Remembering The 1981 Bathhouse Raids, 35 Years Ago

February 5, 2016, marks the 35th anniversary of Toronto’s infamous Bathhouse Raids, the catalyst for Pride in our city.

At 11PM on February 5, 1981, 150 plain clothed and uniformed Metro Toronto police officers, carrying crowbars and sledgehammers, in an act of violence staged raids of four bathhouses. The raids on The Club Baths, The Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, The Barracks and The Richmond Street Emporium were a culmination of a 6-month undercover operation by police known as “Operation Soap,” a deliberate and organized campaign to push gay bathhouses out of business and silence gay voices. Police verbally and physically abused patrons and staff, inflicting thousands of dollars in property damage to the premises. There were 289 arrests of those present, under “bawdy house” laws, on charges of prostitution and indecency. The extent of arrests would not be seen in Canada again until the G20 summit protests in 2010.

Enough is Enough. Stop Police Violence.

Photo by Gerald Hannon

Large-scale community response formed quickly in the days and months following, sparked by outrage of police harassment, frustrations and anger. Anxiousness and fears of outings and firings, combined with uneasiness, led to the country’s largest gay rights demonstrations. The Right To Privacy Committee, who defended those arrested, organized protests, spurring Pride in Toronto. Community organizations saw massive growths and collaborated together with Black and immigrant communities to demand police accountability, and fought for city and public-led inquires into the raids.

Today, and throughout Pride Month 2016, Pride Toronto will commemorate and reflect on these culturally significant events. In 1981 our community said enough is enough to police and took to the streets to protest the bullying and violence against us. Questions still remain today: why did the police never apologize? Who gave the orders for these intrusive and violent arrests? What impact have these raids had on the sexual liberation movement in Canada?

Pride Toronto, along with The Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies and The 519 have announced a Human Rights Panel on Tuesday June 7, 7PM at The 519. At this free and open to the public panel, community leaders, activists and historians (to be announced at a later date) will share personal experiences and reflections.

Pride Toronto will also welcome anyone persecuted or who rallied in 1981 to march in the 2016 Pride Parade, and will invite media inside one of the landmark bathhouse raid locations to announce our full month’s line-up this May at Oasis Aqualounge.

Photos by Gerald Hannon

Pride Toronto would like to thank the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA) for their research assistance.