3 min

Vice is not so nice

Bathhouses aren't bawdy houses

I know, I know. Police forces rarely communicate with each other, rarely look at what other jurisdictions are doing and rarely learn from mistakes made in the past. But you’d think the Calgary vice squad could have made a few calls before they made the foolish and mean-spirited decision to raid the Goliath bathhouse last week. It’s a simple equation: bathhouse raid = angry homosexuals.

Albertans have never cared much about PR, but to take the treatment of gay men right back to the 1970s seems excessive, even by redneck standards. Perhaps it’s cosmic payback for Premier Ralph Klein’s new domestic partnership bill, which acknowledges same-sex relationships: If you homos get relationship rights, we’re going to take away your sexual rights.

Calgary’s vice squad put the Goliath bathhouse under surveillance for two months and last week charged two employees for operating a common bawdy house and 13 patrons with being found in a common bawdy house (For comprehensive coverage on the Calgary raid, see the main national page of and the Xtra West section of this site, which you can access through the main page.)

Why? Patrons were given condoms and towels before entering – ergo illicit sex. This is a vice squad that claims on its website that 10 to 15 percent of street prostitutes are children and that many are addicted to drugs, but decided instead to spend two months trying to catch adult gay men touching each other’s weenies in whirlpools.

You can imagine the thought process that led to the Goliath investigation. An officer hears about a place where gay men go to have casual sex. An officer is intrigued. An officer can’t think of a straight equivalent this side of a brothel. An officer decides that such a place must therefore be a brothel. Voila! Bawdy house charges.

Part of the problem is the dumb idea that all gay and lesbian institutions, that all aspects of queer lives must be mirror images of straight institutions and lives.

These parallels are not only erroneous, but dangerous. Keith Purdy, an employee of Goliath bathhouse and co-chair of Pride Calgary, made a tactical error when in the Calgary Herald he called the bathhouse, “a facility where you rent a room not necessarily for sex… a cheap place to get a room for a night.”

Well, no. In conservative straight minds, such a statement means a bathhouse translates into a hotel. To make a wretched situation ridiculous, the city’s licensing department is now looking at whether bathhouses should have lodging licences. If you try to speak in straight language, they’re going to use it against you.

There’s no sense sanitizing. Bathhouses are places where gay men can be sexual (even if they don’t always have sex) out of straight people’s way. Anyone who frowns on park sex, night-club sex, people having sex in alleys or their parents’ bedrooms should be glad bathhouses exist; they drain traffic from those erotic venues.

Rather than arresting bathhouse patrons, cities should be making it easier for bathhouses to exist, by removing some of the regulatory framework that doesn’t really apply to them. Lodging licences? Give me a break. Calgary authorities might not like gay sex, but that’s their own problem, and it’s not disguised by bureaucratic mumbo jumbo.

Since the Calgary raid, people have been citing the 1981 bathhouse raids in Toronto, which helped define Toronto queer politics. Those raids are certainly indicative of the power of community mobilization, but it is a mistake to draw a direct line from Toronto in 1981 to Calgary in 2002. It can too easily be argued that Toronto is an anomaly, that Hogtown queers have finagled special privileges because of ’81.

The better point of reference is that gay bathhouses exist all over the world, in many jurisdictions, in the face of many by-laws and much homophobia. They’re important and most Western countries leave them be.

In the forced closure of Calgary’s only bathhouse, that city has dropped below such places as Chile, Hungary, Texas and Oklahoma – none shining examples of gay-friendly places – in regard to respecting gay men’s spaces. It’s an embarrassment.

Paul Gallant is Managing Editor for Xtra.