Toronto Police Apology for Bathhouse Raids is Too Little, Too Late
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Toronto Police Apology for Bathhouse Raids is Too Little, Too Late

Actions speak louder than words—and TPS has yet to prove it's truly sorry.

Mural on Church Street depicting the Bathhouse Raids. Photo by Bella from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Mural on Church Street depicting the 1981 Bathhouse Raids. Photo by Bella from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

When you need a good photo-op, some palatable sound bites, and a little bit of cheap social currency, apologize to the gay community.

Apologizing to the gays is the hottest look this season. Wrapping your institution in a rainbow flag is in. You’ll look progressive, and it’ll help you slim down some of the more contentious aspects of your institution’s systemic problems.

Following hot on the heels of the smiling, sunny Trudeau Liberal government’s apology for a decades-old case of a man who was deemed a sex offender for consensual gay sex—the same government, let it not be forgotten, who has turned Canada into the second biggest arms exporter to the Middle East, including a $15-billion sale to the anti-gay, anti-women, anti-human rights regime of Saudi Arabia—Toronto Police Services are now apologizing for two bathhouse raids.

The apology, which will consider both the 1981 gay bathhouse raids and the 2000 Pussy Palace raids, will force TPS to confront the unfortunate reality that officers treated LGBTQ communities with malice and disrespect only some 16 years ago. In the ’81 raid, men wearing nothing but towels were forced out in humiliation by 200 police officers, threatened for their sexualities. Cops went well above the line of duty, abusing and terrorizing patrons. (One officer in the bathhouse showers infamously said, “I wish these pipes were hooked up to gas so I could annihilate you all.”) Nineteen years later, male officers stormed an all-female event under the guise of a liquor inspection. Female patrons were harassed and intimidated, leaving nude and semi-naked women forced to cover up and leave in fear.

Yes, LGBTQ Torontonians deserve an apology. But TPS’s move today feels more like PR than a genuine “sorry.”

Toronto cops have a long history of policing sexuality, including campaigns, stings, and responding to complainants to crack down on public sex cruising grounds. In 1999, police raided the long-closed Bijou porno theatre under the guise of a liquor inspection and charged a dozen patrons with committing indecent acts in a public place.

Keep in mind that it was only 25 years ago that the TPS declared the gay and lesbian community as one entitled to protection and policing in a lead up to the 1991 Pride Parade. This didn’t stop police from seizing lesbian porn zine Bad Attitude from Glad Day Bookshop in 1992 and regularly sending plainclothes officers on the hunt for obscene material. The morality squad also raided Remington’s strip bar in 1996, ensnaring 19 people including dancers, patrons and staff. Glenn Wheeler in NOW magazine wrote: “The charges laid at Remington’s included some prostitution-related ‘bawdy house offences.’ (Dancers held sessions with patrons in private cubicles, allegedly for monetary considerations.) There were also charges related to performing ‘an indecent theatrical act’—to wit, jerking off onstage to the delight of hundreds of patrons, except for the complainant who called the cops.”

The TPS has also regularly placed anti-gay, not to mention racist, people in positions of power, perhaps manifested best by former Toronto police chief and former Conservative MP Julian Fantino. Fantino was serving as police chief of London where he presided over “Project Guardian,” a sting into a child pornography ring that never ended up existing but still managed to arrest two dozen gay men, charging several on unrelated charges. The sting was criticized as an “anti-gay witch hunt,” but didn’t end up hurting Fantino’s run for TPS chief, where he was appointed in 2000—openly gay former Council member Kyle Rae noted concern of Fantino’s “hostile” relationship to the gay and lesbian community at the time. Despite his office, he remained largely silent about the 2000 raids.

It’s not a stretch to assume this apology is part of a rebranding, which includes a task force announced earlier this year “with a focus on modernizing operations and containing costs.” That’s no small task when Toronto’s police spending recently broke $1 billion in the City budget, the second largest City expenditure behind the TTC. This, while other organizations are having their budgets cut and policing costs taxpayers more than a combination of public housing, libraries, paramedics, and firefighters. Critics have argued that the TPS’s billion-dollar services are unfocused and wasteful.

The TPS has a habit of being tone deaf to social progress. In late May, the Project Claudia raids saw police action across the city where they targeted at least 45 unlicensed marijuana dispensaries, resulting in 90 arrests and 186 charges laid. As Canada awaits a much-needed update to marijuana legislation (under the steering of former TPS police chief and current Liberal MP Bill Blair)—a Globe and Mail/Nanos poll found 68 per cent of the population supported or somewhat supported legalizing marijuana—the typical reaction of forward-thinking Toronto citizens was, “Don’t we have more important things to worry about?”

Like, say, the killing of Black men and ongoing systemic racism? While Black people make up 10 per cent of Toronto’s population, they have made up at least half of police killings since the 1980s. The case of Andrew Loku, a Sudanese father of five living in an apartment complex leased by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, who was armed with a hammer and shot twice in an altercation with TPS officers responding to a call (the officer was investigated but not criminally charged) is only the latest incident that’s had local activists calling for an overhaul of policies and procedures. Throw in a history of racial profiling especially against Black people and indigenous Canadians, the murder of Sammy Yatim, and the adversarial attitude toward Black Lives Matter. TPS officers “pushed and kicked the mostly Black women who were demonstrating outside 40 College Street in order to dismantle their tents and extinguish a contained fire they were using to keep warm,” Desmond Cole writes of the BLMTO protests. Leading up to his bid for office, former police chief Bill Blair wrote in a Toronto Star op-ed that “we do not tolerate racism or racial profiling in the Toronto Police Service,” which is cute in light of a more recent Toronto City Council motion to review the special investigations unit’s “anti-Black racism lens.”

The TPS also has a history of stings and action against sex workers, which disproportionately affects poor and/or transgender women. Officers were complicit in the human rights abuses during the Toronto-hosted G20 in 2010 and have gone largely unpunished—in a sentencing just last week, Superintendant Mark Fenton, who ordered the illegal detainment and “kettling” of dozens of peaceful protestors received a formal reprimand and lost 30 days’ vacation, though he will keep his job.

I could go on. Ad nauseum.

What does all of this have to do with the police apologizing for the bathhouse raids? Consider that it’s taken them this long to apologize for targeting vulnerable, systemically abused communities like queer men and women. Consider the overlap of pot users, people of colour, sex workers, and activists within the queer and trans community. Consider that, given increased demands for oversight and an overhaul of systemic issues on an international scale, a problematic and systemically flawed institution like the Toronto Police Services might be looking for a sexy PR moment.

Take an apology, conveniently timed to coincide with the Pride season, with a heaping dose of skepticism. Maybe we’ll get an apology for all the other stuff in another 35 years.