On Feb 5, 1981, Toronto police staged the largest mass arrest in Canada since the October Crisis, raiding four bathhouses in Toronto’s gay village. After a long investigation into alleged prostitution and “indecent acts,” 200 officers stormed the Barracks, the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, the Richmond Street Health Emporium and the Club Baths. Though no prostitution was discovered, police charged 20 owners with operating “bawdy houses,” and charged 286 as found-ins, which the Globe notes was not the norm when straight bathhouses were raided. Today it is known both as Canada’s Stonewall and as a major turning point for the queer struggle in Canada.
Police entered the bathhouses around 11 pm, according to most reports, after breaking down the doors. Officers lined naked patrons against the walls and began breaking open and raiding the lockers, which usually had the patrons’ clothes. During this time, those charged reported cases of verbal, physical and sexual abuse by police, with one officer being named “the animal,” for threatening to reveal married patrons’ activities to their wives (as police had done similarly in previous raids). Torontoist reports that an officer told patrons lined up against the walls of a shower room that, “I wish these pipes were hooked up to gas so I could annihilate you all.” Worse, PlanetOut quotes a patron who says he was punched in the face by an officer shouting that he was a “disgusting faggot,” until his nose was bloody. Those charged were transported to the police station where Torontoist notes, one patron said he “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.”
This was neither the first bathhouse raid Toronto had seen, nor the last, but it was the largest and it was the one that politicized the community, to the most significant extent. A 1982 documentary on the raids called Track 2: Enough is Enough opens with a placard reading that the raids “served to remind us that gays and lesbians in North America are still not accepted as a legitimate minority, in spite of the changes that have occurred,” such as the 1969 law that legalized gay sex. Though gays and lesbians had been given formal rights, it was clear to much of the community, following the raids, that they amounted to very little. They responded with justifiable outrage.
Immediately after the raids, the Body Politic and others called an emergency community meeting, organizing collective legal defence for those charged and demanding that the community take to the streets to call for an overhaul of Toronto policing policy. Over the next twelve hours, activists handed out flyers to whoever would take them at Toronto’s gay bars with the phrase “enough is enough,” advertising a demonstration at Yonge and Wellesley. To the organizers’ surprise, 3,000 people showed up on Feb 6, to march against the raids. Xtra calls this “a coalition,” of those who felt “under siege,” including those charged, other patrons, sympathizers and members of the Toronto left. Their eloquent chants included “no more shit,” and “fuck you, 52,” in reference to the police unit that organized the arrest, while a speaker proclaimed that “we won’t stop until the cops are under control.”
When the march reached Yonge and Dundas, they met what Torontoist refers to as a “human barricade of 200 officers,” which some marchers clashed with. Those who didn’t want to get arrested marched to Queen’s Park to bang on the doors of the legislature, instead. There, the marchers demanded legislative action, including human rights protections for gays and lesbians, a policy that even the NDP was moving away from. Eventually, violence broke out between police and protesters and at the end of the night, Torontoist notes that the march’s “toll was 11 arrests, one injured police officer, one damaged police car, and four smashed windows in a streetcar.”
In the aftermath, the Ontario Federation of Labour, the Labour Council of Metropolitan Toronto, and the Ontario Association of Professional Social Workers passed resolutions condemning the raids, taking a firm and progressive stand against all forms of oppression. Unfortunately, this was not shared by the Ontario NDP, which, under pressure from the right wing, refused to take a stand against the raids, to “protect,” party’s electoral chances. The Globe reported that “Leader Michael Cassidy was criticized for saying that sensitive issues such as homosexual rights should not be discussed during election campaigns. He said the issue, which gained prominence after police raids on four Toronto bathhouses last winter, was not a priority.” This repulsed some of the grassroots members and the left of the party, which forced the issue back onto the agenda soon after.
The next rally saw 4,000 outside of the legislature demanding, among other things an immediate inquiry into the raids, in addition to an end to abuse more broadly. In Track 2, then-Body Politic columnist Ken Popert says the raids lead to “gay people seeing themselves in ways that they’ve never seen themselves before, that is as members of a minority group, the word community is starting to be used a lot [and others, suggesting that] people no longer think of themselves as gay individuals but rather as members, a group of people with whom they share a lot and with whom their destiny is somehow bound up.” Similarly, Torontoist quotes Burke Campbell, who writes that people at the march were joking that “we should do this all the time.” This suggests that the organizing that followed the raids prompted the previously atomized community to adopt a more collective outlook. Many note that the radicalism, the labour ties and the community spirit of the anti-raid movement laid the basis for the AIDS activism that followed. Here, we see the queer community’s consciousness, forged out of oppression, moving from bourgeois demands for non-interference, after the raids, to more progressive economic demands; these included, among other things, comprehensive healthcare, public housing, income support and anti-poverty measures.
Sadly, this more-radical history has largely been forgotten. For a variety of reasons, (including the community being devastated in the 1980s), the more conservative and privileged end of the community became the predominant one. Protest signs and megaphones were exchanged for wedding rings and Starbucks cups and today, the once-radical queer community is barely recognizable. This has been to the detriment of the community’s more oppressed layers, particularly those who are poor, Trans or racialized.
In the wake of the Orlando shooting, the queer community has been compelled to hide behind the state, for protection from homophobes. However, it is important that the community remember that government has seldom been its ally. Bearing this in mind, it is useful to recall the traditions, lessons and spirit of the movement against the bathhouse raids. In the final analysis, the only power the exploited and oppressed have to rely on is their own.
Although, human rights protections and other reforms have improved the lives of LGBT people, there’s no guarantee that they will stick. With far-right movements gaining traction around the world, there is a possibility that LGBT people could find themselves in an increasingly precarious position. Additionally, the current crisis of capitalism has always fell hardest on oppressed minorities, who face greater barriers to housing, employment and services. A new economic crisis, which seems more likely to occur every day, will worsen their conditions and dampen their rights claims. It is therefore essential that LGBT people be ready to fight. A united struggle with labour and the coalition of oppressed groups, of the sort that surfaced after the raids, is the best way to ensure that their rights aren’t trampled on and that new protections are carried forward.