In late fall of 2004, 23 young male strippers from a raided gay strip club in Montreal sat in a courtroom knowing that their case, like most cases involving charges of indecency in Canada, would crawl.
I sat with them on this first court appearance, knowing too well that those who made “not guilty” pleas would face many more court appearances. Fifteen of the dancers ended up pleading guilty to charges of committing indecent acts and being found in a common bawdy house (which is defined as being a place where indecent acts or prostitution occurs). They pleaded guilty as a way to avoid taking the stand where they would have to talk about their sex work in front of a generally unsympathetic public. They could not afford to be outed.
Two months ago found-in charges against seven of those who pleaded not guilty were finally withdrawn. But the saga continues in another way: eight dancers, three managers and seven other found-ins are launching countercharges against the police.
The event that started it all was exemplary of zealous intergenerational homophobia and moral panic. About 40 police officers raided the Taboo strip club on May 9, 2003, claiming that the club employed underage dancers and that indecent acts were taking place in a backroom. Along with the 23 dancers, seven managers were arrested, as were four patrons.
Early in the court proceedings, I had the opportunity to speak with staff member Nick Tremblay, who managed the dance auditions and DJed for the club. The conversation I had with him was partially translated and particularly felt. I felt the frustration of Tremblay’s resignation as he told me that no matter what Taboo did to appease the police to keep them happy and mostly to keep them off their backs, it was of no use. Even after the raid, police officers snooped around outside, approaching clients on their way into the club, interrogating them about what they were up to, their employment and their marital status. These efforts to gather information about the patrons created a machinery of truth-telling, of confession. In the questioning of — or, more precisely, harassing of — Taboo clients, the police set up what they hoped would be an archive of perversion, where sexual preference meets all other aspects of these men’s lives.
It’s true that the men who strip at Taboo are young looking, and the majority of the clients are much older. In fact, a dancer’s success there rests in looking as young as possible (ie shaved bodies). One of the strippers told me how this was fuel for the police. During the raid he heard all kinds of homophobic slurs but what he seemed to remember the most was the aggressive tone in which an officer had questioned a partially clothed group of strippers: “What’s wrong with you guys, stripping for old faggots?”
His retelling of this memory speaks clearly and loudly that there is nothing wrong with “stripping for old faggots.” At the very least, there is nothing criminally wrong with it. The withdrawn charges confirms it.
But I still question the long and frustrating process that is always tied to the law. Charging the police for their brutish behaviour seems to have become a necessary tool to protect, at least legally, perverts and sex workers from those who carry out the dirty work of an anti-sex ideological machine.
We must ask whether the law is the only practical tool to oppose this antisex ideological machine. How much can the law benefit those who have to continuously prove that they are not criminal? Moreover, the tedious process of proving innocence often means trying to prove sameness. “Success” comes to those who assimilate into a heteronormative public. Meanwhile the police, even when they’ve had their systematic sexism, homophobia, racism, classism and agism exposed, are somehow relieved of any real responsibility; they have the power to drag their feet as long as they want.
Let’s be clear — the covert operations of the police, in the midst of any legal process, is bound to hurt the morale of the most militant activists. The song “I Fought The Law (And The Law Won)” reminds us that we need to try other nonlegal avenues for change.
Countering ridiculous charges of so-called indecency, though important, is not enough. Defiance of what is considered normal — rather than working toward acceptance of the so-called perverse — is necessary. There needs to be spontaneous direct actions that do not strive to satisfy a polite public, particularly in places where those perceived as sexual outlaws are not welcome. There also needs to be visible public support: bodies on the front lines of sex clubs, strip clubs and bawdy houses. Sexual outlaws shouldn’t wait until people are charged and dragged into a legal process before they make themselves visible.
In the case of Taboo, it is obvious that the sex work of young-looking gay men in the company of older men initiates a knee-jerk reaction. “What’s wrong with you guys, stripping for old faggots?” is not merely a random observation uttered by a police officer. It’s the fear of intergenerational sexual exchange. Which means it is time to challenge not only the law, but popular perceptions. For example, we should not wait for the introduction of a Conservative Party bill raising the age of consent before we find opportunities to advocate for the protection of sexual rights of young people by not shaming their consensual sexual experiences.
Dropped charges are a positive legal outcome. But what also needs our support is the daily work people are doing to bring awareness and attention not only to those who are wronged by the law, but to those who choose to defy it. We need to question the moral sexual panic that legitimizes these laws in the first place.
That means shifting the emphasis away from proving innocence toward valuing sexual difference and perversion. It’s less about proving that Taboo is a legitimate business that did not operate as bawdy house, but showing that the realm of public desire between consenting individuals does not need a defence — ever.