8 min

A firsthand account of the 1981 Toronto bathhouse riots

'What on earth am I doing this for?'

McLeod at his home on Tranby Ave in Toronto, sometime in the 1970s.
The account below was written by Philip McLeod in the days following the Toronto bathhouse raids. McLeod died on May 31, 2010. He was 86.

Feb 8, 1981

Dear Biwy and dear Robert:
What a weekend! This one started at around 11pm Thursday, although it was only at 1am that one of my tenants knocked on my door to tell me that the baths had been raided.
One of the staff of the Roman Sauna ($1,800 worth of damage done to cubicle doors) had telephoned another of my tenants. He had been summonsed. What should he do now? Would his landed immigrant status be put in jeopardy? Unfortunately, Harvey Hamburg was not in. Harvey articles (is “articling”) for the Human Rights Commission. (It has refused to soil its hands with gay rights, so far). The following morning The Globe carried a brief item in a front-page box. Throughout the day, as one talked to various people by phone, the story got spread through the “community.” A lot of ad hoc work got done, and by nightfall leaflets were being passed through the bars announcing a mass demonstration at Yonge and Wellesley.
There is no champ de Mars spaciousness about that intersection. But there is a certain amount of room on the front steps of the office buildings. The one on the northwest corner became the rallying point. I got there at 11:45pm. ‘What on earth am I doing this for?’ I asked myself as I started on foot from Tranby. I haven’t marched since the end of WW II. I know homosexuality is something you “do in the dark,” but I hadn’t expected myself to be marching in the middle of Yonge St in the middle of the night with about 2,000 others.
Two thousand? Who could say. When you’re inside a foule you can’t determine what its size is because you can’t see where it starts and where it ends. “Lift me up, I want to see how many people are here,” one fellow said to his friend. We watched him hoisted. “Jesus Christ!” he shrieked.
But to come back to my starting point at Yonge and Wellesley. Police in pairs, but not in great numbers, stood in doorways along the west side of Yonge. I stood and read a pamphlet entitled “Enough Is Enough” and with strategy absorption (under the watching – I hoped – eyes of the pair of policemen nearby) slowly read the message and stroked my beard thoughtfully and then crossed the street to join the crowd on the steps.
Some of them were thrilling the streets with cruising whistles, little plastic ear-splitters used in Greenwich Village to frustrate Friedkin when he was down there on his visit!
“I’m a fag,” one of the posters read. “Stop the cops.” The whistles set up a chorus. There is no message to the public in whistles. I suddenly decided we needed to say something. People were going by. They could sense something was afoot. But fairies don’t all look like fairies any longer. And there were only three or four small posters on sticks. I faced the group on the steps. I spread my arms. Was I supposed to be Toscanini? Or did I look like Lawrence Welk? “Stop the cops,” I shouted. “Stop the cops” came back. In a minute our oratorio of chants was in full throat. “No more raids.” “Gays have rights.”
Voices would invent a chant. Everyone would join in. Then the miracle of our coalescing anger became manifest. Out of the cold dark the thousands came. They packed the pavement. They overflowed into the gutter. Cars began to slow down. One by one, in groups, trekking in from the bars, the gays came on. Within half an hour all traffic was being rerouted. The intersection (see Sunday Star, page 2, Feb 8) was packed. Here was the “rampage” in smiling shouting, laughing, hugging assembly. And here at last was the sound truck, here the speakers (“And now a few words from one of the found-ins.” “Well, like – Hi-ya – like, y’see last night I decided to have myself a little quiet social evening…’ A roar of approval. Peter Maloney (quondam nominee for the Liberal candidate). Rev Brent Hawkes (Metropolitan Community Church – the fastest-growing congregation in the city). Chris Burchell (resident dyke at The Body Politic – the best speaker, short punchy “No more shit” – her phrase – statement that became one of the recurring chants of the march). Media lights flared on and we could see where our speakers were addressing us from…. Jim Monk (Coalition for Gay Rights) said, “We’re going to march down Yonge to Dundas, along Dundas to 52 Division. And remember: this is a peaceful demonstration. There is to be no violence.” The crowd shouted back “march, march, march…” “Follow the marshall carrying the flag.”
I turned around with the rest and faced south. We began to move like a mass of ice. The black flag fluttered. The chanting was incessant. Up ahead I could hear, “No more raids!” Behind I could hear “Stop the cops.” “No more shit,” I chanted. It is the stuff a gay composer could make something of, once the gay composers come of age. Those in maturity are too deeply compromised by the closetry of their formative years to achieve the significant musical statements they might have made.
We badly needed songs on Friday night. “We Shall Overcome” broke out and died away, then no more singing. Scattered homophobes came out of their bars and one or two taunted us. At least their mouths were moving. You couldn’t hear them in the rhythmic roar of the march. Policemen kept abreast of the march. At Dundas they placed their cruisers at odd angles across the road. It forced the mass to file between the cars. Was this a provocation? Did they expect us to grow violent and overturn their cars? We slowed and moved past their obstruction. I saw one unmarked automobile being rocked. Two of the marshalls rushed forward and shouted down the attack on the car and offenders rejoined the march.
A streetcar halted and we flowed around it. One fellow climbed up and spread his placard for the driver and the riders to read. There were no more than three passengers. Our rampage may have produced the broken window the Star so faithfully gave its readers. A “rampage.” Laughable. With all that chanting the march was plainly a chantage or (given one or two of the speeches) a rantage. And anyway, how can you tell when a window gets broken that the force that broke it was gay?
A line of adolescent homophobes obstructed the line by linking arms across Dundas and University. Did the proximity of the police station embolden them? In their short span they have learned one thing: queers always turn and run. Their gesture looked like courage. They collided with the front edge of the march. A skirmish broke out. The mass rolled them to one side and went on. I had left the march a block before at Elizabeth St. It was there that we were halted for a moment.
Suddenly from a second-floor window of what is Chinatown, hands began to applaud and continued to clap. Just shadows in the frame of the windows showering us with a little blessing. I hadn’t come for a march. I thought I was going to praise speakers and make a donation and go home. I was trembling with the cold. I decided to get a coffee at the bus station nearby. It was 1:05am when I got there. The owner was computing the day’s receipts above the open drawer of his till. I looked out onto Bay. No coffee shop in sight. I walked up Bay, a little soothed by the quiet that now surrounded me. I reached the Roman Sauna. Twenty-four hours before, it had been vandalized by the hooligan-like members of the morality squad. But it was open for business.
“Hi. I don’t want a room. Can you sell me a cup of coffee? I’ll drink it here in the lobby. I’ve just left the march.” Not unnaturally, I was studied with wariness.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m glad you’re open.”
“Well, not right now. They’re still fixing the doors,“ he said. “Sugar?”
He got my coffee ready, opened the door and took my 50 cents through the aperture needed to get the cup through. Still a little uncertain, a potential customer was turned back while I stood drinking my coffee. I asked him if he had a car. I had decided to start for home. Would he drive me to Bloor and Avenue Rd?
“Oh, I’m afraid I can’t do that” he pleaded.
So I walked home, stopping at the Harvey’s at Bloor and Bedford for coffee. Some of the marchers came in. We smiled at one another but said nothing because the stools seemed filled with straight couples.
I lay awake most of Friday night. Luckily the march was on a Friday. An event of this kind enters the record. What good does it do? Bryan Woods, who lives here, met that refrain repeatedly when he was leafleting the bars early Friday evening. I don’t mind people who have laboured a long time – some have been in the movement now for a decade – taking that position. Moreover, I don’t quite know what good a march does. I feel the straights are so profoundly imbued with sexual reticence as a mass, that until the liberating forces working within their community can make headway, all that we achieve will be gestures of despair… well, not quite, despair. But, historically, the gay movement is working from outside against an impenetrable, fearfully well-armed (I have left out the vituperation the morality squad has as part of its arsenal, both in the baths and at 52 Divison station) disorder of the moral faculty. At least one voice had a sane comment, Ken Campbell, pathologically anti-gay but (mirabile dictu) he wondered whether the raid on the baths was necessary. Perhaps we are doing some good, after all.
Feb 9, 1981
This morning at 7am, Harvey Hamburg’s mother telephoned him… She and his father are in Miami for the winter. They saw a report with a picture in The Miami Herald of the Friday night March… was her son safe?… Richard saw the march from an interesting angle. He was dining with three or four straight couples in an apartment on the 20th floor of Sutton Place… the apartment is at the southeast corner… they had a view from there of the crowd filling the Wellesley and Yonge intersection…they drew open the window a little and could very plainly hear the chants rising from the crowd. The consensus of the party was, “Good. The police have no right bothering homosexuals like that.” Of course, they know Richard is gay… “a queer is a nonsexual gentleman who has just left the room!”
Tonight John Argue, a candidate for nomination as an avowed gay, lost out to Dan Leckie, a straight but gay-positive opponent. A gay contingent went to the meeting to put John in. Word got round. Leckie got out his straight supporters. He won by 30 or so votes. Peter Maloney is going to do the same thing tomorrow night at the Liberal nomination meeting. If he loses, George Hislop may simply move into the riding and run as an independent on a gay rights ticket. The gay community here is in marvelous turmoil. Tomorrow night we’re going to meet at Jarvis Collegiate for another show of strength that will bring the media in again with their cameras to provide witness that the homosexuals are revolting. Chief Ackroyd, looking like Erich von Stroheim, assured TV viewers (by way of demonstrating that he, who authorized the commando-like raids that started all this fuss, is a man of principle) that the names of the “found-ins” would not be released to the press until the accused make their court appearances. Their appearance in court at the end of the week is likely to produce another media event.
I started this rigmarolish letter with the intention of presenting John Damien’s plight. He commenced his seventh year on the day of the raids. I will continue to give him $100 a month for 1983. I hand over that amount plus 25 from two other supporters. I get the 100 from a doctor who makes use of my premises on a regular basis but does not live here. He gives me a 100 dollar bill. I give it to Johnny. Can you find it within your means to continue support for another year? I can only ask. Any rhetorical appeal I might make could not match the appeal of events themselves. I would be tickled if you could enlist some of our community in Ottawa. John’s case is awaiting reference to another lawyer who is going to review the case and advise which of two routes to take: one of them is to sue the estate of O’Mulvaney.
When am I going to see you.