Toronto
3 min

When the boots came down

Remembering the 1981 bathhouse raids

On the freezing winter night of Feb 5, 1981, I got home from work near midnight. “Work” was The Body Politic, the renowned news magazine that had helped put Toronto on the gay map of the world. We were working feverishly to get the March issue to the press on time.

Brian, my partner, wasn’t home. A veteran Body Politic widow, he had planned to spend the evening at the baths.

I had hardly peeled off my layers of winter clothing and flopped down on the chesterfield to unwind when the phone rang. It was Gerald Hannon, calling from the Body Politic office. A report had come in that the police had raided a bathhouse. As I pondered whether this was important enough to pull me back to work, the phone rang again: The police had raided a number of bathhouses, an unprecedented event. Suddenly, Brian’s absence assumed a worrying significance. (Arrested, he eventually came home shaken but sound, and — above all — angry.)

As the scale and the savagery of the attack became clear — the four biggest bathhouses raided, one wrecked beyond repair with crowbars and hammers, hundreds arrested, nearly naked men herded into vans, some with identifying numbers inked onto their skin — my mind whirled back to a series of articles we had published seven years before.

In it, James Steakley had revealed the existence of a gay liberation movement in early 20th-century Germany. Organizations had blossomed, dozens of magazines had circulated, a political movement had gained momentum in the freedom of democratized postwar Germany. By the late 1920s, a move to repeal the law against homosexual acts had reached the German parliament.

Then the Nazis were elected and they brought their boots down hard. In 1933, the Institute For Sexual Science, founded by pioneer activist Magnus Hirschfeld, was trashed by Nazi thugs, the contents of its library dumped into the street and burned. Organizations were shut down, publications banned. Laws against gay sex were broadened and those convicted sent to concentration camps. The party was definitely over.

As in postwar Germany, Toronto’s gay movement flourished in the environment of dissent created by war — this time, in Vietnam. During the 1970s, the number of gay organizations had grown from a handful to dozens, everything from the overtly political to bowling leagues. Publications popped up. Modest Pride marches and other gay demonstrations were common. The struggle to amend the province’s human rights law was underway and openly gay people were running for political office. Our own enterprise, The Body Politic, was tried but acquitted on morality-based charges. Opposition was limited to isolated lunatics on the Christian right. This gay springtime looked set to last forever.

And then the weather changed. Activist George Hislop lost his bid for a Toronto council seat in November 1980. Gay-positive mayor John Sewell lost office in the same election. A month later, an amendment to the provincial human rights code went down to defeat in the legislature, opposed by the Conservative minority government, rejected by the Liberals and abandoned by the NDP.

Someone decided that the time was right, and the boots came down. On Feb 5, 1981, the bathhouses were raided.

But Toronto in 1981 wasn’t Berlin in 1933: The party wasn’t over; it moved into the streets. In the hours after the raids, one by one, thousands of us concluded that it was now or never; it was time to make a stand, to throw our safety and security into the balance for the sake of our abducted friends and our freedom. The next night, one of the coldest nights of the year, we rioted.

From that opening confrontation in the dark winter night of Feb 6 to the concluding Battle Of Church St on the warm evening of Jun 20, we threw ourselves into a sometimes violent struggle. We changed the course of history: Our own, the city’s and the country’s.

In the last 15 years (after a decade lost to AIDS), gay men and lesbians again began to make progress, this time with astonishing velocity. No arbitrary barrier has been able to withstand our assault for long; no hostile army of soldiers, Christian or otherwise, has been able to check our advance. So far.

In politics, there’s no science to be found; results cannot be replicated because events are never quite the same. But the political landscape is changing and a critical question is this: Where are we now? Germany in the 1920s? Toronto in the 1970s? Or in some other, less fragile time and place?

In the wake of our publication of that history of German gay activism, we inscribed in the masthead of The Body Politic the words of another great German gay activist, Kurt Hiller. Warning against complacent reliance on governments and politicians, on the kindness of strangers, to safeguard our freedom, he advised: “The liberation of homosexuals can only be the work of homosexuals themselves.”

Wise words then, they deserve our thoughtful attention now.