What It's Like Inside Toronto's Bathhouses

Torontoist

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What It’s Like Inside Toronto’s Bathhouses

Thirty-five years after the raids, we head back into Toronto's bathhouses—and get breakfast.

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It’s no hard task to find gay bathhouses in this city, if you know where to look. Follow the smell of chlorine down an alleyway in the Church-Wellesley Village, pass through a set of heavy metal doors and up a flight of stairs, and there is Steamworks. Go a few blocks south and there is Spa Xcess. There is the Oasis Aqualounge, which also markets itself to heterosexuals. But by and large, these are establishments by and for gay men, and they have always been so.

In 1981, the year of the bathhouse raids, they went by different names—the Barracks, the Richmond Street Health Emporium, the rather indiscreetly named Back Door Gym—but the concept was the same. You pay to get in under the pretense of working out or going for a shvitz, and spend a few hours pacing and mingling. In truth everyone is there for the explicit purpose of no-strings-attached sex. At Steamworks, a room on a Saturday night costs $33 to rent for eight hours, less if you want to redeem your Frequent Fucker points.

Up until the raids, baths were popular because, in those early days of the gay pride movement, the other options (bars, public restrooms) were riskier and seemed more liable to infiltration by the police. Back then, the force had the Morality Bureau, an entire unit dedicated to upholding the city’s puritanical mores. Its officers led a raid on The Parkside, a local gay bar, in 1979. A popular washroom for hooking up in Greenwin Square was similarly monitored and used to entrap men who came looking for sex. But the baths were considered safer. The emphasis on cruising and on fucking was the ultimate queer shibboleth. Undercover officers who scoped out the joint as part of the six-month undercover Operation Soap were probably serviced freely and willingly, but that did not stop then-police chief Jack Ackroyd from authorizing the raids on the basis of antiquated anti-prostitution laws.

On February 5, 1981, 200 of Toronto’s finest simultaneously stormed four different bathhouses around the city. They came wielding crowbars and sledgehammers, smashed through walls and doors, and herded hundreds of men wearing only their towels into front lobbies. One officer dubbed “the Animal” singled out men wearing wedding rings, and warned them, “This is going to be the biggest fucking mistake of your life.” To others, he said, “You guys are lucky this isn’t Germany.” Men were made to bend over, grab their ankles and cough, a humiliating test that is typically only administered to inmates in jail. In total, 306 men were arrested and charged that night, making it the largest mass arrest in Canadian history—a record that stood until the G20 protests in 2010.

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Almost immediately after the raids, the outcry was such that Chief Ackroyd was forced to issue a terse half-apology. The public saw through police attempts to pass off the raids as a mere anti-prostitution sting, and recognized it for what it really was: an assault on the nascent organized gay community. Gay people, Ackroyd begrudgingly acknowledged in January 1982, were “legitimate members of the community” who are entitled to the same “rights, respect, service, and protection as all citizens.” The protests that erupted in the aftermath of the raids eventually evolved to become the Pride Parade of today.

Undercover cops who were already in the baths when the raids transpired wore tiny red stickers to identify themselves to their fellow officers. I thought of those little red dots when I visited Steamworks on a Thursday night, when the lights are dimmed even lower than usual and visitors are given keychain lasers whose pointillist rays can be aimed at prospective suitors. When its new owners acquired the space, which was previously known as the Spa on Maitland, they undertook a $2-million renovation. The locker room wraps around a glass-walled space that includes showers, a wet and dry sauna, a small pool, and a hot tub. Across the hall from the lockers is a very dark room that can only be described as a sex maze. The many private, rentable rooms take up the rest of the space, though there is a second set of showers and another dark area. There is a full gym, brightly lit though unused except by the occasional gym bunny looking to get his pump on. The entire space is kept immaculately clean, a far cry from the stereotype of the sketchy or grungy bathhouse.

The baths have endured despite repeated predictions of their imminent demise, prompted first by the HIV-AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s, and then by hook-up apps like Grindr in the 2000s. Yet visit one of the city’s gay baths on a Friday or Saturday night and you will find that these establishments still do a brisk business. In the early morning hours, after the bars let out, there is often a wait list for rooms. Ten thousand men passed through Spa Xcess in 2014, according to its owners. In addition to its space in Toronto, Steamworks has locations in Vancouver, Chicago, Seattle, and Berkeley, California. Far from operating as havens for the closeted or ashamed, bathhouses seem to thrive in places where the gay community has by and large already been liberated.

The appeal lies in the immediacy of the experience itself, of checking out other men in the flesh. Cruising online collapses the reality of another body into pixels and a series of statistics that allow for sorting by age, race, body type. As the novelist Garth Greenwell writes, “the circulation of bodies in physical space allows for a greater possibility of being surprised by desire, of having an unexpected response to the presence of another.” At Steamworks, there are all manner of men—men of colour, men from other countries and from poorer parts of town, men that I would otherwise never have encountered. There was the fellow from Niagara who worked in a chicken slaughterhouse; the personal-injury lawyer who was smoking meth; the hormonal 18-year-old from rural Ontario who seemed astounded that such a place of casual sex could actually exist.

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Up until the Supreme Court intervened in 2014, a place like Steamworks was, in the eyes of the law, a bawdy house. This bit of legalese was, at the very least, etymologically apt: outside the Criminal Code, the adjective “bawdy” describes the humorously indecent, a manner of dealing with sex in a comical way. The scene inside a place like Steamworks—teeming masses of men, naked but for a towel and sometimes not even that, all there for the singular purpose of getting laid—is nothing if not bawdy.

Under the now-abolished sections of the Code, the bawdy-house provisions allowed police to raid any establishment where “indecent” acts were taking place. In my experience, it is indisputably true that “indecent” acts take place in a gay bathhouse—though unlike Ackroyd and the authors of the Criminal Code, I don’t use the word pejoratively. The carnal, hedonistic environment is actually rollicking good fun, if you’re in the mood. Group sex is par for the course, orgies arise in the sauna spontaneously. Some nights there is a DJ: wearing only a pair of briefs, he spins deep, throbbing house music from a booth at centre of Steamworks’ maze of hallways. The scene is funny, it is bawdy, but it certainly does not feel as though it should be illegal.

The police now agree, though relations between TPS and the LGBTQ community have already improved significantly. On a recent summer afternoon, the Toronto Police LGBTQ Community Consultative Committee held an open house at Second Cup on Church, just around the corner from Steamworks. Officers sat on the sunny patio and fielded questions from passersby. A large contingent of police march every year in the Pride Parade, celebrating the very community the force once persecuted.

Bathhouses, to quote Greenwell again, are “spaces in which the radical potential of queerness still inheres, a potential that has been very nearly expunged from a mainstreaming, homonormative vision of gay life.” I thought about those words as I left Steamworks at nearly 5:00 a.m. one morning. The staff had set out a table laden with breakfast food: yogurt cups, mini-croissants, bananas, and coffee. Towelled guests paused their hedonism and gathered around to eat and banter in the early-morning light. A new day was beginning.

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