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11 min

Harnessed anger

The sound of smashing bathhouse doors in 1981 is still with us

Credit: Joshua Meles

The Toronto bathhouse raids, which happened 25 years ago this month, might seem like ancient history, but they are history that lives with us.

Just before midnight on Feb 5, 1981, more than 150 police officers swept into four gay bathhouses — Club Baths, the Romans II Health And Recreation Spa, the Richmond Street Health Emporium and, for the second time in three years, the Barracks — arresting 286 men as found-ins in a common bawdy house, and 20 men as common bawdy-house keepers. It was the largest mass arrest since the invocation of the War Measures Act in 1970. The police purposely tried to humiliate and shame the gay men, making cracks about faggots and Vaseline. Wielding crowbars and hammers, the police busted things up big time; damage was so extreme at Richmond Street that it never reopened except as a temporary exhibit for those curious to see what police had done.

The raids happened against a backdrop of struggle and tension in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Gay and lesbian people were not covered under federal nor provincial human rights legislation, and police regularly conducted sweeps arresting gay men in bathhouses and parks. A handful of activists struggled for change but the response up to this time was minimal.

The day after the raids, a meeting at the offices of The Body Politic (TBP) magazine (Xtra’s predecessor) led to a protest at midnight. Expecting a few hundred people, organizers were astounded when more than 3,000 came. Two weeks later, 4,000 took to the streets. For the next few months more protests were held.

Those police raids and more importantly the immediate and impassioned community response, helped shape a distinctive queer community in Toronto. The raids strengthened us, created new bonds and gave us a desire to speak up and fight back. We have evolved into a community where queer sex has a public, mainstream face, rather than being hidden in the shadows of respectability. Where there is a political price to pay for oppression.

When the AIDS crisis hit a few years later, other cities closed their bathhouses but Toronto fought to keep them — they are now recognized in municipal law — and use them as sites of safe-sex outreach. Unlike in more prudish cities, groups like Totally Naked Toronto Men Enjoying Nudity march in Pride along with leather men and women who flog each other. A women’s committee hosts popular bathhouse nights, unheard of in other big cities.

After the raids, the grassroots demands that police be held accountable for their actions led to city council commissioning a report on police relations with queer people. The report by Arnold Bruner, released in September 1981, called on the city to recognize the gay and lesbian community as a legitimate one. Many of Bruner’s recommendations have been implemented over the past 25 years. Many of the lessons learned from the raids have been ingrained in the Toronto way of doing things.

The energy harnessed from the raids — and the queer people who drank it up and became leaders whose influence continues 25 years later — cemented queer culture in Toronto in a way that affirmed the centrality of sex, sexual spaces and radical defiance, as well as the power of anger. Here’s a quick tour of some (emphasis on the word “some”) of the people and organizations who influenced the response to the raids — and people influenced by that response.

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The Right To Privacy Committee (RTPC) had been a small protest group, formed after the 1978 raid on the Barracks, presenting a position that sex out of the sight of unwilling participants shouldn’t be an offence. After the 1981 raids, the group came to play a key role, including the coordination of efforts to have the arrested men fight the charges. The committee also organized Toronto Gay Street Patrol to improve safety and helped lobby for gay and lesbian rights.

Tim McCaskell, an RTPC member and a TBP member who became, among other things, an influential presence in Toronto’s school system, says the RTPC’s first big community meeting at Jarvis Collegiate created a new and broad-based form of response by Toronto queers.

“The RTPC core people were there and helped formulate [the room’s emotion and anger] into a couple of real demands,” says McCaskell, 54. “They took that crowd of 1,000 people… had breakout rooms set up so that people went off to sign up to join committees that were focussing on political tasks: fundraising, court watch, street safety, street patrol, legal response. All of that anger was put into actions.”

David Rayside, a member of The Body Politic collective and the RTPC who is now director of the Centre For Sexual Diversity Studies at the University Of Toronto, says the beauty and success of the RTPC was that it created a variety of strategies within one organizational structure. A sister organization paid court-related expenses for those charged in the raids. (The approach was echoed in the defence fund set up after the liquor licensing charges laid against women’s bathhouse organizers in 2000.)

“It was part of an important goal to convince people to not plead guilty,” says Rayside, 58. The pattern had been that people arrested in bathhouse, bar or park sex raids would, out of shame, plead guilty, resulting in police using arrests as a scare tactic that was rarely scrutinized by judges.

Rayside and McCaskell both name the late George Smith as instrumental in the RTPC. It had been somewhat disorganized until Smith took charge. Smith’s model for that first meeting — allowing those affected by the raids to stand up and speak first — revved up the crowd and created the tension needed to motivate people to take action. Seven years later, he would follow a nearly identical format in helping with the mobilization of AIDS activists through AIDS Action Now.

Rayside says the raids represented a major change in how gay and lesbian people were viewed by society.

“It extended our reach into progressive circles outside of the gay community and in some respects helped make the gay and lesbian community a player in Toronto politics.”

McCaskell says the raids bonded the community together, forging connections between unlikely factions.

“At the time there was a little clutch of activists mostly around The Body Politic and some other organizations like CGRO [Coalition For Gay Rights In Ontario, which later added “lesbian” to its name],” he says. “They were all students or fresh out of school, young lefty middle-class arrogant gay liberationists, always had their nose slightly turned up at this ghetto culture which was not political enough.

“There was this new business community that was seen by the radicals as untrustworthy capitalists just out for themselves. People in the scene tended to look at the activists as people who were always looking to upset the apple cart.”

Those boundaries melted as activists, gay businesses owners and even homos who just wanted mainstream acceptance realized they had common goals.

“I think it was more fundamental than anybody knew,” says McCaskell. “What you saw was the path that Toronto went down in terms of dealing with the AIDS epidemic was different than all the other centres where in fact all the baths were closed because of an ‘alliance’ between public health and the gay community. In Toronto, because we had just organized a community to defend the baths, that wasn’t about to happen.”

Leanne Cusitar, a sexual health educator and activist, says McCaskell helped her see the links between the 1981 raids and the Pussy Palace raid in 2000, which saw organizers charged with liquor offences after male police officers came up empty-handed searching the place for criminal activity. Those charges were eventually withdrawn when a judge ruled that the women’s rights had been violated.

“At the first protest meeting at The 519 [Community Centre], I recall very clearly Tim speaking as to how he felt as though this wasn’t an isolated incident, that it wasn’t based on complaints, but it was a move on the part of the police similar to the moves the police made before ’81,” she says.

Cusitar, 39, says she’s also been influenced in her work by the late Robert Trow, a founder of Hassle Free Clinic who was charged in the raids — he had been on site testing men for sexually transmitted disease.

Cusitar likes how Toronto groups focussed on topics like policing or public health are able to negotiate common interests in order to help people without moralizing at them. Cusitar says Toronto’s unique climate has allowed a proliferation of sex-positive events including private sex parties, trans acceptance at bathhouses and youth setting up their own polyamory groups.

After the raids, The Body Politic, a sex-positive gay liberation magazine which had courted controversy since its inception in 1971, was a natural meeting place for a community response. The original demo was planned in TBP’s offices, with media waiting outside the door to find out what would be happening.

Ken Popert — now president and executive director of Pink Triangle Press, which, among its many media projects, publishes Xtra — was a member of The Body Politic collective at the time.

Popert’s partner, Brian Mossop, was one of the men arrested. Popert credits Mossop with being influential in the thinking about the response. “[He] had long been involved in the Communist Party — a treasure trove of activist technique.”

Popert, 58, says the ability of Toronto’s gay and lesbian community to express itself — on the street and in language — is unique.

“That’s what is lacking in other cities — people don’t have language for articulating their experience,” says Popert. “That’s partly what has made us powerful. There is no doubt that we are the most powerful gay and lesbian community in the country.”

Gerald Hannon, fellow Body Politic collective veteran, longtime board member of Pink Triangle Press and award-winning freelance journalist, recalls that the first march made him realize “the extent of simmering below the surface in the community for the kind of things we were trying to do with The Body Politic.”

Though Popert and Hannon continue to have direct influence on Pink Triangle Press, their ideas have spilled into Toronto media more generally. When he was editor of Fab magazine, Mitchel Raphael didn’t water down the sexual content or the politics like editors of comparable gay scene magazines. For example, after the raid of a Calgary bathhouse in 2002, Raphael flew a reporter out to cover the story.

Raphael worries there aren’t young activists to replace the “Bathhouse class of ’81,” many of whom he still sees at protests and events about sexual freedoms.

“They had carried the torch and were fighting back and they kept carrying it.”

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At the time of the raids Peter Bochove, then owner of the Richmond Street Health Emporium, was upstairs wearing only a towel. Bochove’s voice shakes as he recalls listening to the sounds of breaking glass, the smashing of drywall and metal being pried open by crowbars.

“We haven’t seen [such a response] before or since because it was by far the largest and most egregious action against the community.”

Bochove didn’t become politically active until 1978, under the influence of his friend the late George Hislop and raids on bathhouses like the Hot Tub Club, International and the Barracks. “The silly gay liberation shit didn’t mean anything to me.” Though an owner, he was charged as a found-in in 1981, and was acquited.

By 1990, when Bochove opened the Spa On Maitland, he had managed through a legal and bureaucratic struggle to get the City Of Toronto to recognize gay bathhouses as legitimate businesses. That achievement has hardly guaranteed protection. There were the raids on the Bijou porn theatre in 1999 and on the Pussy Palace in 2000.

Outside Toronto, bathhouses have remained in legal limbo. The 2002 raid on Calgary’s Goliath bathhouse was followed by a 2004 raid on Hamilton’s Warehouse Spa And Bath (which put the owner out of business). Those incidents made Bochove, who now owns Toronto’s Spa Excess, realize that a lot more work was needed to protect queer sex spaces. In 2004 he launched the Committee To Abolish The 19th Century, which aims to reform Canada’s bawdy-house laws and other antiquated sex laws.

Like many Toronto activists, Bochove cites Hislop as a leader. Hislop was certainly in the middle of the events of 1981. As part owner of the Barracks bathhouse, Hislop was charged as a keeper of a common bawdy house in the 1978 raid, and again during the 1981 raids.

Some speculate that it was Hislop’s run for the office of city councillor in 1980 that triggered the 1981 raids –the police slapping down the fags from getting to uppity. It didn’t seem to work; Hislop ran provincially in 1981 as an independent candidate protesting the raids. He lost both times, but got a lot of press coverage.

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Chris Phibbs, 47, names Hislop as one of her mentors because of the political and personal risks he took. Now working as a senior advisor to Mayor David Miller, Phibbs was executive assistant to Toronto’s first openly gay councillor, Kyle Rae, and a candidate herself in the last municipal election.

Phibbs says former Body Politic collective member and AIDS activist Michael Lynch also helped her understand the importance of the raids.

“I think the bath raids proved the power that we have as a community and it was the first time that our political voice was so loud,” says Phibbs.

Bob Gallagher, a member of both the RTPC and The Body Politic in 1981, is widely recognized as a leader in organizing the response to the raids. The teeth he sharpened there have served him in his subsequent assignments. He has gone on to work for former councillor Olivia Chow (who was central in the fundraising efforts during the Pussy Palace defence), the Campaign For Equal Families and Foundation For Equal Families, Canadians For Equal Marriage and now serves as chief of staff for NDP leader Jack Layton.

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In 1978 artist Andy Fabo was, along with George Hislop, charged as a keeper of a common bawdy house during the Barracks raid. Though Fabo admits that he was already pretty radical, he says that the events of 1981 took things to another level, and also fed his art.

“I am proud to think that I was really one of the people who was instrumental in creating the openly gay arts scene,” says Fabo.

Artist Kelly McCray, 44, says that when you look at Fabo’s earlier work, “you realize the accomplishment that he has made to queer identity and queer culture; it’s fairly substantial…. There is just such an incredible amount of information that is there for younger queers.”

Some of McCray’s own work has him pointing his camera at bathhouse interiors, highlighting their form and function. He is currently working on a new series called “Survey” focussing on promoting sexuality as part of gay male culture, in the face of what he sees as a shift toward family and marriage.

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While Brent Hawkes is now best known as the man who performed the first legally binding same-sex marriage ceremonies in Canada, his previous claim to fame was as a bathhouse defender. Following the raids he staged a 25-day hunger strike to force the City Of Toronto to investigate police actions during the raids.

Hawkes’ strike paid off. Arnold Bruner’s report called for the creation of a permanent dialogue between the police and the gay community.

“When Arnold came out with his report everything we asked for was in [it],” says Hawkes. “It provided years and years of work; we could start with the easy stuff and then move to the harder recommendations.”

Hawkes says that since the raids Toronto queers have moved to having one of the country’s best relationships with the police. “We’ve made more, a hell of a lot more, progress than most cities.”

Activists like Mariana Valverde, a University Of Toronto criminology professor who was part of TBP, and Mickey Cirak — who has studied under Valverde, worked at the Hassle Free Clinic and volunteered for Pride Toronto and the Inside Out film fest — have continued Hawkes’ efforts to hold the police accountable for their actions.

Cirak, 28, says he learned about the raids when he was 17.

“It pointed me to work toward this not happening again,” says Cirak.

He says his involvement on the Toronto Police Service’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans Community Advisory Committee “allowed me an opportunity to be involved directly with the work to create change.”

Though it would be hard to argue that the damaged lives and property resulting from the 1981 raids were positive things, it is equally hard to imagine what gay and lesbian life in Toronto would be like if they had never happened.

Former Body Politic collective member Rick B├ębout summarizes it best when he writes on his website Rbebout.com:

“But — it’s true — life hasn’t been the same since. The raids were like Stonewall in one fundamental way: not as the beginning of… but as a moment of seismic shift, when forces building for years finally cracked a faultline and the earth suddenly shook beneath everyone’s feet.”