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Farewell to Don Franco

Toronto man stood up to police in order to keep them out of our bedrooms

Donald Ferguson Franco, a lifelong gay activist, died Feb 3. He was 90. Credit: Xtra file photo

Donald Ferguson Franco, a lifelong gay activist, died Feb 3. He was 90.

At approximately 1:30am on Saturday, Dec 9, 1978, Toronto police stormed the Barracks, a small bathhouse focusing on BDSM. They tore the place apart and arrested 26 men, including Franco. In response, Franco joined the newly formed Right to Privacy Committee and helped organize a series of public demonstrations, which resulted in the police getting fewer guilty pleas than they would have liked.  

But that wasn’t the end of it. A police sergeant then took it upon himself to call various Toronto schools and give them the names of the six school teachers arrested in relation to the Barracks raid, including Franco’s. Franco enlisted the help of minister Brent Hawkes, who called for the sergeant to be disciplined. The teachers’ union also stood by Franco and the Toronto Board of Education chairperson, Fiona Nelson, issued a statement in support of Franco.

Still that wasn’t the end of it. Franco had a makeshift dungeon off the bedroom of his home and regularly advertised for partners in The Body Politic. A policeman, posing as a potential partner, responded to his ad, came over and arrested Franco during an initial conversation. Six more officers then burst in and confiscated several garbage bags full of Franco’s belongings. In a possible attempt to target Franco, they were trying to stretch the law concerning “common bawdyhouses” to include his apartment.

Franco was close to retirement and worried that a conviction might lead to losing his pension. He didn’t back down, and dozens of hearings later he was acquitted of the charge. He retired with full pension. His was an important early victory in the struggle for gay rights.

In a time when the fight for rights was savage, Franco was involved with just about every protest, group or movement. He was connected to varying degrees with AIDS Action Now, the Ontario Coalition for Gay Rights, the Campaign for Equal Families and the NDP, just to name a few. He got little credit for the work that he did and didn’t profit from his good deeds, but he is one of a select group of people who were involved in almost the entire history of the fight for gay rights in Canada.

His strength and passion seem to have pervaded other aspects of his life as well. He taught in high schools for approximately 40 years and was one of those rare teachers who students, even years later, would come back to visit and thank for his contribution to their lives.

NDP MP Olivia Chow, with whom he worked for many years, says, “He was the gay man who was central for pushing back against the persecution of the sex lives of homosexuals. It is no exaggeration to say that millions of Canadian LGBT people have rights today [that they wouldn’t otherwise have] if Don had not personally fought the good fight in court. Don is truly a real-life hero for freedom and dignity.”