2 min

Singing sex

These performers know how to wear a towel

“We are proud of the vibrant community known as The Gay Village. Forty years ago in Toronto two men could be arrested for dancing together; drag queens were in trouble if they were not wearing men’s underwear. There were no gay-owned establishments… serving the community. And you certainly could not walk down the street holding hands. So how do we reach today’s community?”

Program note from Steam Heat


Focussing upon the raids of Feb 5, 1981, Forte: Toronto Men’s Chorus has found a moving and entertaining way of reaching today’s community with a musical history of this city’s bathhouses.

Strung together by a series of narrative segments filling in historical details, this evening of song began with the appearance of more than 30 men dressed in towels, wandering across the stage singing “Steam Heat.” Slides representing historic gay bars such as The Parkside and Letros from the 1960s complement the stories.

But the real strength of Steam Heat lies in the sheer magnitude of all these men singing, in earnest, about solidarity and compassion.

The singers deliver a variety of popular tunes, from Manilow to South Pacific. Cleverly chosen songs depict the emotional roller coaster homophobic culture has offered up over the years. “Sordid Lives,” performed brilliantly by Valerie Boyle, was a comic take on the ways in which gay men’s lives are constructed from birth into maturity.

Margaret Atwood’s remarks about the ’81 raids punctuate the finale as we are reminded that she came to our defence by asking Toronto police what they had against cleanliness. The final reprise, “One Voice,” poignantly suggests that, “it takes just one voice and everyone will sing.”

I recently sang sex with a US cop at Spa Excess who had nothing against cleanliness. He was a rotund hunk of hairy passion. The first time I went to the baths, in the late 1970s, I thought I was supposed to knock on the door and ask if the person inside wanted to do me. Ethel Merman was singing disco versions of Broadway hits and I kept running to my friend’s room to ask what I was supposed to do.

The first posters I saw encouraging safe sex were at the Club Baths. I went to a bathhouse in Fort Erie once where there was grass growing in the shower stall and the foyer looked like a scene from Sweet Charity. My first glory hole was in a bathhouse in Paris and I had my way with an opera singer in an Athens bathhouse who thought anal intercourse had to hurt. I had news for him.

Thanks to Forte’s production of Steam Heat, which closed on Jun 8, we have been reminded of and entertained by the legacy of love, lust and hard work that the Toronto gay community has provided for all of us. The struggle continues as we attempt to reach the ever younger queer community in thoughtful and engaging ways.

* Steam Heat closed on Jun 8.