3 min

Not in Vancouver

Keeping cops out of Vancouver tubs

Credit: Xtra West files

It’s hard to believe it now, of course, but Calgary gays actually thought they had the model relationship between a queer community and its municipal police force.

That was before the horrors of the late afternoon bathhouse raid of Dec 12. Police have left a stench that now lingers over their relationship with Calgary gays. That stench can only get stronger as the court cases move forward starting today, Jan 23, and ending most likely at the Supreme Court Of Canada.

Before the raids, Calgary activists pointed to cooperation between gays and police on matters like gay-bashing and spousal assaults. Terry Haldane, one of the men charged as a “found in,” has a handful of personal gay friends on the Calgary force (though none of them are out). He and his activist lover have even testified as witnesses on behalf of cops accused of over-reacting during a riot.

These guys are not anti-cop. They’re pro-justice.

But, like many in Calgary, they allowed their personal contact with a small number of officers to lull them into believing relations between their community and the force was almost a homo’s dream.

Then the vice squad kicked them in the gut. And the entire police establishment circled the wagon to back the vice squad.

It’s easy, too easy, for those of us in Vancouver to take the same smug attitude about our relationship with police. After all, we’re also sitting across from cops on committees. We’ve been talking to them about our frustration with the way we’re policed, about the historically poor response to gay-bashing, about turning the priorities more to preventing violence. About the need for police to improve interactions with our community members at a crime scene, recruit out gay cops and recognize our sex culture and geographic spaces.

All this talk is good. Some of it is even getting action.

A senior Vancouver officer says no bathhouse raids are planned for this city. And that if complaints are received, the VPD will consult with the community. That’s a step ahead of Calgary, that’s for sure. And very welcome.

I’d like to think Vancouver cops, like Toronto cops, have learned something from the round of bathhouse raids in 1981. The Toronto gay community erupted in a rage of demonstrations where police cars were set afire. In both Toronto and Edmonton, the community came together, supported the found-ins, employees and tub owners (those who weren’t crazy about bathhouse culture refrained from saying so publicly and presented a united community denunciation of police). Straight allies, like Margaret Atwood, got out front and helped turn public opinion rapidly against the police raid. I’d like to think that police learn from this stuff, though Calgary’s recent raid makes me wonder.

But it does highlight a couple of important points for Vancouver. We know, for instance, that the three gays and lesbians sitting on the police chief’s diversity advisory committee were chosen because the chief is comfortable working with them. I’m not sure we can expect strong watchdogs there, though the last gay representative on the committee, Bill Coleman, was at times critical of police.

Can we expect the Safety Committee, which features cops and queers sitting around a table addressing issues, to be an effective watchdog? Calgary’s vice squad blindsided its community-police liaison committee on Dec 12 and still won’t meet with its members now. In Vancouver, one or two committee members feel free to criticize police when they believe it is in the community’s interests. Let’s hope they continue to resist being co-opted.

These two “official” links between the gay community and police are about to be supplemented by a grassroots response to gay-bashing. Velvet Steel, having learned something from her treatment by cops after being bashed, is collecting other people’s stories. And she plans to organize an independent street-level response.

This is good. Sophisticated social movements have a spectrum of activists at work, from those who are part of the system needing change through to moderates in the middle and on further to grassroots activists. The activists keep the rest honest, advocate for substantial change, and usually come up with the ideas that others eventually push for.

In sophisticated movements, each player recognizes that everyone has an important role and that people can honestly disagree. And they refrain from trashing each other as “sell-outs” or “extremists.”

We’ll need everyone’s contributions to move toward genuine community policing in Vancouver. And to make sure that our sex culture is respected by police even as we tackle anti-gay violence.

Gareth Kirkby is Managing Editor for Xtra.