The legal facts of the Pussy Palace court case are simple on the surface.
You get a liquor permit, you follow the regulations. Police say the women’s bathhouse organizers didn’t, they got caught and two of them, Rachel Aitcheson and JP Hornick, got charged. Simple.
The police officers argue that the service of alcohol gave them the legal authorization to inspect the premises, filled in the wee hours of Sep 15, 2000 with more than 300 sexed-up women.
If the women didn’t want the male police officers to see their erotic frolicking, they shouldn’t have had booze. Otherwise, the police wouldn’t be interested in who is fucking who. It’s merely about compliance with liquor laws.
That’s the front story. The subtext is murkier and it was the subtext that was most evident in the testimony last week of Inspector Dave Wilson of the Toronto Police Service. He was the lead investigator that night.
On the stand, Wilson could barely contain his moral superiority.
When asked if he understood why naked and partly-naked lesbians would be embarrassed by the presence of male police officers – why they would feel their charter rights had been violated – Wilson turned the question back on the women.
“If I was involved in those acts and policemen entered, I would be embarrassed,” Wilson testified. “The conduct would be embarrassing.”
For all the claims to ensure that the patrons were “safe” and that the liquor service was in “compliance,” I think these words revealed Wilson’s true intentions. This case is actually about shame – the shame Wilson suggests lesbians should feel about being free with their sexuality.
Wilson wasn’t the only moralist on the stand. The testimony from undercover officer Janet Hall – who stripped down and toured the place undercover with her female colleague – drew gasps and laughs from the 20 or so Pussy Palace supporters in the court’s peanut gallery.
There were knowing giggles when Hall described a sling as a “swing.”
When Hall told the court about the “live sex show” and the “porno pictures” at the bathhouse, you could hear the quotation marks around the words.
In a mystified tone, Hall described how two women had sex “in plain view” – as if someone could have accidentally stumbled upon Club Toronto, paid the admission, been buzzed in, wandered up to the third floor, entered a small room and inadvertently glimpsed their activity.
Exhibitionist lesbian sex play in a sling might not be everyone’s thing. That’s okay. But it’s not something any uninterested person would encounter – unless, of course, you’re an undercover officer looking for it.
Listening to Hall, I got the sense that it’s not so much a matter of her discomfort with queer terminology, but a discomfort with queer things themselves, like bathhouses, transsexuality, gender play, sling rooms and guiltless, friendly sex. And that discomfort underscored everything she said.
Police and their supporters argue over and over again that they treat everyone the same, that everyone must follow the same liquor laws and if, let’s say, a straight wedding party at a licensed reception stripped down and started having sex in front of the guests, they, too, would be charged under Ontario’s Liquor Licence Act.
I disagree. The Pussy Palace case demonstrates that the straight fascination with gay and lesbian sex (repulsion towards the former, sexual interest wrapped in disgust toward the latter) pervades the Toronto Police Service. And it affects how they do their jobs.
The fascination motivates officers to stick their noses into our sex lives and judge them by their own values. The Liquor Licence Act admittedly provides them with a legal excuse, but I have no doubt that if the liquor laws were changed, they would find another.
If gay and lesbian people aren’t going to feel shame about our sexual behaviour, the Toronto Police Service has demonstrated its eagerness to feel ashamed on our behalf.
These intentions don’t seem to matter inside the courtroom, but they do matter in how the police affect our lives.
Paul Gallant is Features Editor and Acting News Editor for Xtra.