Toronto
6 min

Pussy pals

When the police decided to pick on the lesbian bathhouse, they didn't know what forces lurked under the towels

SEXY CAUSE. Organizer Loralee Gillis says people like to protest with panties. Credit: Mark Bogdanovic

Queer politics can make for some strange bedfellows.



Take the recent fundraising efforts on behalf of the Women’s Bath House Defense Fund. A few weeks ago, the Toronto Women’s Bath House Committee held a fundraiser at the lesbian bar Pope Joan. Tickets were sliding scale, and the mostly young, rowdy crowd, decked out in leopard prints and leather pants, cheered on erotic poets, drag kings and a dildo-sucking demonstration that brought down the house.



A week or so later, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. At a $150 per ticket event thrown by the Friends Of The Women’s Bath House Defense Fund, power-suited gay and lesbian professionals rubbed shoulders with politicians Olivia Chow, Bill Graham, Kyle Rae and George Smitherman at a swish soirée at Rodney’s Oyster House. The organizers, most of whom couldn’t have afforded tickets themselves, were thrilled – with legal bills anticipated to run up to $50,000, they need the cash – but a little surprised by all the attention.



“Just before our first community meeting following the raid, Bob Gallagher tells us that Olivia Chow is going to ask people to give $500 towards our legal costs,” says Loralee Gillis, a member of the Toronto Women’s Bath House Committee. “And we were shocked. You know, we’re not those kind of people. We were saying, ‘No, no, no. People don’t have that kind of money. Ask them for five dollars. Start really small.’ But Olivia just went out there and raised $9,000. It was unbelievable. These people don’t even know us and they’re giving us money!”



There aren’t a lot of issues that bring the sliding scale crowd together with Cabbagetown guppies, but the police raid at the Pussy Palace night at the Club Toronto bathhouse in the wee hours of Sept 15 was a singularly chilling event. Following police charges at The Bijou porn theatre in June 1999 and at the Barn this year, the raid was the latest in a series of what appears to be a police crackdown on gay sex and nudity.



The perceived harassment has brought together civil rights activists, mainstream politicians and veteran gay politicos who have supported young lesbians in turning their shock into a political movement.



Since their inception just over two years ago, the four Pussy Palace evenings have become fixtures on the Toronto lesbian social scene, revolutionizing how women think and act about sex. With DJs, volunteer strippers and masseuses, safer sex information and erotic performances, the Toronto Women’s Bath House Committee provides a low-pressure, feel-good environment.



Feel-good until the morning of Sep 15 when five undercover male police officers from 52 Division paid a visit. According organizers, the officers spent an hour-and-a-half at the bathhouse, searching private rooms and asking for the names of patrons. After a delay, they laid six charges against organizers: one count of failing to provide sufficient security, one count of serving liquor outside the prescribed area, one count of serving liquor outside prescribed hours and three counts of disorderly conduct.



Smelling a rat – and a suspected violation of civil rights – the outcry was immediate. If the police thought the women would be easily intimidated, they were very quickly proved wrong.



“Everyone on the committee is political. We’re feminists, we know how to organize,” says Chanelle Gallant, another bathhouse committee member. “And almost all of us have had previous run-ins with the police that were unpleasant. So as soon as the raid happened, we thought, well let’s take advantage of this support and of this forum. Let’s join forces with other people who are feeling targeted.”



There was a packed community meeting on Sept 21, an impromptu march and kiss-in in front of police headquarters at Bay and College. After some legal checking, a Panty Picket was held on Oct 28 at 52 Division, with 100 women and men flashing their boxers and g-strings and chanting: “What do we want? Pussy! When do we want it? Now!”



Within the gay and lesbian community, the raid on the Pussy Palace was a disturbing echo of the massive police crackdown on Toronto bathhouses back in 1981.



“Tim McCaskell [a longtime gay and AIDS activist] has been a tremendous ally to us,” says Loralee Gillis. “None of us had been around in ’81, so this was all new. Tim pointed out that this was exactly how it started back then, with police targeting places like bathhouses, that no one cared about, or that people were too frightened or ashamed to defend.”



Well, plenty has changed in 20 years. Before ’81, a common police tactic following a bust of a washroom, or a bathhouse, was to release the names of found-ins to the press, outing them to their families and employers and using the fear of exposure to keep the gay community in check.



The intervening two decades have given rise to AIDS activism, the activist group Queer Nation, the mainstreaming of SM and porn, third-wave feminism, infighting over bisexuality and lesbians-who-sleep-with-men and the burgeoning transgendered and transexual movement.



Though most of the women spearheading the bathhouse defence activities are too young to remember the raids of ’81, they’ve come of age at a time when queers have a stronger sense of entitlement and a expectation of fair treatment. And to their crash course in the history of Toronto gay activism, they’ve blended their own unique brand of millennial lesbian feminism.



The women were primed by the organizing of the bathhouse events themselves, which in true lesbian form involved a lengthy process of community-building and outreach. Opportunities to volunteer are made available to women who can’t afford the door fee. Common cause has been made with sex trade workers. Long discussions led to the inclusion of transexual and transgendered women and men at the events. Organizers work to ensure that women of colour felt welcome at events.



“There was no way we weren’t going to fight back,” says Gillis. “We’ve always felt proud of this. I mean, when we decided to start holding the events, we had a big group of us pose semi-naked on the cover of Xtra. We’ve never felt ashamed and we aren’t going to start feeling ashamed now. We feel we have a right to that space.”



The efficacy and reach of their battle is no small part due to the press they’ve received. Coverage on CBC radio, in The Globe And Mail and The Toronto Star, amongst other mainstream media, has been almost uniformly supportive of the bathhouse and overwhelmingly critical of the police.



“A lot of gay men have come up to me since this all began, just gushing about the mainstream response to the raid,” says Gallant. “They say to me, ‘Wow, it’s been so supportive!’ And I’m so naïve I guess, because I just think, ‘Well, what else would it be?’ But then I realized that yes, it is extraordinary.”



Gillis chalks up the differing response in part to stereotypes about men’s and women’s sexuality.



“I think that in many people’s minds lesbian sex is much less threatening and much more titillating than gay male sex, which is still perceived as perverse or dangerous.



“And the other thing that I think is going on is that people are reacting to five men coming into a women’s space and what a violation that is. For people who may be uncomfortable with queerness and queer sex, they can still see this as an issue of sexual discrimination and harassment.



“I think that’s the tack that the press, for the most part, has taken. Which is why it’s important for us to make links with gay men and they way their sexuality is criminalized. The gay men’s community has been incredibly supportive to us, especially people like [City Councillor] Kyle Rae, Tim McCaskell, the June 13 Committee (which formed after The Bijou was raided) and TNT MEN (Totally Naked Toronto Men Enjoying Nudity). I think that the women’s bathhouse can be a kind of bridge to create support for people whose issues aren’t as palatable and don’t make the news.



“People got interested in the issue because of what it means to have police come in to a women’s space. And I think that people are making the links to other communities that also appear to be targeted by the police – poor people, homeless people, people of colour and sex trade workers. But I think one of the reasons people have stayed interested is because the sex part of our issue makes it fun. We can do these very sexy things like have a panty picket. That’s something you couldn’t do with another issue.”



Combining the best of the activism of the past with their own distinct

style, the bathhouse defense women have reinvigorated queer politics in Toronto. Opposition to police harassment may have never before involved panty pickets, oysters and drag kings.



But that just might be what’s needed to get the job done.