February 5, 1981, 11 p.m. Squads of undercover (under towel?) ‘peace officers’ raid four gay bathhouses in downtown Toronto. Over 300 people were charged with crimes ranging from ‘running a bawdy house’ to ‘being a found-in a bawdy house’. The raids, destruction of property, verbal abuse of those arrested (and subsequent public shaming) were justified with accusations of prostitution and various “indecent acts”.
It has been 35 years since the raids, the subsequent protests, trials and public blowback on what, for many, was an un-Canadian abuse of power. The wasp tradition of subtle and polite discrimination and disapproval (“he’s one of those people“) hidden behind a smile had been broken. The fragile relationship between queers and the police had snapped.
Well over 3000 people took to Yonge Street (Toronto’s main drag) in a winter of discontent. We marched to Queen’s Park (provincial legislature) and to Division 52 (Police precinct covering half of downtown). We were no longer civil. We were #notPolite, we were mad as hell and we were no longer grateful for whatever crumbs society deigned to permit us.
In many ways progress has been made. At least for middle-class white gays. Now the Toronto Chief of Police wouldn’t dream of not marching (driving) in the corporate-sponsored mega-Pride Parade. The most photogenic part of a weeks-long celebration of theatre, art shows, socializing and corporate chachkies designed to show that nearly straight middle-class gays are accepted.
As for queer folk who enjoy sex (especially kink as a lifestyle rather than as a weekend escape), reject monogamy (or at least, its presumed superiority) and question whether a consumption-based society is doomed to consume itself… we have the persecution of Rentboy.com, the continued hypocritical criminalization of consensual sexual commerce and slut-shaming.
Much more information about the raids is on-line at:
Picture gallery: Daily Xtra
Raiding the Bathhouses; Torontoist entry
Operation Soap; Wikipedia entry
Coming Clean About Operation Soap
Toronto Police get dirty with “Operation Soap”
Stand Together; York U.
“Track Two” – 90 minute documentary on the raids