Toronto
3 min

Pussy Palace: Fighting the cops & winning

When I volunteered for security at the first women’s bathhouse in 1998 it was really about the sex. I left the politics to the committee.

Flash forward to Sep 14, 2000. I was still volunteering for security and in charge of the other security volunteers. I had signed the Special Occasion Permit that allowed us to sell beer to raise money for charity. We were secretly being watched by two undercover officers from the Toronto Police Service. They were also looking for sex. So were the nine male officers they called in to stage the raid.

I was in the midst of helping my volunteers with a shift change; one slipped on her headset, looked up and said, “The cops are here.” I turned around as two cops shouldered their way through the crowd of semi-clad celebrants. More come in behind them; one of them later told me he was with “the morality squad.”

I led them to the bar, and was assured: “Everything seems to be in order.” Nevertheless, I spent the next hour being questioned by Dave Wilson, the officer in charge, about how much money I was making ($0), and who was in charge (try explaining a feminist collective to someone who works in a paramilitary organization).

Here’s what I remember about the raid: I was filled with righteous anger and scared as hell. I shook for a long time after they left. My job had been to make sure that we were running a safe, hot and legal event – and we were. My codefendant and I are better than any Boy Scouts at following rules. We were doing nothing wrong. Neither was anyone else who was there.

For several weeks after, we didn’t know what kind of charges we would face, and I was panicked that I could be deported (I’m from the US). Criminal charges related to running a common bawdy house were entirely possible. Instead, I faced six charges under the Liquor Licence Act – each of which carried a fine or possible jail time.

I had to call both of my parents and my boss to tell them that I’d been charged in a bathhouse raid. I was lucky; my mom, dad and boss were all outraged by the behaviour of the police. I kept my job, and my mom rallied her friends. I was lucky – not all of the bathhouse attendees had such supports.

After that, due to the potential impact on our legal battle, I couldn’t talk about the case publicly. I spoke to the media the day after the raid, and then had to let others speak on my behalf. It was difficult to stand by silently during marches, demonstrations and conversations with close friends, all on the advice of our lawyer.

I’m also pretty private, but not as much as my codefendant, so we agreed that I would do more of the media work. Being identified with such a public event has been surreal and difficult for me. I spent a lot of time after I offered comments in The Globe And Mail – before the case had officially ended – terrified that, after nearly five years, I had blown the case by speaking out too soon.

What has consistently buoyed me has been the emotional and financial support of Toronto’s queer communities, our families, friends and allies, and that most people have understood what this case means in a larger context of police harassment. This was not as violent as the 1981 bathhouse raids, but it followed raids on the Barn and the Bijou – each of which also involved Wilson (who now works in another department) – and it highlights the fact that we are still targeted for being queer, and for being openly sexual. The Pussy Palace raid was quite simply an attempt to control queer space and sexuality. It should never have happened.

On the 25th anniversary of Pride, I want to see activists angry that our resources are still being spent fighting for a basic civil right like same-sex marriage. Remember that this movement was founded on the belief that sexual freedom is a basic human right, regardless of class, race or gender. I need to remember that history.

When I signed on to volunteer in 1998, I didn’t know that I was going to end up a footnote in Toronto’s queer history. We have won some incredible systemic changes that will hopefully help queer, trans and other marginalized communities that are targeted by the police.

Here’s what I know five years after the raid: I’m no longer scared, I’m just more driven to change my world. Even after all that’s happened, I’d proudly and defiantly sign another Special Occasion Permit.