If ever I’ve had a “But for the grace of God, there go I” occasion (even though I have problems with that expression) it would have to have been February 5, 1981 – thirty years ago today.
At 11 p.m. that night, more than 150 police carried out simultaneous raids on four of Toronto’s most popular bath houses, arresting close to 300 men. “Operation Soap”, as the police named the investigation, is very well recalled here by Pink Triangle Press. It was the largest mass arrest in Canada since the October Crisis of 1970 and the late Rick Bébout’s account of the raids and the aftermath live on here. This was long before police “sensitivity training”.
Had it not been a weeknight I might very well have been swept up in the raids as I was a frequent visitor to bath houses on my almost-weekly trips from St. Catharines to Toronto bars and baths.
Until the events of that night I was leading a tortuous double life as a twenty-one-year-old, secretly trying to extinguish my homosexuality during the week as part of a conservative church and inevitably giving in to my natural instincts on the weekend (or whenever my days off happened to be) in the anonymity offered by the big city across the lake.
I came out to my parents, writing them a letter.
I was livid when the pastor of the church wrote a letter to the local paper praising the actions of the Toronto police. He was driven from the church not too long after due to an unrelated split in the congregation.
Assuming that television cameras would catch me protesting, following the raids, I came out to my parents, writing them a letter. Their positive response included them telling me that my brother, Craig, had come out to them a few years earlier. Understandably, neither they nor Craig were interested in telling me so long as I was part of the fundamentalist church.
The bath raids brought me out of the closet, frankly feeling more angry than liberated, and I count myself among the thousands in Toronto who can trace their passion for gay liberation politics through the tumultuous events of the raids and the subsequent massive demonstrations. I hung out with Rick, Chris Bearchell (who gave me a button which read “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”) and others, at a few meetings/parties at The Body Politic. I later wrote, infrequently granted, for TBP (the excellent forerunner to Pink Triangle Press’ Xtra!) – particularly when police arrested men having sex in public washrooms in Welland and St. Catharines.
Niagara Regional Police released the names and addresses of the accused. Most media outlets ran them – before trial – including my employer, but not before I engaged in a heated argument with my boss. He insisted on “the public’s right to know” (read gossip) while I argued that the extreme sensitivity of the charges far exceeded the seriousness of the allegations.
Very few of the accused fought the charges. In rural west St Catharines in January, 1985 a 42-year-old father of two, and a Sunday school teacher, was found dead in his car, having soaked himself with gasoline and set off his lighter. Just days earlier, he had been at the Fairview Mall. Three hours before his suicide, he had been charged with gross indecency.
He missed his trial; didn’t enter a plea. He was never convicted and yet he, and many others, had already been punished by the police and the media. The St. Catharines Standard was an outstanding exception, not only witholding the names of the accused but also doing a series of reports on the phenomenon of anonymous sex, even “tearoom sex”.
It was heart-warming to find so many of the activists with whom I had cut my political teeth, in the aftermath of the bath raids, now playing key roles in Toronto’s response to the AIDS crisis.
Using a pseudonym, so as not to upset management at the St. Catharines radio station where I was employed (I’d already caused a ruckus by “coming out” in the local paper), I worked with other activists on various information and political action campaigns through my years there in the 1980s.
When I was diagnosed with HIV, and then AIDS, not long after moving to Toronto in 1988 it was heart-warming to find so many of the activists with whom I had cut my political teeth, in the aftermath of the bath raids, now playing key roles in Toronto’s response to the AIDS crisis. Rick Bébout was among them until his death in 2009.
The Pride parades in Toronto, now held each June, got their biggest shot in the arm following the raids. What had only loosely been called a “community” was now a community indeed. We became very adept organizers and campaigners of all sorts.
Another of the lasting legacies of the raids is the almost universal disdain with which the Toronto Sun is held in the LGBT community. The paper, and most notably columnist Claire Hoy, were constant cheerleaders of the brains behind the raids at the Attorney-General’s office and Metro Toronto Police’s 52 Division. Ironically relations with the police have greatly improved over the years.
The Sun? For “old-timers”, at least, not so much.
What follows is a full-length documentary about the bath raids entitled “Track Two”. I well remember how proud the community was when it was released. It is available, and in smaller segments as well, from Xtra‘s YouTube site.
In fact I’ll lead off with one of those segments because I thought it was so funny and I was mere steps away from the main subject, author Margaret Atwood, during the filming. I even remember that date, February 20. This was an event at St. Lawrence Market North, a fundraiser for legal defense and for future political advocacy. (The evening also featured a then up-and-coming a cappella group The Nylons.)
Enjoy Margaret’s deadpan!
Now the full 87 minute documentary: