Nashville North is one of the Calgary Stampede's flagship party tents. It is loud, rowdy and populated by spilly-talkers. Charles Macmichael will spend Saturday in this notorious space, celebrating one of Stampede's unofficial parties: Gay Day.
Mr. Macmichael organizes this annual LGBTQ event, a gathering that expanded by a factor of six in three years. Saturday marks the event's fourth anniversary and by Friday afternoon, 360 people on Facebook said they would attend. More than 300 people showed up last year, sporting "Hello My Name Is" tags with joke names so attendees could pick out LGBTQ community members and their allies.
Gay Day is a party-within-a-party, with thousands of people pretending to polka at Nashville North unbothered or unaware of the celebration's existence. Gay Day has political undertones but that is not what drives the inclusive event.
"It is a grassroots way for the gay community to embrace the Stampede spirit," Mr. Macmichael said. "For some people, it is just fun event and a reason to go out and meet new people. And for other people it is a way to feel more comfortable and maybe even safer."
Nashville North holds 2,500 party-goers and, throughout Stampede, thousands of people stand in line for hours to get in. The crowd's enthusiasm for two-stepping and line-dancing makes up for what the participants lack in skill. Gay Day organizers deploy two Stampede veteran moves: First, they suggest people show up between 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m., which means avoiding the snaking line and giving the gang a chance to stake out a home base; and second, the event is on the second day of the 10-day festival, before Nashville North gets too filthy.
"The [LGBTQ] community has fewer and fewer needs, in a good way, for safe gathering places, but as a result of that, it has less easy means of meeting other individuals within the community other than the Internet," Mr. Macmichael said. He is unaware of any hostility against Gay Day participants inside the party tent.
Nashville North is on the Stampede grounds, sharing space with the midway, grandstand, rodeo ring and exhibition halls. That is part of the reason Gay Day organizers choose to gather there.
"A lot of people make a day of it," Mr. Macmichael said. "Part of the experience is about being integrated and about mixing with everybody else that's there."
Forty-nine people, largely from the LGBTQ community, were killed in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in June. This violence will be on many people's minds at this year's Gay Day, the organizer said.
"The gay community is a little on edge right now. And I think there will be more people attending this event that are conscious of Orlando," Mr. Macmichael, who is 36 and came out when he was 20, said. "I think, generally, people want to show resolve."
Domingo Lumanog emigrated from the Philippines when he was 21. Now, at 32, he feels a duty to be part of events like Gay Day.
"I want to represent," Mr. Lumanog said. "I am Canada."
He has attended Gay Day since its inception. "You know when you walk into those doors, you're not only one person but you represent an entity."
Nashville North does not charge cover and Gay Day attendees do not have to buy tickets. The lack of formalities is part of the attraction. Cowboys Dance Hall, Mr. Macmichael said, has approached the organizers about hosting the event at its venue and Gay Day leaders have had conversations with the Calgary Stampede itself about formalizing the gathering. But for now, Gay Day remains independent.
And the Stampede is a welcoming host. "It is great that they've chosen Stampede park as a place to hold their event," Jennifer Booth, a spokeswoman for the Calgary Stampede, said. "Stampede park is very inclusive … We're ecstatic they are happy to use Nashville North as a place to gather."