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Historian in Residence Discovering Untold Queer Stories in Calgary

While it might not necessarily be at the forefront of every textbook, queer people have made their mark in history and have substantially shaped our society. As Calgary Public Library’s newest Historian in Residence, Tess McNaughton hopes to discover and curate some of the untold stories of the queer community in our city — the stories that are rarely seen in history books.

Discovering a niche area in history

McNaughton was always interested in history, but first felt a deeper connection to it during their undergraduate degree at the University of Lethbridge. She took a women and gender studies course where she realized there were many important stories that weren’t as well-known as they should be.

“(The course) showed a different way of thinking. Then I found a way that I could tie my own queerness into my studies,” McNaughton recalls.

In 2020, McNaughton started an independent study with Dr. Carol Williams, focusing on queer history of western Canada. McNaughton admits that they weren’t initially sure if there would be anything groundbreaking to discover in this area, but quickly realized there were countless stories that were extremely impactful.

Early into their research, a publication called The most openly gay person for at least a thousand miles: Doug Wilson and the Politicization of a Province, 1975-83 by Dr. Valerie Korinek would shape who McNaughton has become as a researcher.

Doug Wilson was a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. He was fired for being openly gay and, while the lawsuit was terminated, Wilson was seen as a catalyst for the development of queer rights in Canada. The article also touches on how Saskatchewan was quite progressive in the 1960s and 1970s, hosting the first Prairie Regional Gay Activist Conference and MLAs pushing for queer rights.

“I found this fascinating because the prairies are often seen as a place queer people escape from to a more urban area,” McNaughton said.

McNaughton knows that there are many other powerful stories like Wilson’s that haven't been publicly shared.

Learning more about Calgary’s queer community

During their six-month residency with the Library, McNaughton will be focusing on documenting the experiences of queer women, non-binary, and gender diverse people living in Moh’kins’tsis (Calgary).

“I'll be doing lots of interviews with people. It will be like a call out to queer people in Calgary, or people who grew up in Calgary. I’ll be listening to their stories. While I love working in the archives, there's something different about getting experiences from people,” McNaughton said about their coming months as Historian in Residence.

McNaughton will be alternating from in-person to virtual bi-weekly public office hours. They will also facilitate queer walking tours in collaboration with Heritage Calgary, exploring places that have been critical to the development of the queer community.

In September, McNaughton will showcase an exhibit at Central Library highlighting their findings during their residency. She’s hopeful it’s something that can help Calgarians understand the diversity behind queer history in the city.

“I hope they not only take away that queer people have always been around, but that there is so much depth in the relationships within the queer community. History is always growing and changing and it’s not necessarily millennia year old. It can also be 20 or 30 years old, too.”

Learn more about the Historian in Residence on our website.

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