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Thirty-five years after the bathhouse raids: Joey Shulman

Charges were dismissed, but Shulman recounts his experience with Operation Soap

Credit: Courtesy of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives

This article originally appeared in Xtra on Feb 5, 2011 

Feb 5, 2016, is an important date for Toronto — 35 years ago, Toronto police raided the city’s gay bathhouses. More than 300 men were arrested, simply for being gay and open with their sexuality.

We remember this day not only for its infamy, but because this day in 1981 marks the time when gay men stood up and said they had had enough.

Over the next week, we will be looking back at that fateful day: at the activists who fought for their sexual freedom and continue the fight until this day; the homophobia and fear those men faced; and what we, as a country, need to learn from the bathhouse raids. 


 

Someone came into the steamroom and said, “I think you should come out. I think we’re being raided.” It was kind of surreal. There was pandemonium in the halls. People were being corralled into a central area. What stays in my memory is that there were people who were freaking out because they were being arrested, that we were being busted. It was surprise and outrage. 

The drag queens among us were more vocal. There were a lot of police involved. We were all standing around in towels feeling fairly vulnerable.

My detective escorted me to my room. There was an ounce of pot on my bed, and he looked at it and said, “Is that it?” He just threw it out in the hall. He didn’t confiscate it. It was neither here nor there for him, even though at the time drug trafficking and prostitution was used to justify the raids. 

I felt quite violated. I felt angry. I wasn’t harming anyone. I was being a very good citizen in my mind, and I think many others in the community felt the same way. When it’s denied, then you say, “I think I’m going to demand it.”

I took a limo to the courthouse because they moved the trials out of the City of Toronto, out to Scarborough, because they felt it would get less attention. I walked into court, saw friends, waved and waited for my name to be called. But the cop didn’t show, and the charges were dismissed. I was profoundly disappointed and I drove home. My life continued.

I’m glad it happened, in hindsight, because it helped Canada, and Toronto in particular, to deal with AIDS very differently from the United States. 

We’re not being marginalized in the same way, that marginalization now has to do with socio-economic issues across the board with immigration, with horrible offences against otherness in other parts of the world that we can shine our light on, that Pride more and more is less about our rights now and about trying to get our rights to other parts of the planet. So yes, 30 years on, the job is not done. Life’s better than it was for some of us, but I think I’m a little nostalgic.