Vancouver
3 min

The façade of ‘privacy’

Reliving the 1981 Edmonton bathhouse raid

PRIORITIES: This 1981 cartoon reflected the Edmonton Journal's criticism of the police raids on a bathhouse. Credit: Edmonton Journal

By 1981, gay bathhouses in Edmonton had been operating for 10 years without any trouble. A few years earlier, police forces across Canada had begun to raid gay spas and bathhouses in an attempt to clean up the “moral vice” of homosexuality. Raids in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto resulted in the arrest of thousands of men as “found-ins” in “bawdy houses.” Members of Edmonton’s gay and lesbian community thought, mistakenly, that those sort of raids happened in the big city, not in the capital of Alberta.



The Pisces Spa raid might not have happened were it not for a complaint by a local gay male about the “goings on” at the bathhouse. The RCMP and the Edmonton police reacted swiftly to the complaint, putting the Pisces under surveillance for three months. They photographed patrons entering and leaving the premises and infiltrated the spa with undercover agents.



On May 30, 1981, at 1:30 am, 57 police officers and members of the RCMP, accompanied by two Crown prosecutors, broke into the Pisces Spa. Police used video recorders and still cameras to photograph each person and each act that they found. Their heavy-handedness was quickly evident-the number of law enforcement officers raiding the spa was equal to the number of men arrested that night.



The experiences of the found-ins with the legal system were reminiscent of an authoritarian dictatorship, not a supposedly democratic country like Canada. The operators and 56 found-ins of the spa were transported by paddy-wagons to the city courthouse, interrogated, and required to give information to the police about their sexual practices and their lives as homosexuals. Without their knowledge, their testimonies would be used in the future against other members of the Spa.



That night they were denied legal representation, and forced to appear at a 5 am court session-and members of the press were not allowed to attend.



The impact on the men arrested was severe-there were several near suicides, many suffered severe depression and a number of people just disappeared. Members of the larger gay and lesbian community also experienced shock and intense fear, pushing many people back into the closet. Paranoia about being outed became prevalent in the community, as the Edmonton police held the Pisces membership list of over 2000 members.



For many others the initial fear quickly turned to anger. Doug Whitfield, then the Civil Rights Director for the Gay Alliance Towards Equality in Edmonton, summed up the community feeling as: “It’s war, and gay people will not lose.”



The Privacy Defence Committee of Edmonton was quickly established to raise money for the defence of the found-ins and to work for reforming the Criminal Code of Canada. Hundreds of people-gay men, lesbians, and straight supporters-got involved in fundraising activities, providing legal assistance and personal counselling, and holding protests to demonstrate against the police actions.



In the end, the owners of the Pisces Spa pleaded guilty to keeping a common bawdy house, and the majority of the found-ins either pleaded guilty or were found guilty by the Provincial Court Of Alberta. Of the five found-ins who appealed their sentences, however, three were successful.



The Pisces Raid wrenched Edmonton’s gay and lesbian community out of its tenuous sense of security and into a new era. It should be remembered as a time of unprecedented restrictions on the civil liberties of gay Albertans. But the strength and resilience of Edmonton’s community should also be remembered.



One of the found-ins and successful appellants, Michael Phair, went on to become a dedicated activist and leader in the gay and lesbian community and an Edmonton city councillor. Almost in defiance, Edmonton’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community flourished after 1981, spawning a number of sports clubs, choirs, support groups and political organizations.



Today the raid is over, but not forgotten, by a generation of gay and lesbian citizens who still remember what it feels like not to have any rights.



* Laura Bonnett is completing her Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Alberta and is writing her dissertation on the history of the gay & lesbian movement in Alberta.