Cruising the History of Policing Gay Sex in Toronto Parks

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Cruising the History of Policing Gay Sex in Toronto Parks

For many local queer people, the arrests in Marie Curtis Park felt like 1981 all over again.

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Toronto police in Etobicoke’s Marie Curtis Park last November where LGBTQ activists gathered to protest Project Marie, a police sex sting that drew comparisons to 1981 bathhouse raids. Photo by Declan Keogh.

It’s the first day of spring, and that means the city’s public parks will soon fill up with Torontonians. But for queer people trying to cruise, that can mean increased police surveillance and possible criminalization.

Last fall, members of the Toronto Police conducted a six-week undercover investigation in Marie Curtis Park called Project Marie, which concluded with 71 individuals cited for engaging in acts of consensual sex. Three months prior, Police Chief Mark Saunders issued an “apology” for the 1981 bathhouse raids, leaving many in the LGBTQ community with the belief that these targeted operations were a thing of the past.

Despite that 95 per cent of those charged in Project Marie were men, police maintained that sexuality was not the primary factor. Police Constable Kevin Ward argued that “it is a multi-faceted issue,” linking park sex with sex offenders, drugs, and alcohol. 

The key problem is that there is a long history of police unapologetically targeting men having sex with men in Toronto parks.

In September 1968, as Pierre Trudeau’s government was contemplating changes to the regulation of homosexuality, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police held their annual meeting. They were overwhelmingly opposed to reform, proclaiming “there is too great an erosion of our moral principles.” Echoing the idea that this is a “multi-faceted issue,” they argued, “the search by homosexuals for partners often leads to assault, theft, male prostitution and murder.” 

Despite these fears, one year later, Trudeau’s omnibus bill decriminalizing gay sex in Canada came into effect.

The change to the law regulating homosexuality was actually just a partial decriminalization. Gross indecency, the provision outlawing gay sex, was not removed from the Criminal Code until 1985. Instead, the omnibus bill added an “exception clause,” which allowed only adults over 21 years old to be grossly indecent, provided they did so in private and that only two people were present. 

Lifelong queer activist Tim McCaskell notes that these amendments merely recognized the obvious, that “the state could scarcely effectively surveil all the bedrooms of the nation.” Using the loophole created by the exception clause, the police mobilized to charge men with gross indecency in spaces outside of the bedroom, namely bathhouses, washrooms, and parks. 

The limitations of the 1969 reform were highlighted by a group of queer activists, who marched on Parliament Hill in August 1971 in the pouring rain. This protest was dubbed “We Demand,” considered the first large-scale gay demonstration in Canada. 

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In this 1973 map, originally published by the Body Politic, Philosopher’s Walk is identified as a gay cruising spot (number 14), stretching from Queen’s Park to Bloor Street. Via activehistory.ca

Back then, the area near Philosopher’s Walk, a pathway behind the Royal Ontario Museum connecting Bloor Street and Queen’s Park, was a famous gay cruising spot. 

One summer night, the same year as the We Demand protest, a volunteer with the Community Homophile Association of Toronto strolled through the path. He witnessed two men being “jumped from behind” by undercover police agents, who arrested the men on charges of gross indecency. Out of concern for those cruising the path, the CHAT volunteer formed an organization of one called the Toronto Civilian Park Patrol. Between the undercover agents, the uniformed cops, and the civilian patrol, he quickly realized that with so many people standing around not having sex, Philosopher’s Walk began to lose its allure. 

This path and the connecting Queen’s Park were subject to undercover police surveillance through the 1970s and beyond.

High Park was another site of police surveillance. In 1973, police officers conducted patrols and approached single men to ask if they had ever been convicted of gross indecency. If the individual was honest and answered yes, the officer charged him with vagrancy. 

Community activists became aware that police were using lesser charges to elicit a guilty plea. Fearing the publicity of trial, and the cost of legal representation, most of these men pleaded guilty. This often resulted in a recorded conviction, as well as a police record. To combat this, CHAT formed a court worker program that provided free legal assistance to anyone charged for having gay sex. Despite this effort, many men continued to plead guilty. 

In August 1977, Bruce Davidson was walking through High Park “and noticed a man in shorts, with his shirt open, lying on a park bench stroking himself.” As Davidson approached, the man identified himself as a police agent and charged him with indecent assault. Davidson ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

Historian Steven Maynard, who has examined “the struggle over public urban space” in the early 20th century, has argued that the location of Allan Gardens near the working-class neighbourhood of Cabbagetown made this a prime location for both gay sex and police entrapment. 

Throughout the 1970s, the proximity of Allan Gardens to the emerging queer community meant this legacy continued. 

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A foggy Allan Gardens. Photo by Cameron MacMaster via Torontoist’s Flickr Pool.

In 1979, Andrew Britton walked into Allan Gardens late one summer night and went to an area with trees and bushes, located near the park’s greenhouses. He noticed that there were several men sitting around, including a man named Alan McMurray, whom he did not yet know. The two made eye contact and walked into the bushes. 

“We’d hardly had a chance to even say anything to each other before we both became aware of a couple of men peering at us,” Britton states. These men were police agents, who charged Britton and McMurray with gross indecency. They fought their charges and won, due to reasonable doubt as to whether the officer witnessed anything indecent.

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Allan Gardens has historically been known as a space for sex. The benches, trees, and bushes behind the greenhouse made for a popular spot in the 1970s.

Perhaps one of the most shocking instances of police surveillance during this period was in David Balfour Park. With winding paths and ravines, this space was ideal for gay cruising during late summer nights. In August 1980, “Don” took a late-night stroll and noticed a group of men gathered in a dark clearing, and he went to join them. As soon as he arrived, “there was a sudden burst of light and the sound of a gun firing–twice.” This warning was followed by a third shot. One of the other men in the group, Tony, recalled that the third bullet “whizzed past his ear,” and that “it sounded really close. I could smell the gunpowder.” 

Five men were arrested and charged with gross indecency and indecent acts. Plainclothes police agent, Richard Dionne, was responsible for discharging his firearm three times into the ground. At trial, Dionne said he used his gun because he claimed he felt threatened. The five men were ultimately convicted and given an absolute discharge, but only after being scolded for their sex acts by the judge.

In the wake of the violent mass arrest of the Toronto bathhouse raids on February 5, 1981, the community was determined to end these dangerous police operations. Inspired in part by the CHAT court worker program, a group called the Right to Privacy Committee was formed to organize the legal defence of those charged in the baths. 

The RTPC worked with lawyers from the Law Union of Ontario, and they were successful on an unprecedented scale: 87 per cent of the 286 bathhouse patrons either had their charges withdrawn or were acquitted. After these trials concluded in 1982, the group formed a new organization called Gay Court Watch, with an expanded mandate to include anyone charged for having consensual sex, including in public parks.

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February 5, 1981, 150 plain clothed and uniformed Toronto police officers, carrying crowbars and sledgehammers, raid four gay bathhouses, a culmination of a six-month undercover operation known as Operation Soap. Photos by Gerald Hannon via of Pride Toronto.

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The bath raids signified a turning point in a battle between the LGBTQ community and the police. 

In September 1981, law journalist Arnold Bruner published an official inquiry into the relationship between the gay community and the police. This City-commissioned report was restricted from investigating the bathhouse raids because the matter was still before the courts, so Bruner’s mandate was to look at the bigger picture. He investigated the issue of park sex and revealed that heterosexual “lovers’ lanes” were common, but due to the shame associated with gay sex, men seeking men were easy targets for police surveillance. 

This was a serious community concern, Bruner notes. One of the key recommendations of his report was “that a moratorium be placed on arrests of persons suspected of engaging in sex in public parks.”

Toronto was not alone in these targeted police operations. In the 1950s, Mayor Jean Drapeau ordered Montreal officials to conduct “morality cuts,” to remove what the mayor perceived as hiding places for sex. The bushes in Mount Royal were cleared due to Drapeau’s campaign against illicit sex in the park, causing severe damage to the local flora. In the summer of 1973, four men were charged with gross indecency at Nepean Point. Gays of Ottawa activist Yvon Thivierge witnessed the incident and was punched in the face by an arresting officer. On December 3, 1976, two young men in Edmonton were charged for kissing in Queen Elizabeth Park. Even though it was 5 a.m. and they were in a parked car, Constable W. Swieswerda proceeded with the arrest.

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Queers Crash the Beat protesting in Marie Curtis Park in Etobicoke on November 19. Photo by Declan Keogh.

The location of the current battle over sex in public spaces, Marie Curtis Park, was not immune to the Toronto morality police of the 1970s and 1980s. In the summer of 1982, two men were arrested “by plainclothes officers posing as gay men and were charged with indecent assault.” Judges in these cases were not receptive to the police position. Provincial Court Judge V. A. Lampkin concluded that Marie Curtis Park had a reputation as “a known homosexual park.” Both men were acquitted. 

The fate of those charged in the recent arrests is still unknown, and there is concern that the police will continue or expand these undercover park operations against queers this coming summer. Our history shows that by collectively organizing in resistance, we can fight these oppressive police campaigns. Activists and lawyers have formed a group to provide legal coordination to those charged. Queers Crash the Beat are continuing this battle from the 1970s, and they deserve our support.


Dr. Tom Hooper is a historian of queer Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s. An earlier version of this article appears at Activehistory.ca.

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