Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids: Racialized, Queer Solidarity and Police Violence

June is Gay Pride Month and it is a good time as any to bring attention to the 35th anniversary of the 1981 bathhouse raids in Toronto, which gave rise to the queer liberation movement in Canada. I am going to use this pivotal moment to highlight the difficulties in forming coalitions of the oppressed when the prospective partners’ activism is guided by single-oppression analyses. Specifically, this essay will examine the challenge of building solidarity across differences of sexuality, race and class in fighting systemic police violence.

On Febr. 5, 1981, the cops in the city of Toronto raided four gay bathhouses (Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, The Barracks, The Club and Richmond Street Health Emporium) and arrested about three hundred gay men. The arrestees were subjected to homophobic verbal assault, physical violence, and vile public humiliation.

Nadia Guidotto shares the experience of violence by one of the traumatized men in her essay Looking Back: The Bathhouse Raids in Toronto, 1981:

“I was in a room with someone when I heard a noise. I got up to open the door but it burst open and a guy in plain clothes pushed in and shoved me up against the wall, my face pushed hard. My nose was lacerated and bloodied. The cop kept punching me in the lower back and pulling my hair and saying, “You’re disgusting, faggot. Look at this dirty place.” I was choked, and something was jabbed into my neck. Before they took us out of the room, they used a pen to gouge the room number into the backs of our hands. I was naked … Someone said, “Too bad the place doesn’t catch fire…” Somebody else said, “Too bad the showers aren’t hooked up to gas.”

Peter Bochove, the owner of the raided, badly damaged and inoperable Richmond Street Health Emporium, captured the experience of some of the men in the text Oral History: The Bathhouse Raids.

The homophobic police have long harassed gay men in Toronto bathhouses and gay bars with no organized pushback from the queer community. However, this act of state violence ignited mass resistance in the form of a 3,000-strong protest march that led to a physical assault on the provincial parliament (Queen’s Park). The protestors attacked police squad cars and set fires and defiantly directed the “Fuck you, 52!” chant at the cops at the 52 Division police station.

The uprising impressed upon the queer community that collective resistance and direct action could put the powers-that-be on the defensive and extract political concessions. The Feb. 6 uprising of the queer community was embraced as Canada’s equivalent of the 1968 Stonewall Riots in New York City. According to leftist and queer activist Tim McCaskell, “the bath raids catalyzed the consolidation of the foundation of much of the Canadian gay community we now take for granted.”

On Feb. 20, 1981, the queer community organized a follow-up rally at Queen’s Park with an explicit call for solidarity among people victimized by police violence: “Now is the time to unite with minority communities to call for an end to police harassment.” I do not believe the preceding statement captured the gravity of the problem of police violence against African-Canadians in framing it as an issue of bringing “an end to police harassment.”

The killing of three African-Canadian men — 24-year-old Buddy Evans (Aug. 9, 1978), 35-year-old Albert Johnson (Aug. 23, 1979) and 22-year-old Michael Sergeant (Nov. 20, 1979) – in this fifteen-month period was not merely police harassment. They were deadly encounters with the cops. The specificity of the African community’s experience with police violence went beyond coercion, intimidation, non-lethal persecution or hassle.

Nonetheless, in advancing the solidarity agenda, Lemona Johnson, the widow of Albert, spoke at the Feb. 20 protest action and she issued a call for inter-community unity in the struggle against police violence in Ontario. Her presence and the content of her speech, as an African woman widowed by police violence, linked homophobic state violence to that experienced by the African community, whose members were routinely brutalized and disproportionately killed by Toronto’s cops.

The Bathhouse Riots brought to the fore the question of solidarity and the politics of race and sexuality in the fight against police violence. Canadian sociologist and longstanding queer activist Gary Kinsman points to the nature of relations between the state and certain groups in the 1970s and early 1980s: “Toronto [was] a city of growing racial, ethnic — and now — sexual minorities. The provincial and municipal establishment foresaw the need for a fairly militarized police force … to decrease the public visibility of these minorities and to keep them contained.”

In spite of mutual awareness of police violence impacting racialized and queer communities, homophobia and racism were implicated in the failure of the leadership in both groups to develop a strategic alliance around this issue. The racist and homophobic March 1979 issue of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Association’s newsletter News and Views made it clear that both communities were despised by the cops. However, the past history of relations between racialized and queer police violence resistance groups, foreshadowed the end of this newfound post-Bathhouse Riots solidarity.

Prior to August 1979, Toronto’s queer community made no attempt to link homophobic violence from the cops to the racist violence levied against Africans by these agents of the state. In the article Contesting Identity: Politics of gays and lesbians in Toronto in the 1970s, Catherine Nash reveals that the queer neighbourhood was an overwhelmingly white, middle-class and male populated space. The small emerging queer political movement was largely controlled by white gay men.

Given the fact that white supremacy in Toronto shaped the ideas and behaviours of whites, it is hardly surprising that racist policing against queer and straight Africans would not be a central part of queer men’s grievances against discriminatory policing. Even the radical white queer activists who understood the racist character of Ken Peglar’s Pensioners News” March 1979 column in News & Views were publicly fixated and concerned with Molcair’s homophobic article in the newsletter.

Racialized police accountability groups deliberately sought to disassociate racist policing from homophobic police violence. They behaved as if racialized queers were not subjected to police brutality in ways that would be impossible for them to separate being queer and racialized.

These racialized groups did not demonstrate solidarity with the queer community in its objection to Tom Moclair’s homophobic article “The Homosexual Fad” in the same March issue of News & Views that carried Peglar’s racist article. Nash notes that racialized leaders were openly opposed to the effort of queer groups to make any connection between the death of Albert Johnson and homophobic police violence.

The killing of Albert Johnson by the cops in August 1979 prompted queer activists and the queer publication Body Politic to start making direct links between racist and homophobic police violence. It was done to recast queers as a minority in order to enter the official “police-minority relations” politics. Body Politic ran its October 1979 editorial under the title “Black power, pink triangles.”

When white queer men linked their social grievances to the oppressive conditions of Africans, they did so because the latter group is seen as the model minority of oppression. It is not an accident that Quebec separatist Pierre Vallieres, dubbed white Quebecois as “The White Niggers of America,” John Lennon asserted that “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” and The Advocate declared that “Gay is the New Black” in 2008. Any group that establishes itself as a nigger will be able to morally and politically claim the status of being oppressed. The Bathhouse Riots facilitated the transformation of queers into a minority group.

The Citizens Independent Review of Police Activities (CIRPA) was created a few months after the bathhouse raids and it had individuals and groups from the African, South Asian, queer, legal and civil liberties communities. They were committed to documenting and bringing to light the culture of police violence. It was eventually co-opted into the established policing structure. CIRPA had a short lifespan and came an end around 1984. It was no longer interested in fighting police violence as an instrument that keeps oppressed groups marginalized.

In conclusion, the racialized and queer groups that are interested in creating coalitions to fight police violence should give priority attention to the experiences of racialized and queer folks from the working-class. Homeless individuals, psychiatric survivors, sex workers, youth/young people, individuals in the criminal (in)justice system, and other groups that fall within Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” should be at the centre of the organizing work against police violence.

A strong class analysis should frame the resistance to police violence in order to engender mass awareness and understanding that the police serve and protect the interests of the socially dominant groups in society. By centring class in the organizing work against systemic state/police violence, the queer and racialized petit bourgeois elements will be exposed as reformists who only seek to change the most outrageous attitudes of the cops.

These racialized and queer middle-class characters are not politically committed to getting rid of the police who function as armed guardians of the patriarchal, racist, heteronormative, ableist and capitalist ruling-class.