The 1981 Toronto Bathhouse Raids were a coordinated series of police intrusions into men’s bathhouses in metropolitan Toronto, Canada that led to protests by LGBTQ people and their Straight allies. These protests were a pivotal event for the Canadian Gay civil rights movement.
On Thursday, February 5, 1981, just before midnight, one hundred and fifty Metro Toronto police officers raided four Gay bathhouses: the Richmond Street Health Emporium, the Club Baths, the Barracks, and the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa. The raids themselves were not unique for that time. However, this series of raids in particular was different in the scale of the assault. It was the largest mass arrest since the War Measure’s Act was invoked during the 1970 October Crisis when French Canadian separatists kidnapped two government officials.
Two hundred and eighty-six men were charged as found-ins (patrons) and twenty-seven as keepers (procurators) of a common bawdyhouse (house of prostitution). Although bathhouse raids had been conducted since the 1970s and would continue in Canada for years to come, the level of police violence deployed during the raids was unprecedented. Walls of the clubs were smashed, glass shattered, and men in the baths were ordered to link up outside in the snow wearing nothing but towels. Found-ins were called “queers,” “fags,” and “cocksuckers” by police. While rounding up men in the showers, one officer reportedly said, “Too bad these showers aren’t hooked up to gas.” Such language evoking the image of gas chambers disguised as showers in German concentration camps during World War II led members of the Gay community to compare police behavior to that of Nazi Stormtroopers.
Homophobia in the Media
The police used bawdyhouse laws to enter the spaces where Gay men congregated. But in order to justify the use of such laws publicly, the news media presented an image of bathhouses as dangerously indecent. One article in The Globe and Mail newspaper portrays the bathhouse as a mysterious, almost cult-like institution: “Inhabited only by men, it is a world of dim lights and mirrors, catering to a belief that the body is a temple.” Other media focused on descriptions of the Barracks, a bathhouse that catered to clientele with an interest in sadomasochism and other fetishes. The Toronto Star describes the Barracks in an article, “Chains, Cuffs at Barracks, Police Say”:
Police photographs showing chains, handcuffs, leg irons, straps and metal studded leatherware in dimly lit rooms in the homosexual Barracks club, have been entered as exhibits … the Barracks involved urination and defecation … “chains, whips and paddles were used in various sexual acts.”
By focusing on the imagery of sadomasochism — violence, whips and chains — police constructed homosexual sexplay as pathological, which served the function of justifying the use of violence against a deviant population. Moreover, by constructing homoerotic sexuality as criminal, perverse, and socially harmful, the police believed they could target the baths without meeting any resistance.
The night following the raids, over 3,000 people flooded one of the main downtown intersections in Toronto. Gay activists, feminists, and minority rights groups rallied against the oppression of Gay men, and marched to the police station where the arrested men had been taken. As protestors marched, they chanted, rolled over police cars, and kicked in headlights. While members of the Gay community may have formed community bonds in private spaces such as bathhouses and bars, this large-scale mobilization was public and fostered LGBTQ solidarity in an unprecedented fashion.
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McCaskell, Tim. “The Bath Raids and Gay Politics.” In Social Movements/Social Change: The Politics and Practice of Organizing, eds. Frank Cunningham et al, 169-188. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1988.
Warner, Tom. Never Going Back: A History of Queer Activism in Canada. Toronto:
University of Toronto, 2002.