Yonge Street
4 min

A deliberate campaign against gay sexuality

TORONTO BATHHOUSE RIOTS / How gay Canadians fought their government and won

Peter Bochove (left) with business partner Arthur Whitaker after successfully securing the building permit for Toronto's Spa on Maitland in July 1990. Credit: (Andrew Adams)

On Feb 5, 1981, at 11:55pm, I learned the most valuable lesson of my life: we do not now and we never have lived in a free country. There is no other explanation for the invasion and utter destruction of the Richmond Street Health Emporium by an army of police officers armed with sledgehammers and crowbars, buoyed by the macho camaraderie a gang of thugs enjoys when its members believe there will be no consequences for their actions.

That belief was bolstered then by the politics of the day. The murder of shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques in the summer of 1977 by a group of deviants, who left his body on the roof of a Yonge St massage parlour, touched off a huge reaction from those in charge. According to the Toronto Sun, homosexuals were the equivalent of child molesters, something spouted in its pages every day by creatures like columnist Claire Hoy. Those self-same homosexuals — pedophiles — were becoming much too political. Much too visible. They were running an openly gay man, George Hislop, for Toronto city council. Toronto Mayor John Sewell was defending the queers at The Body Politic (Xtra’s predecessor) for advocating men having sex with boys. Now, roared the establishment, these homosexual pedophiles had killed a little boy. It was time to clean up the city.

First, a task force was assembled. That task force went out and systematically raided and closed Yonge St’s many body-rub parlours. That went without much fuss and very little complaint. Heterosexuals do not expect to be allowed to have sex without consequence. But then the task force was set loose on the queers. The gay community rose up en masse and took over the streets.

There are excellent pictures of undercover police marching at the head of the Feb 20, 1981, demonstration carrying one of our banners. Ironically, the Sun published pictures of other police officers attacking demonstrators that same night in Queen’s Park. Some of the officers had removed the badges from their hats so they couldn’t be identified. A City TV cameraman was clubbed over the head when he filmed a woman being dragged to the ground and beaten by three unidentified police officers. That film clip opened City TV’s newscast for months to follow. Demands were made for a public inquiry. Those demands fell on deaf ears.

Even after The Globe and Mail correctly called the 1981 bath raids the worst offence against Canadian civil liberties since the implementation of the War Measures Act in 1970, the Ontario government and Metro council, specifically Attorney General Roy McMurtry and Metro Chairman Paul Godfrey, would not be moved to launch an official inquiry.

The City of Toronto did its best. Aldermen David White and Pat Sheppard produced the White-Sheppard Report. The city hired Arnold Bruner to investigate and report on police relations with the gay community. But these inquiries did not have the authority to compel testimony from the province or police. The province and the police commission dug in their heels and refused to cooperate. The reports were accurate about what had happened to our community, but the government’s role remained shrouded in secrecy.

Quietly, the more sane members of the government and more rational members of police brass joined in a process of reconciliation with the gay community, one that continues to this day. Yet there were many more bumps in the road. The police decided that the community was angry because of the damage and violence associated with the raids. They pulled another raid on the Backdoor Gym and Sauna on June 16. They went in, were polite, arrested no one, broke nothing, stole nothing and handed out tickets. They also threatened the landlord with bawdyhouse charges. The landlord, not the police, closed the Backdoor baths. Immediately afterwards came the largest demonstration to date by an enraged community.

And still there were those who thought there might be a way to close these queers down once and for all. A small group of councillors and civil servants decided that they would stop issuing building permits for new bathhouses. Through changing land use and expiring leases, bathhouses would be wiped from the map without any more raids.

That resulted in legal action. The Spa on Maitland was not built because we were anxious to get back into this business. It was built so we could sue the City of Toronto and thereby put an end to this decade-long assault. The court recognized the legitimacy of our business, and with the help of then-city councillor Jack Layton and Toronto City Council we prevailed. It cost a ton of money and took almost a decade, but it left us free to sue and win against anyone who decided thereafter to attack us.

For those of you who might see this as merely an interesting bit of history, I suggest you look to the G20. It has since eclipsed the bathhouse raids as the greatest assault on civil liberties since the War Measures Act. The government will never allow a binding inquiry. And we may never know all of what happened behind the scenes. As with the bathhouse raids, no one will ever pay for their actions. The government felt free to assault its citizens with impunity. Gays and lesbians were singled out for special treatment. Large sections of our population, such as the transgendered and sex trade workers, remain less-than-equal citizens under the law and are still objects of institutionalized contempt.

While much has been accomplished over the last 30 years, much more remains to be done if we are ever to really live in this mythical free country. This community has a special obligation to see this work gets done. We’ve been there.

UPDATE 6 APR, 2011 – Track Two received its first public showing since 1981 at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre on March 26, 2011. Peter Bochove was one of four panellists who addressed the audience before the film began. The others were Ken Popert, Gerald Hannon and Mandy Goodhandy. Read the remarks he made on that night in An extremely harsh reality.
Peter Bochove was one of the proprietors of Toronto’s Richmond St Health Emporium in 1981. Today he is the proprietor of Toronto’s Spa Excess.
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