The news was shocking: Toronto Police Service spent the fall of 2016 soliciting men for sex and then ticketing or arresting them.
On Nov 11, 2016, we learned that Toronto officers had conducted an undercover sting operation in a cruising area of Marie Curtis Park in Etobicoke. Dubbed “Project Marie,” the sting netted some 72 people, charged with 89 offences.
Many folks see this as a gross overreaction and a misuse of public money. After all, the underlying activity — propositioning someone for sex — is altogether legal. That’s why most of the tickets are for bylaw infractions such as nuisance or trespassing, and others for provincial offences, not for violations of the Criminal Code.
If police wanted to control hanky panky in the park, there are many less intrusive ways to go about it. This kind of undercover sting operation has the potential to ruin the lives of these men and their families, all over something that, in most cases, is as serious as a traffic ticket.
At least we have a template for how to respond. After each successive police incursion into the ways we have sex — and most remarkably after the 1981 bathhouse raids — the script for dealing with these stings remains the same.
First: gay outrage. Despite police assurances, Project Marie targeted men who have sex with men. (Though a Toronto Police Service spokesperson told Daily Xtra they don’t know the sexual orientation of the individuals charged, the vast majority of people charged here are men.)
Even though some of these men are likely straight, the sting and its resulting charges rightly provoke a visceral reaction for many, bringing up feelings of guilt and shame, and pride and resilience. They are a reminder of every indignity, and also a reminder of our strength in the face of all that happens to us.
In 1981, that visceral rage spilled into the streets, and queer people and allies literally fought the police and took up the public space they had been denied.
Then, we organized, first by helping those who have been charged mount a defence.
After outrage comes accountability — demanding accountability from those in power. Project Marie was a callous overreaction. The complaints the police received amount to a classic conflict of who is entitled to use property in certain public spaces.
But the police had other options. They could have responded to the complaints allegedly received with public education and dialogue, as they did following complaints of over-drinking in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Why didn’t they do that here?
It’s important to send a message to the Toronto Police Service that this kind of undercover sex sting is never okay. Who at 22 Division is responsible, and what do they have to say for themselves?
That accountability extends to city council, who oversee the police. In particular, council must be asked: was this a good use of the police’s scarce budget, and if not, what are you going to do to stop it?
The province must also be held accountable. Remember that after the bathhouse raids, we burned then-Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry in effigy. I doubt that will happen this time. But current Ontario AG Yasir Naqvi has the power to withdraw provincial charges and his failure to do so makes him complicit in Project Marie until he does something to extricate himself.
Faced with such charges, many men over the years have simply pled guilty and taken the fine. Often they think there is no other option, nothing to be done. For some, the idea of defending their sexual life in open court is daunting.
But those who have fought have usually won. Hundreds of charges evaporate under their own weight. Charges are dropped by Crown prosecutors. People plead down to lesser charges. Police don’t show up to court appearances. And some — very few — end up at trial, where in the case of the various bathhouse raids over the years, those who were accused were usually vindicated.
So, helping connect people to sympathetic lawyers is important. That work, organized through the Law Union of Ontario listserv, is already done. If you’re one of the Marie Curtis 72, whether gay or straight, get in touch with me.
Ten lawyers have agreed to work for free — this is more than enough to deal with everyone who has been charged. I’ll connect you, and you can be assured of confidentiality and anonymity.
So for the many more men facing charges, there are lawyers to help you. And even though another operation has come around again, at least there is a template. For those who oppose Project Marie, we already know what to do. It’s time to get to work.