Vancouver
4 min

Gay sex is not ‘indecent’

Why we must challenge Canada's bawdyhouse law

SAFE ENVIRONMENT: Bruce Freeman says bathhouses play a vital role within the gay community, providing a safe space for people to explore their sexuality. It shouldn't be up to the rest of society to tell gays how or where to have consensual sex, he says. Credit: Shelagh Anderson

CALGARY-Bruce Freeman was looking forward to testifying in Calgary’s gay bathhouse trial last week. But he never got the chance.



Freeman, an instructor and PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Calgary, instead sat quietly in the gallery while the judge postponed hearing any testimony in the case until at least Dec 2.



The charges date back to December 2002, when police raided Goliath’s Sauna and charged everyone inside with either keeping, or being found in, a common bawdyhouse. The four men facing keeper charges were in court Nov 17-18 to begin their trial, but they didn’t get very far. The judge adjourned the trial for a few weeks to sort out a disclosure problem with the police.



Freeman is hoping to testify in the accused keepers’ defence when the trial resumes. In the meantime, he has lots to say outside the courtroom about what is and isn’t indecent-and how police applied the bawdyhouse law to Calgary’s only gay bathhouse.



For starters, he doesn’t think anything indecent happened at Goliath’s at all. (And if nothing indecent happened, then it isn’t a bawdyhouse since Canada’s Criminal Code defines a bawdyhouse as a place where indecent acts and/or prostitution take place. Police have repeatedly pointed to indecent acts as their basis for prosecuting Goliath’s patrons, employees and owner.)



“I don’t think sex between two men is indecent,” Freeman explains, provided they’re both consenting adults.



“We need those safe environments for people to explore their sexuality,” he continues. That’s what a gay bathhouse is for: it’s a safe space where men can have sex with other men.



And there’s nothing indecent about that, Freeman repeats.



Stephen Lock agrees. He, too, has been watching the bathhouse trial very closely. “There are so few spaces that are truly gay,” he says. “Those we do have are very important to us. And to have those invadedÂ…” he trails off with a sigh.



The Goliath’s raid “really brought it home to the gay community that those spaces we do have, we have on sufferance-and can be taken away from us,” Lock says.



Granted, says Freeman, not all gay Calgarians share his and Lock’s views on bathhouses. Some like to “emulate heterosexual couples” and disdain bathhouse sex, he grumbles.



But many gay Calgarians seem to be angry about the Goliath’s raid and continue to root for the accused as their trial grinds slowly forward. A quick poll of Goliath’s adjacent bar, The Texas Lounge, conducted unscientifically after day one of the aborted trial, reveals unanimous support for the bathhouse, its patrons and its accused keepers.



One patron, who asked not to be named, calls the raid an excessive use of police resources. Another says officers should go after murderers, not gay men in bathhouses. Everyone agrees that police should leave consensual gay sex alone.



Meanwhile, the neighbourhood surrounding the unassuming back parking lot that leads to Goliath’s has been largely silent about the raid and the bathhouse in general.



That’s because it’s Calgary’s gay centre in the heart of the inner city, Freeman explains. It’s a neighbourhood “where all kinds of things happen” and nobody cares. A bathhouse, particularly a discreet one like Goliath’s, isn’t going to raise too many eyebrows.



And that’s likely to be a key consideration at some point in this trial, he notes. Eventually, it will all come down to community standards of tolerance-or what acts the court thinks the community at large will accept.



Of course, that’s a problem right there, Freeman continues. It shouldn’t be up to the community at large or the police to decide what constitutes an indecent act in a gay bathhouse.



But the Criminal Code offers few clues on how to define indecent acts, so the concept is really ambiguous, he says. And that gives the police too much power to interpret it however they see fit-and apply it arbitrarily.



In theory, that means police could decide that a movie theatre is a bawdyhouse and charge everyone inside as found-ins if they find some teenagers making out in the back row and decide they’re behaving indecently.



Of course, police are unlikely to do that, Freeman notes, because a movie theatre is a mainstream establishment.



But a gay bathhouse is not-and as Goliath’s discovered, it’s vulnerable.



Police are more likely to see minority sexual practices as deviant and label them indecent, Freeman explains, because indecency is in the eye of the beholder.



“Stereotypes are very deeply ingrained” in Calgary police, notes Freeman, who has been studying the local force ever since last December’s raid. The Calgary police force contains a lot of “macho straight boys” who interpret the world through their narrow framework of understanding, he adds.



And these are the same people who have the power to decide what is and is not indecent-and to arrest people accordingly. “It just terrifies me,” Freeman says. “I think it should frighten everybody.”



Freeman is hoping the court uses the accused keepers’ trial as an opportunity to re-evaluate the bawdyhouse section of the Criminal Code.



He’s also looking forward to Terry Haldane’s trial, which will likely start sometime next year. Haldane is one of the 13 men police charged as found-ins when they raided Goliath’s. The others all took the alternative-measures route. (That means they “accepted responsibility” for their alleged crime in order to avoid getting a permanent record and going through the trial process.)



But Haldane refused to take responsibility for an act he says shouldn’t be a crime in the first place. He has vowed to fight the charge and the law itself. He’s hoping to go to trial as soon as the court rules in the accused keepers’ case.



Haldane’s challenge is “vital to our community,” Freeman says. “I’m proud of Terry for having the gumption to expose himself in this way. [And] I’m very proud of [the accused keepers]” for having the courage to fight their charges, too.



The only way to change this law is to fight it, Freeman says. And the bawdyhouse law definitely needs changing. The gay community will remain vulnerable as long as “our sexual practices can be put under the microscope in a courtroom,” he concludes.