40 years ago at 11:00 PM, on February 5th, 1981, four bathhouses downtown were violently surprised by a series of coordinated raids called “Operation Soap.” Plain clothed police officers entered The Barracks, The Club, Richmond Street Health Emporium, and Roman II Health & Recreation Spa, with numerous reports of the sudden thundering of boots in the stairways, alerting the men that something was wrong.
Accounts from those arrested described extremely hateful police behaviour. Subjecting patrons to excessive behaviour by police, including verbal taunts about their sexuality. Many men inside were near-naked, restricted from gathering their clothes. Police also used crowbars and sledgehammers to open patron lockers with police wearing red dots on their clothing to show, according to one officer, “who are the straights”.
Police compiled large amounts of personal information about the men rounded up, including the names of their work superiors and, for those who were married, the names and phone numbers of their wives. Police went on to out some of the men to their family and employers. When the night was over, 286 men were charged for being found in a common bawdy house (a brothel), and 20 were charged for operating a bawdy house. It was, up to that time, the largest single arrest in Toronto’s history.
The four bathhouses suffered over a combined total of $35,000-$50,000 in damages with police explaining the raids resulted from six months of undercover work into alleged sex work and other “indecent acts” at each establishment.
No incidents of sex work were uncovered. The raids marked a turning point for Toronto’s gay community. A midnight march on February 6th, 1981 protesting the raids and ongoing police brutality began at Yonge and Wellesley.
Peaking at over 3,000 participants, the procession headed south down Yonge St to 52 Division police station on Dundas Street. Protestors chanted messages such as “gay rights count” while a small group of mostly teenaged counter-protestors yelled back homophobic obscenities and unsuccessfully attempted to block University Avenue. At the police station, the protest encountered a human barricade of about 200 officers. Violence between police and protestors broke out resulting in a police car’s window and headlights being broken, a streetcar’s windows being smashed, and many accounts of police brutality towards protestors. Eleven people were then arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer, damaging public property, and breaching the peace.
Public outcry against police brutality and the violation of civil liberties grew over the following days. The Body Politic columnist Ken Popert wrote: “I know that something got into people because it got into me.… What got into me was my own anger over living in a society that finds my existence inconvenient. What got into me was my own anger over harassment on streets that are never safe for me. What got into me was my own anger over the unrelenting stream of taunts and insults from the media, coolly calculated to undermine my self-respect with every passing day… As long as society continues to demand us as its victims and its human sacrifices, that anger is going to be there, waiting to get into us, again and again. It’s not going to go away for a long, long time.”
Today, 40 years later it is important we celebrate the progress our community has been able to make and also acknowledge that people still push our existence as inconvenient. In 2021 we continue to hear accounts of harassment on the street and of places that are not safe. Police brutality continues to be present in marginalized communities, and to this day, despite growing representation in society and the media, we are still its victims.
The activism surrounding the same themes of the bathhouse raids continues on. What was started in 1981 was in direct response to, and specifically focused on police brutality. We must reflect and learn from the history of this protest to understand the effects of collaborating together in unity against oppression.
Any Other Way – How Toronto Got Queer
Firsthand account – Philip McLeod
The Canadian Encyclopedia
Active History – Coming Clean about Operation Soap
This map of “Gay Toronto” originally appeared in The Body Politic, a monthly gay magazine published from 1971 to 1987. Photograph courtesy of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. Additional images were sourced from The Body Politic Fonds at The ArQuives.