Toronto Police Raid Gay Bathhouses Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Toronto police conducted a massive raid on gay bathhouses and arrested nearly three hundred men, the largest mass arrest of gay men in North America. The protests and demonstrations that followed came to be known as the Canadian Stonewall.

Summary of Event

At 11:00 p.m., February 5, 1981, after a reported six months of investigation, 160 plainclothes and uniformed Toronto police officers, Toronto Police Service raids armed with crowbars and hammers, raided four of Toronto’s gay bathhouses. Police entered the Club Baths, the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, the Richmond Street Health Emporium, and the Barracks. They knocked down doors and walls, smashed through windows and mirrors, broke into private cubicles rented by patrons, and caused significant damage. The bathhouses sustained more than $35,000 in damages and the Richmond Street Health Emporium never reopened. [kw]Toronto Police Raid Gay Bathhouses (Feb. 5, 1981) [kw]Police Raid Gay Bathhouses, Toronto (Feb. 5, 1981) [kw]Raid Gay Bathhouses, Toronto Police (Feb. 5, 1981) [kw]Gay Bathhouses, Toronto Police Raid (Feb. 5, 1981) [kw]Bathhouses, Toronto Police Raid Gay (Feb. 5, 1981) Bathhouse raids Police abuse and harassment;Toronto, Canada [c]Marches, protests, and riots;Feb. 5, 1981: Toronto Police Raid Gay Bathhouses[1450] [c]Civil rights;Feb. 5, 1981: Toronto Police Raid Gay Bathhouses[1450] Hawkes, Brent

The men found within the bathhouses were subjected to verbal abuse, repeated taunts, and hostile searches. Two hundred fifty-three men were arrested and charged as “found-ins,” that is, people found without lawful excuse in a “common bawdy house,” a term in the Canadian criminal code referring to a place where prostitution or indecent acts take place. Fourteen others faced minor drug charges. In addition, twenty employees at the bathhouses were charged with running a common bawdy house. While not the first antigay police action in Canada’s history, the massive and brutal police raid, and the largest mass arrest in Canada since the October Crisis of 1970 (mass protest against the Canadian War Measures Act), rallied lesbians and gays in Toronto.

The night following the raids, a crowd of fifteen hundred angry demonstrators Protests and marches;Toronto, Canada gathered in downtown Toronto and began a march down Yonge Street. With loud whistles, chants such as “we shall overcome” and “stop the cops,” and signs reading “Gay Rights Now” and “Fag Power,” the crowd expressed its rage toward the police and their actions. Traffic was disrupted, some property was vandalized, and several people were injured. As the large group gathered momentum, police formed a phalanx outside the 52 Division headquarters to prevent the protesters from entering the stationhouse where the men arrested the night before had been held.

Lesbian and gay activists were encouraged to continue their fight. Three years earlier, in response to a bathhouse raid, only four hundred people had protested. This much larger gathering was a sign that people were fed up with police abuse. In the days that followed, organizations and individuals condemned the raids and called for a review of police action. The Metropolitan Toronto Board of Police Commissioners sat through emotional public testimony from representatives of churches, political parties, and civil liberties groups. On February 14, the five-member board decided to not investigate the police raids. The commissioners had found that the raids constituted legitimate police action.

Community anger and resentments grew. On February 20, 1981, a few thousand demonstrators rallied in Toronto’s Queen’s Park. Many straight people joined the gay community to protest the brutality of the police; the police force had often been accused of poor relations with many of Toronto’s minority groups. Speakers voiced their outrage about the raids and called for human rights protections for gays and lesbians. The Reverend Brent Hawkes, senior pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church, Metropolitan Community Church;and pastor’s hunger strike[pastors hunger strike] began a hunger strike. He had said that, “No longer will we stand idly by while the politicians ignore us, the police abuse us and the right wing lie about us.” Once again, protesters marched to the 52 Division of the Toronto Police Service to protest the bathhouse raids and call for an independent inquiry.

In the months that followed, Toronto’s existing gay and lesbian organizations grew in size and strength, and new ones formed. A Right to Privacy Committee created a defense campaign for those charged in the raids. Of the men arrested, 249 were found not guilty. Antiviolence street patrols were initiated to fight local harassment. Another rally, the Gay Freedom Rally, held on March 6, pushed for faster action. On March 12, Hawkes ended his hunger fast when the Toronto City Council began an investigation into relations between the police and gays. A study on how to improve relations between the gay and lesbian community and police was finally funded in July. Released in September, the report, Out of the Closet: Study of Relations Between Homosexual Community and Police, Out of the Closet: Study of Relations Between Homosexual Community and Police (Toronto City Council) legitimized the gay community and recommended a permanent committee to encourage dialogue between the police and gays.

Significance

Although the bathhouse raids are sometimes referred to as Toronto’s Stonewall, the gay and lesbian rights movement and the campaign for human and civil rights was established well before the raids. The first gay march took place in August, 1971, timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the omnibus bill that decriminalized private consensual homosexual activity between individuals over the age of twenty-one. The Body Politic, a gay and lesbian newspaper formed in 1971 and in circulation until 1987, was politically aggressive and a constant voice for equal rights.

The raids, however, did give momentum to and foster support for the rights of Canadian gays and lesbians. While lesbian and gay activism grew, the police would not back down. On June 16, 1981, police entered the Back Door Gym and Sauna and the International Steam Bath and arrested twenty-one men on bawdy house charges. A large demonstration on June 20 again followed the arrests. Another raid took place at the Back Door on April 20, 1983. Many more protests would be needed for real change to occur.

Real change finally began to take shape in the mid-1980’s. Canada’s legal climate has since become more favorable, and discrimination claims based on sexual orientation now receive fair hearings. Bathhouse raids Police abuse and harassment;Toronto, Canada

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. http://www .clga.ca.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario. Who Are These People and What Do They Want! Toronto, Ont.: Author, 1981.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Edward, and Stan Persky, eds. Flaunting It! A Decade of Gay Journalism from “The Body Politic.” Toronto, Ont.: New Star and Pink Triangle Press, 1982.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woods, William J., and Diane Binson, eds. Gay Bathhouses and Public Health Policy. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2003.

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June 27-July 2, 1969: Stonewall Rebellion Ignites Modern Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement

December 31, 1977: Toronto Police Raid Offices of The Body Politic

November 27, 1978: White Murders Politicians Moscone and Milk

May-August, 1980: U.S. Navy Investigates the USS Norton Sound in Antilesbian Witch Hunt

January 1, 1988: Canada Decriminalizes Sex Practices Between Consenting Adults

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