This past weekend marked a very significant anniversary in the history of gay rights in Canada. Thirty years ago, the Toronto bathhouse raids – probably as important to Canada’s movement as Stonewall was in the US – went down, which saw the city face a massive, violent raid on four bathhouses that resulted in the arrest of 304 men. It remains one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history, and came after a series of smaller but no less terrifying campaigns by Toronto police. Toronto gay activist George Hislop was quoted in Canadian gay lib magazine The Body Politic as calling the night “the gay equivalent of Crystal Night in Nazi Germany – when the Jews found out where they were really at.”
By the following evening, activists had already organized a demonstration, which brought forth unprecedented community mobilization as more than 3,000 people marched toward Toronto’s 52 Division police station chanting “Fuck You 52!”
I spent a good chunk of last year working on a book about Canadian LGBTT history, and this event was certainly one of the most fascinating in the roughly 40 year history I attempted to chronicle. I was aware that was such a thing as the “Toronto bathhouse raids” going into the project, and knew a few specifics, but having some of the folks I interviewed recall it was fairly mind-blowing. It really changed the course of the movement.
“That was a really pivotal moment because prior to 1981, there’d been little groups of gay liberationists… around The Body Politic and around Gay Alliance Toward Equality or around other organizations,” longtime Toronto queer activist Tim McCaskell told me in an interview. “But we were generally pretty isolated. The kinds of people that went out to bars and baths kind of thought we were off the wall. And I think there was a kind of arrogance that we were ‘the enlightened, liberated ones’ and then these were people living kind of half in, half out of the closet. But what the bathhouse raids did was to bring those groups together. They were such an attack on mainstream, ordinary gay men and produced such visceral anger.”
What resulted from the raids was that “ordinary” gay men, and even businessmen who owned small businesses in the community (as well as many “ordinary” lesbians, outraged by what was occurring) began to take part in action. All of a sudden, everyone was on the same page. Just in time to take on the AIDS epidemic, which is a whole other horrifying story.
After the jump is the full documentary “Track Two,” directed by Harry Sutherland in 1982. It’s an excellent resource in educating yourself about this event, and is by no means boring (simply watching the streets of Toronto circa 30 years ago is fascinating in itself). If you have a free hour and change, definitely check it out.