When Toronto police raided four bathhouses in the 1980s, the city's gay community fought back.
Every weekend, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
This article originally ran on June 26, 2011.
February 5, 1981, 11 p.m. Patrons of four bathhouses in downtown Toronto (The Barracks, The Club, Richmond Street Health Emporium, and Roman Sauna Baths) were surprised by 200 police officers in a series of coordinated raids. Law enforcement officials claimed that the raids were the result of six months of undercover work into alleged prostitution and other “indecent acts” at each establishment. Those inside the baths were subjected to excessive mistreatment by police, especially when it came to verbal taunts about the sexuality of those assembled at the four bathhouses. The raids marked a turning point for Toronto’s gay community; as the protests that followed indicated, people weren’t willing to endure derogatory treatment deriding their lifestyle from the police or from any others in spheres of influence.
Relations between the gay community and the police had been deteriorating for some time. Bathhouse owners who once had tacit approval of their businesses from the morality squad were no longer informed of upcoming police actions. As one owner noted, “If they had wanted us to change our operation, they should have talked to us first. They always have in the past.” A series of small raids, starting with a roundup at the Barracks in December 1978 and a monitored washroom at Greenwin Square throughout 1979 created unease. Police literature didn’t help matters: in the March 1979 edition of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Association newsletter News & Views, an officer contributed an essay on “The Homosexual Fad” that, in its mix of religious fervour and paranoia about moral decay, portrayed gays as arrogant, militant deviants who recruited innocent children into their lifestyle. This highly moralistic view was found among many officers by Arnold Bruner when he wrote a report on gay/police relations several months after the raids, which he summed up as “stereotyped notions of the homosexual man as an uncontrollable sexual libertine who commits crimes of lust, prostitutes himself, who is capable of infecting those with whom he comes in contact with by spreading homosexuality or venereal disease.”
In a report on the raids submitted by Aldermen Pat Sheppard and David White to Toronto city council three weeks after the raids, 20 of those arrested provided anonymous accounts of their experience. Why the anonymity? According to the report:
Most of those charged fear retaliation from the police if they speak out publicly. In this respect it is interesting to note that it is alleged that the police compiled an extraordinary amount of information from most of the found-ins including place of employment, immediate superiors’ names and phone numbers and in the case of married men, their wives’ names and phone number. All of those charged are aware that in the past police have made “concerned citizen” calls to employers in cases where homosexuals have been charged.
The stories included in the report list incidents ranging from humiliation of those about to be charged to stomach-churning remarks from the arresting officers. Some samples:
One particular officer we nicknamed “The Animal.” If it weren’t for the presence of a few benevolent officers, things could have been much worse. “The Animal” said at one point, “That guy at the end (pointing to one of the arrested people) looks German. Doesn’t he look German to you? You guys are lucky this isn’t Germany.”…He was particularly vicious towards people who wore wedding rings. He would say to them “This is going to be the biggest fucking mistake of your life.”
One of them grabbed my hand and wrote my room number on it. He told me it was indelible ink and would take months to come off.
The door was being kicked in and I yelled “Stop, I’ll open it.” They said, “It’s too late now,” and kept on kicking.
One policeman said, in the shower room while we were lined up against the wall, “I wish these pipes were hooked up to gas so I could annihilate you all.”
The cops referred to my bathing suit as “ladies panties.” When I asked them why they wanted to photograph me nude, they said “We’re strange people. We like pictures of kinky things.”
If you looked anywhere but at the wall one of the cops would come over and push your head into the wall and tell you not to look at anything else. I had to stand that way with my arms up for one hour and 20 minutes.
I was led out of the holding area and taken in to see a policeman at the desk. I was still naked and asked if I could have my clothes. He said, “No, turn around, bend over and spread your cheeks. I said spread your cheeks. Don’t tell me you haven’t done that before.” I finally felt I had to bend over.
Inside the baths, police took crowbars to lockers, which were among the $50,000 worth of damaged items. Undercover cops wore red dots to show, according to one officer, “who are the straights.” When the night was over, 286 men were charged for being “found-ins,” while 20 were charged for operating a bawdy house. No incidents of prostitution were uncovered.
The following evening, a midnight march starting at Yonge and Wellesley was organized to protest police brutality. Writer Burke Campbell provided his observations of the protest to the gay publication Body Politic:
The bars emptied into the streets. Thousands of well-dressed faggots have had enough. “Stop the cops! Stop the cops!” The chants continue, build, and go on and on. A lot of us have whistles and the piercing screams travel like sound bullets through the cold night air. Faces. I recognize so many. A crowd of friends. “We should do this all the time,” says one beautiful woman. I laugh. We’re in control of the city. The police can’t do anything…
The procession, which peaked at over 3,000 angry marchers, made its way south to 52 Division on Dundas Street. As protesters yelled “No more cops!” and “Fuck you, 52!,” a small group of mostly teenaged counter-protesters yelled back “Fuck the queers” and unsuccessfully attempted to block University Avenue. Once at the police station, the protest encountered a human barricade of 200 officers. As Body Politic reported, “Our line surges up and slaps up against theirs but theirs doesn’t break—even when the crowd gives them the Nazi salute, even when the crowd spits in their faces.” From there, the protest headed north to Queen’s Park, where it hammered on the doors of the legislature. Violence between police and protesters broke out, which caused organizers to urge the crowd to disperse. Police tactics such as that in which officers who remove their ID numbers eerily echo the measures used to handle the G20 protests last year. A group of around 400 headed back to Yonge Street, where, following a further reduction in numbers, they faced insults and more violence. At the end of the night, the toll was 11 arrests, one injured police officer, one damaged police car, and four smashed windows in a streetcar.
For marchers like Body Politic columnist Ken Popert, the protest was a means to let out the anger building inside of them:
I know that something got into people, because it got into me…Friday night was different. I screamed and chanted until my throat was raw. I wanted to destroy, to injure, perhaps to kill. What got into me last Friday night was my own anger, anger which I’ve become accustomed to thrusting away from myself because it’s too big to deal with, too frightening to acknowledge…What got into me was my own anger over living in a society which finds my existence inconvenient. What got into me was my own anger over harassment on streets that are never safe for me. What got into me was my own anger over the unrelenting stream of taunts and insults from the media, coolly calculated to undermine my self-respect with every passing day…What got into me was my own anger over city aldermen for whom I campaigned not three months ago and who are now silent while gay people are robbed of what little freedom and safety we have. Friday night was a warning. I finally got angry. And I’m still angry now. Anger is what got into me and a lot of other people that Friday night, an anger which stands for hate returned full-measure. As long as society continues to demand us as its victims and its human sacrifices, that anger is going to be there, waiting to get into us, again and again. It’s not going to go away for a long, long time.
Though police officials claimed that the raids were just a bust that wasn’t intended to intimidate the gay community, the outcry against police brutality grew in the following days. Commentators that were generally pro-cop, like CHUM radio news director Dick Smyth, were outraged. Smyth criticized the force for “ham-handed brutality and lunk-headed vandalism,” and called them “pigs” on air. Outrage outside the gay community was well represented when the Globe and Mail came out swinging in an editorial on February 9:
There have been no such raids on other private clubs in Metro Toronto. There have been no such raids on heterosexual bawdy houses in Metro Toronto. Even in the days when there were raids on heterosexual bawdy houses, few charges were laid against found-ins. The impression upon the public cannot fail to be that the police are discriminating against homosexuals, knowing that the relatively minor charges which have been laid against so many people may give them major problems in their private lives—hurting them in their jobs and families, exposing them to the abuse of those who would deny homosexuals any rights…The Metro Toronto Police claim to be understaffed. Yet they have been able to waste men on six months of investigation, on a 150-man raid, on policing the ensuing reaction, on the court work that will result. And all for suspicion of conduct which is legal between two consenting adults in private. Other minorities must wonder if so gross an action against so many citizens by such a large group of policemen, with the support of the Chief of Police (and can it have occurred without the consent of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Commission) means that no minority is safe from harassment in a city where it could happen.
That editorial was attacked by the Sun two days later. The tabloid accused its competitor of “spouting editorial nonsense that homosexuals are being picked on.” Concerns about harassment of other communities were dismissed (“What tripe to compare homosexuals with blacks, Asians, Boat People, Jews, etc. Wonder who wrote that editorial!”). But then, “The Little Paper That Grew” had never shown much sympathy toward homosexuals. In an interview with CBC, editor-in-chief Peter Worthington indicated that gays had become too flaunty for their own good—he believed that “a person’s sexual orientation or preferences should remain in the closet.” When asked about his threat to reveal the names of found-ins after future raids, Worthington felt that such a tactic would be a good deterrent for anyone considering a future visit to a bathhouse. Over the following months, every time a report looking into the raids or gay/police relations was released the Sun took the low road in its coverage and refused to acknowledge that such a community existed, let alone deserved any protection of its rights.
But it was homophobic drivel from the likes of the Sun that drove the anger that refused to go back into the closet. Time has shown that the events of early February 1981 can be considered Toronto’s Stonewall moment. Future bathhouse raids were met with loud protests. The trials for the found-ins dragged out for over a year, with most found innocent of the charges (The Body Politic kept a running tally of wins and losses). Pride celebrations gradually grew in size despite efforts by municipal officers to curb their public celebration time. Though a full inquiry into the raids never materialized, reports like the one prepared by Arnold Bruner paved the way for slow improvements in the relationship between police and the gay community. Though Rob Ford’s non-presence during this year’s Pride celebrations is a throwback to the unease Art Eggleton felt toward the gay community during the fallout from the raids and throughout his mayoral tenure, the public reaction from people of all sexualities shows that many Torontonians won’t accept such disregard anymore.
Additional material from Out of the Closet: Study of Relations between the Homosexual Community and the Police by Arnold Bruner (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1981), Report on Police Raids on Gay Steambaths prepared for Pat Sheppard and David White (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1981), the March 1981 edition of the Body Politic, and the following newspapers: the February 9, 1981 edition of the Globe and Mail; the February 6, 1981 and February 7, 1981 editions of the Toronto Star; and the February 8, 1981 and February 11, 1981 editions of the Toronto Sun.