4 min

Hamilton simmers post-raid

Bathhouse sold, police defensive

Just one month after Hamilton’s Multi-Agency Task Force (MATF) visited three gay businesses in one evening – laying criminal charges against two patrons of the Warehouse Spa And Bath for alleged sexual acts – the outrage seems to have dimmed.

One of the problems is that there isn’t any obvious group to lead the charge.

Dana Ditomaso, president of the Greater Hamilton Lesbian And Gay Business Association, says her group won’t be getting involved.

“The direction that I have taken this year is staying away from the political stuff. I don’t necessarily agree with mixing politics and business,” says Ditomaso. “We’re a business organization first and foremost.”

Shortly after the Aug 3 incident, Hamilton’s gay and lesbian community hurriedly organized meetings and protested against the MATF and the charges. Of 14 establishments visted that night by the team of health, fire, by-law, liquor and police officials, three – a bathhouse, a porn theatre and a bar – have a gay clientele. Of the three criminal charges laid that night, two were against bathhouse patrons, allegedly for sexual activity in a video room at the back of the premises.

Since then the MATF has promised to review its policies and procedures and the two charged patrons have disappeared into the legal system. Co-owner Jamie Bursey had said he planned go to court to protest the incident – and then sold the business a few days later.

Chris Srnicek, who bought Toronto’s Central Spa last year, had been in negotiations to buy the Warehouse back in the spring from Bursey and his partner, but talks had cooled. Peter Bochove, who owns Toronto’s Spa Excess, had also talked to Bursey about buying it. Srnicek says Bursey was ready to talk after the raid. The business, comprised largely of closeted men, had dropped to a trickle. The Warehouse changed hands Aug 18.

“I think it really rattled them,” says Srnicek of Bursey and his partner. “I’m happy with the deal. I think they’re happy with it, too.”

Srnicek says he’s going to give the business a “huge scrub,” install opaque barriers in the parking lot to improve the privacy of the patrons and install a wrestling room. A name change is also in the works. He says he’s not concerned that Hamilton authorities will give him a hard time.

“I’d rather be doing business in a one-horse town. I’m not that worried about it. Guys need somewhere to go,” says Srnicek, who has a day job in real estate.

With the owners gone and the charged men not talking, Hamilton’s Gay Lesbian Bisexual Trans [GLBT] Advisory Committee talked about the issue at its Sep 1 meeting. Most people seem content to wait for the MATF to report back to the GLBT Police Task Force on Wed, Sep 8.

“I’m a little worried that our community is not responding dramatically enough,” says Melanie Parish, owner of the Twisted Magnolia bed and breakfast. “It’s hard for me personally because I have a hectic life.”

Parish says she doesn’t feel her business is at risk of an MATF visit because her clientele is mostly straight.

“We’re safe, which is one reason that I felt like I needed to show up [at a meeting of the city’s GLBT Advisory Committee]. I am not at risk and I think women-owned businesses are less at risk than male-owned businesses.”

The GLBT Police Task Force was originally formed in response to the police crackdown on men having sex with men at the Royal Botanical Gardens. In recent years it has faced declining attendance and community interest, hampering its ability to respond.

The GLBT Advisory Committee at the city is put together every three years through council appointments. When the Warehouse was busted, it had just been reconstituted for a month or so. The committee has agreed to write a letter to the mayor insisting on training about GLBT issues for all city MATF staff members.

Det-Sgt Mike Thomas of the vice and drug squad says he sees a value in establishments like bathhouses as long as they follow the rules and regulations.

“I do not think it would be inappropriate to tell men to find more private places. The public parks and the public washrooms are just not suitable really,” says Thomas.

Yet, he stands by the indecent act charges his officers laid.

“What exactly was happening inside the bathhouse will be coming out in the judicial process…. What exactly the officers found in the bathhouse is what we believe substantiated the facts that led to the charge,” says Thomas.

Thomas says the raid of three gay-oriented businesses in one night was a mere coincidence. Police have repeatedly claimed that all businesses are treated equally and that no identifiable group should consider themselves to be at risk.

Parish disagrees. “I think that gay businesses are really unique because when the [MATF] comes in, they could lose their customers forever. I don’t care that they treat everyone the same – they need to treat gay businesses differently…. The intent is very different than the effect.”

Activist Niki Gately wants to fight back against the fear and negativity coming out of the Warehouse incident. She is working to plan a women and trans bathhouse night in Hamilton to encourage the community to stand up for safe sexual spaces.

“Running a women’s bathhouse would create solidarity with men who have sex with men,” says Gately. “But also it would say proudly that queer sexuality and sensuality are perfectly healthy and normal and that having safer, no-nonsense sex in friendly, positive spaces is, while proudly deviant – ie not mainstream – a lot of fun.”

Gately says that the overwhelming success of the Pussy Palace in Toronto has encouraged folks to give it a try there.

“There is such a lack of women-only sex-positive spaces. Women now are becoming more interested in challenging traditional heterosexist stereotypes about their roles vis-à-vis their sexuality and their partners,” Gately says.