On Nov 18, for one night only, Exposure: Edmonton’s Queer Arts and Culture Festival is transforming Steamworks, one of the city’s three bathhouses, into an orgy of site-specific installation, performance and visual art.
The essay that follows by festival founder Michael Phair is part of the experience and begins to help contextualize the space and the place that bathhouses play in the queer psyche. In creating an awareness of an event that risks being lost to history, Phair captures the importance that bathhouses, police brutality and our collective experiences have played in creating the communities we exist in today.
Enter through the backdoor. Off the alley. Behind 109 Street and 105 Avenue. Pisces Health Spa. Midnight May 29 – 30, 1981. The morality squad, Edmonton Police! Raid — through the back door.
By the late 1970s there were two plus one bathhouses in Edmonton. The two identified as gay were Gemini, on Jasper Ave, and Pisces on the corner of 109 Street and 105 Ave. The oldest bathhouse was the Georgia Baths on east Jasper Ave, dating back to the 1920s, and was a steam and bath facility originally used by working class men. By the 1970s, it catered primarily to gay men but was neither owned nor identified as “gay.” It was rather small, dark and rundown.
By contrast Pisces Health Spa was gay owned and operated with 40 private rooms, two dark rooms, Jacuzzi, a large shower room, a TV lounge and locker room. It was thought of as the best gay bathhouse west of Toronto.
Across Canada in the ’60s and ’70s the number of bathhouses in big cities grew dramatically as an outgrowth of the gay rights movement. Most were private members clubs and run as businesses catering to gay or bisexual men. By the late 1970s, numerous “authorities,” especially the police, took notice and raids began in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal under the guise of the Criminal Code’s section on “bawdy houses,” which was used to describe and regulate prostitution. The law had been intended to charge owners of establishments who provided women for sexual purposes for a fee. It described anyone caught in a bawdy house as a “found-in” and, thus, guilty of a criminal offence.
By 1980, Edmonton’s gay and lesbian community was quiet, conservative and below the radar. There was nothing about gays in the media and little public commentary from the gay community. There was little harassment from police and relations between the city and gays seemed excellent.
This illusion ended on May 29 – 30. Fifty-four police officers smashed through the back door of Pisces and raced through the premises — videos whirring and cameras flashing. Fifty-six men became found-ins. Mug shots with names were taken. Crown prosecutors issued court summons with charges under the Canadian Criminal Code. At 4am, all 56 found-ins were herded out the back door into police paddy wagons and carted to the downtown police headquarters and court rooms, the current site of the Winspear Centre. An additional six men, owners and employees, were charged with being keepers of a common bawdy house.
The bath raids were constantly featured in the local media. Pisces closed. Within a week the Gemini bathhouse closed. A local TV station ran the names of the found-ins. Representatives of the gay and lesbian community, found-ins and friends formed the Privacy Defense Committee to raise funds and support found-ins. Two weeks later the owners went to court and pled guilty; a fine of $45,000 was levied. Eventually 47 found-ins pled guilty; six were convicted after trials. Two persons were unaccounted for and one man was acquitted. Appeals nearly a year later resulted in two or three honourary discharges.
The police raid of 1981 through the back door ended an era — gays and lesbians began a transformation that led to stronger community ties, public visibility and integration as full Edmontonians — through the front door!