8 min

An extremely harsh reality

Looking back on the 1981 bathhouse riots

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

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.

Peter spoke from a prepared text that is presented here, only slightly edited. In it, he draws parallels between the 1981 bathhouse raids and the attack on peaceful demonstrators that occurred during the 2011 G20 Summit in Toronto.

In 1981 I was the co-founder and president of the Richmond Street Health Emporium, my first business venture. I was 27 years old when we built it; I had some hair and a waistline. I was 32 years old when it was smashed to pieces by an invading force of police officers.

On Thursday night, Feb 5, at just a few minutes past 11pm I was standing on the second floor looking down into the atrium of the Richmond Street Health Emporium when the first of a gang of thugs burst through the front doors. I thought they were bikers. They were, of course, the police. Over the two hours that followed, before I was processed out, I listened to Richmond Street being destroyed, a destruction so complete that it never recovered. Penned up on the first floor, with about half of the 156 customers, we couldn’t see what was happening, but we could certainly hear it. Drywall, glass, marble, metal – all these things make horrendous noise when hit with boots, crowbars and sledgehammers. It’s a noise I can still hear when I close my eyes and concentrate. Occasionally that noise will wake me in the middle of the night. That’s good. Because I never want to forget.

Tonight you will get a brief glimpse of Richmond Street. The opening scenes of Track Two include the swimming pool on the main floor, a pool from which we first had to remove the emptied cigarette machine that the police had tossed in before filming could commence. You will see the re-enactment of the raids, filmed in the main lobby of Richmond Street, one of the few areas that remained intact. And you will see the incredible damage that was done to the facility as Harry Sutherland’s camera follows photographer Norman Hatton and manager Brian Rhodes on a tour of the smashed Emporium. For that reason alone Track Two is a valuable historical tool because no other images exist from this wonderful bathhouse, gone these 30 years.

I was brought face to face that night with an extremely harsh reality. To that point, I really did believe we lived in a free country. I was wrong. In the 30 years that followed I have had no reason to change my mind on that score. The provincial government of the day and the police force they empowered felt free to attack us, citizens of this country, not because we were criminals, but because we were different. We were becoming vocal. We were organizing politically. We were running candidates for political office. We were beginning to behave as citizens. That could not be tolerated. Although the exact motivations remain hidden, and now always will be, there can be no doubt that the bathhouse raids were meant to intimidate and punish the community that dared, at long last, stand up for itself. There is no doubt these raids were intended as an opening salvo meant to terrify us and drive us back underground so we could be tortured individually and at will, a practice the police of the day had perfected.

For the first 24 hours after the first sledgehammer sailed into the first wall, I was afraid that this tactic might work. I was exhausted, heartbroken and furious, all at the same time. That night I attended the rally that had been called in the intersection of Yonge and Wellesley. I went with a group of about 100 customers who were coming with me from Katrina’s Tavern on St Joseph St. We turned onto Yonge St and then I saw what was waiting up ahead. People. The intersection at Yonge and Wellesley was already full and people continued to flow in. The crowd turned into a mass and that mass took over the street. It went from a protest rally to a mass takeover of Yonge St. It was a moment so liberating, so empowering, that it effected real change. That rally helped to focus public opinion on what had happened to us. If the raids were meant to frighten us, the bathhouse riots scared the hell out of those responsible.

Tonight’s film is also the only really complete look at that rally, and those that followed. This mass demonstration, the width of Yonge St and several blocks long, is captured on film. Thanks to Pink Triangle Press, this moment in our history is now preserved digitally for all to see.

Again I speak of history, but Track Two is much more than that. There are a few things I would like you to think about as you watch this film.

First of all, let’s talk about free speech. For one thing, there was no such thing as a “free speech area” in 1981. A free speech area is the invention of modern-day dictators. The whole goddamned country was a free speech area and, while we weren’t really free, we were free to bitch about it anywhere we wanted to. That we wound up on the lawn of Queen’s Park was our own idea; we weren’t told in advance that we could speak freely there and not be attacked by the police. Watch the Queen’s Park footage and see if it has a G20 resonance for you, as it certainly does for me.

Free speech factored on the other side as well. They were free to call us “queers,” “faggots” and “fruits” in their newspapers: specifically, the Toronto Sun and the police union’s News and Views, to say nothing of the hate literature put out by such religious organizations as The People’s Church. Free speech, however, did not really work in their favour. I believe that the violence done to our community coupled with the vicious hatred that our enemies printed in their papers helped to turn the flood of public opinion. The Toronto Star, not long after this business began, ran a poll that simply asked the public if they thought the police were unnecessarily prejudiced against homosexuals. The staggering results: 63 percent of respondents said, yes, they were. Free speech may not always be agreeable. But it can, as it was on this occasion, be helpful. Our enemies and their motives were easy to pinpoint and expose. The public at large proved perfectly capable of figuring that out for themselves. Canadians are not a particularly hateful bunch. They weren’t then and they aren’t now. When people are given the objective facts, they prove to be capable of deciding for themselves.

Let’s talk about the roots of Pride. It is widely acknowledged that the bathhouse raids are the roots of Pride. Prior to this series of events, Pride was a sidewalk affair with few attendees. After 1981 it set up in the street. Pride, in that decade, was synonymous with the strong new political voice of the gay community. It was a reminder to politicians and other enemies that we had teeth and we were prepared and able to bite. It was a melting pot of political ideas and viewpoints and the hallmark of a very united community. Yes, today’s Pride is more about the party than the message and maybe that’s a good thing, I don’t know. For me, when large groups of gay people meet, be it to riot or to party, that statement is political and not something of which we need be ashamed.

Finally, pay attention to the police tactics outlined in Track Two. Notice that four police officers carry the banner at a demonstration. Notice that the police officers at Queen’s Park have removed their hat badges so they could not be identified as they set about the physical assault of the demonstrators. Ask yourself if this isn’t what you watched on television over the summer as Stephen Harper decided to spend a billion dollars of our money to assault the citizens of this country here in our city.

Understand, as you watch Harry’s film, that there was no binding inquiry into the bathhouse raids, although countless organizations called for one. We were stonewalled at every turn and, as a result, no one was ever held accountable. No one was ever punished. It was an extremely successful tactic, perhaps the only victory the opposition actually scored.

Be aware that this same dynamic is at play with the G20. There will be no inquiry, there will be nothing other than the token assignment of blame to one brutal police officer. There will be no justice.

Left in the wake of the G20 is a police force that is now armed to the teeth with riot gear, sound cannons and a ton of experience attacking the law-abiding citizens of this country. The experiment, imprisoning a thousand people in cages for the crime of engaging in peaceful protest for long periods of time without adequate food, water and medical care was, for people like Stephen Harper, an unqualified success.

Tonight you will see a film that documents what The Globe and Mail correctly labelled the worst offence against Canadian civil liberties since the implementation of the War Measures Act of 1970. At that time The Globe was correct. Since then, however, the bathhouse raids have been eclipsed by the atrocity that was the G20.

The state, despite all you will see tonight, still feels free to assault and attack its citizens for practising their fundamental civil liberties, their right to peaceful assembly, their right to peaceful protest. All three levels of government are complicit. Stephen Harper is responsible.

Have we moved forward since 1981? Yes and no. A series of attacks on the gay community followed the 1981 bathhouse raids. Finally, by the mid-’80s the organized attacks on bathhouses ended. Political plotting to finish them was foiled in 1990 with the successful conclusion of a lawsuit against the City of Toronto. On a smaller scale, the fight was not over. The raids on The Barn, the Bijou and finally the Pussy Palace in 2000 were not organized on the wide scale that the bathhouse raids had been. That was small comfort to those arrested. It took the Pussy Palace raid to finally result in a lawsuit against the police department, a lawsuit the women won. The G20 was another example of why the gay community cannot yet fully exhale. Identifiable gays were isolated in detention and subjected to special mistreatment. Such is the long history of this community.

The take-home message of the film Track Two, the bathhouse raids and the varied assaults that followed is simple really. We, as a community, need to be especially vigilant. At this point, as our democracy is ground down to accommodate the looting of the middle class and the war on poverty is replaced by the war on the poor, it is all too easy for us to say, “Well, we are equal now. We can get married.”

Let’s not be confused, even momentarily. The tactics the police and the politicians have perfected over the last 30 years have an end result in mind. When the population finally has been pushed to the brink, they will again take over the streets. This time the police are better armed and much more experienced. They know that they can do whatever it takes to beat down all protest and opposition, as do their political masters. The gay community will again be targeted for special treatment; of that, I have no doubt.

How we rise to this coming assault will define us in the years to come. We must always remain vigilant and ready to respond. That’s what happened on the night of Feb 6, 1981, the beginning of our long road to equality.

I want to finish by expressing my heartfelt gratitude to those wonderful people, people like Bob Gallagher and Denis Findlay and all the rest who organized The Right To Privacy Committee. I want to thank Ken Popert, Gerald Hannon, Chris Bearchell and the rest of the Body Politic Collective for the incredible role they played in organizing and reacting to these raids. Without these people, the outcome could have been very different. I want to thank Harry Sutherland and his team for making the film and Ken Popert and Pink Triangle Press for preserving it. I want to thank the people who congregated all these years ago in the intersection of Yonge and Wellesley. You changed our world.