it was at the Legion so anyone who wanted to could have a drink. They had a cake for me.”
What did they write on your cake?
“Happy 80th. Ride On.”
* This article has been corrected from the previous version which identified Lois Szabo as a former owner of Club Carousel. Ms. Szabo would like to specify that she was not an owner, but that the club was “a cooperative-owned private social club with an elected five-person executive committee a 10-member elected Board of Directors,” and that “all work was done voluntarily and free by the members including executives and board members.”