On Feb 5, 1981, 30 years ago, more than 150 Toronto police descended on the city’s gay bathhouses, arresting more than 300 innocent men. It was part of a deliberate and organized campaign by government and police to push gay baths and bars out of business, to silence the gay press and to remove gay voices from public discourse.
Gay people were not new to discrimination in February of 1975 when Montreal police raided that city’s Sauna Aquarius. But that is really where the story of the 1981 bathhouse riots starts. For at least the next six years, police in various cities across the country steadily increased their harassment of the gay press and gay men in gay spaces. In March of 1979, for example, an issue of the Toronto police publication, News and Views, featured a story entitled “The Homosexual Fad.”
“Now that they have become arrogant and militant, like so many other aberrant groups; now that many of them tell us there is nothing wrong with seducing young boys into a ‘homosexual way of life,’ they want the right to distribute papers such as [Xtra’s predecessor] The Body Politic,” it reads in part. “So, let’s not be fooled by them. All they want to do is legitimize sodomy and fellatio between members of the same sex.”
Gay people had, of course, previously fought police harassment, but the events in Toronto in the first half of 1981 were watershed for the liberation movement in Canada. The activist chops refined then equipped gay people across the country to fight censorship, win partnership and employment rights, demand reasonable treatment from government, face HIV/AIDS, fight homophobic violence and win marriage rights.
We’ve assembled a feature, looking back on the bathhouse raids and riots and examining the impact of those events on Canadian society. There you will find a basket of audio and video clips, additional photos and an interactive time-line of events.
The highlight of the online iteration is the reborn documentary Track Two. It is a rare and unique record of the Toronto raids and riots. Shot originally on 16mm film and nearly lost to history, it adds a level of humanity and texture to the Toronto bathhouse riots saga that eludes photography and the printed word.
While researching this project I was surprised by how little complete source material there is, so I’d like to thank the good people at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives for keeping these stories alive.
But really, simple thanks sometimes seem so insufficient. Virtually all the found-ins stood their ground when it would have been so much easier, faster and safer to simply plead guilty. The members of The Right to Privacy Committee skillfully organized the defence of those men. The members of The Body Politic Collective covered the events even in the midst of a campaign to starve and harass the paper out of print. So many women leaped into the fray even though bathhouses usually aren’t for them. And hundreds of people faced police and homophobic thugs in the streets of Toronto, eyeball to eyeball, risking everything.
To all of you: you’ve given us — the gay people who came after — so much.