COMPLICATED COLLECTIVITY, PAST AND PRESENT
by Craig Jennex
In October 2012, I visited the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA) in Toronto. At that time I was living in Hamilton, Ontario (after spending nearly all of my life in Halifax, Nova Scotia) and was drawn to Toronto by the promise of queerness often associated with urban spaces—reinforced, in this case, by the sheer number of queer friends who had moved to the city. The CLGA in particular seemed imbued with queer possibilities, as a physical space in which histories, stories, and evidence of queerness are collected, cared for, and made widely available.
While exploring the CLGA’s collection, I stumbled upon a poster advertising a 1991 march in Toronto against police violence. The poster boldly claims “NO MORE SHIT” below an image in which a male Toronto Police Service officer is depicted shoving two young women with enough force that one woman’s head is cocked back, and both of their faces are contorted. Two other posters, matching the aesthetic style of the first, catch my eye. One exclaims “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” below a photograph in which a male Toronto Police Service officer uses a blunt object to strike a woman attempting to run away. The third poster, prominently claiming “OUR STONEWALL,” similarly offers an image of a chaotic scene: sixteen Toronto Police Service officers within the frame attempt to gain control over perhaps hundreds of protestors. All three posters publicize a February 6, 1991 march organized by Queer Nation Toronto to retrace “the route of February 6, 1981 to commemorate the resistance of gay men and lesbians against police violence.” The images are jarring, each capturing intense moments of police violence against protestors at the 1981 action identified in the text of the posters.
I brought the posters to a CLGA volunteer who told me about the “formative moment” in Canadian history that the photos capture: the Toronto bathhouse raids of 1981 and the angry response that followed. While police raids of gay-frequented locations were common in Toronto in the late 1970s, this particular police action stands out as significant. On February 5, 1981, undercover Toronto Police Service officers in street clothes initiated a coordinated raid, aggressively claiming control of a space in which men—many of whom were not “out” about their interest in men—were meeting for sex and intimacy, naked and vulnerable. At The Richmond Street Health Emporium, one of four locations raided that night, plainclothes police officers broke down doors, grabbed men who were in various states of undress, pulled them apart from their partners, and threw them against walls and concrete floors. The men, confused, and understandably terrified, were forced to stand facing the walls so they couldn’t see their attackers who broke glass and equipment around their naked bodies. Lockers were forced open and police searched personal belongings. The detainees were beaten if they looked away from the wall (White & Sheppard).
I nodded along, feigning knowledge of the events, but felt embarrassed—I knew nothing about this moment or its significance in queer Canadian history. When I got home that night, and in the days that followed, I spent hours researching the raids and the political response they provoked. The poster that referenced “Our Stonewall”—drawing on the well-known Stonewall Riots in New York City, often cited as the catalyst for the modern Gay Liberation movement—kept reappearing in my mind. I felt naive; I always thought Stonewall was our Stonewall.
Since that night at the CLGA I’ve found many comprehensive and compelling accounts of the Toronto bathhouse raids and the collective, political response that the police’s infiltration of the spaces provoked. I’m indebted to these works, many of which provide broad accounts of the events as well as significant moments preceding the raids and the legal battles that followed. That said, I have been consistently drawn to a very specific narrative of the events: one offered by ephemeral materials—posters, handbills, protest signs—that were produced immediately following the raids, distributed around the city, and are now held at the CLGA. These materials capture and evidence a sentiment that I find profoundly queer: a passionate defence of public sex and the momentary forms of intimacy made possible therein, as well as a desire for political collectivity across difference in the face of extreme violence.
While representations of this history—in mainstream straight press, in particular—are overwhelming in their representations of whiteness and maleness, the ephemeral materials created in the immediate aftermath of the bathhouse raids evidence a broad response and a desire for a collective political power that does not necessitate unity or homogeneity. This is obvious when it comes to the involvement of queer women, and perhaps most obvious in relation to race and racism: the initial response to the bathhouse raids highlights comparable dangers faced by LGBTQ individuals and people of colour in Toronto and imagines a political collectivity enabled by shared dissatisfaction with a violent, stultifying reality. This impulse requires reflection in our current moment, a time when coalitional politics are portrayed as unnecessary or impossible and, as David L. Eng argues, mainstream gay and lesbian advocates deny the ways that discourses of sexuality and homophobia are bound with the violences facing people of colour and other marginalized people. Too often, Eng makes clear, we cast “sexual and racial discrimination” as disconnected and discontinuous. Recent police killings of African-American individuals, the resulting discourse surrounding their deaths, and the resounding silence of mainstream LGBTQ organizations has made the denial Eng identifies remarkably clear; I’m thinking, in particular, of the recent killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and others.
In the face of a particularly anemic mainstream LGBTQ political agenda—one in which assimilation to normative ideals and the fissure of race and sexuality seem paramount—the posters and other ephemeral texts held at the CLGA capture radical political desires of this nation’s gay liberation movement. I want to spend time with these objects and imagine the possibilities they evoke, the experiences they mark, and the anger they capture. The bathhouse raids of 1981 and the immediate political response exist in a moment that is behind us. But in approaching this historical moment—one overtly sparked by non-normative, public sex acts—we can gain a sense of queer possibility that can transform our political present.
Shortly after 11 pm on Thursday, February 5, 1981, hundreds of Toronto Police Service officers—organized by the department’s Morality Squad—stormed four gay bathhouses in downtown Toronto: The Barracks (formerly at 56 Widmer Street), The Club (formerly at 231 Mutual Street), Richmond Street Health Emporium (formerly at 260 Richmond Street East), and the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa (formerly at 740 Bay Street). The police maneuver was coined “Operation Soap.” Three hundred men were arrested—twenty employees for “keeping common bawdyhouses,” and the rest for “being found in at a bawdyhouse” (Malcolm).
The mass arrests are striking in their sheer number and because the legislation on which they relied is so archaic, conceived of and incorporated into the Canadian Criminal Code in 1892. The Police Department’s Morality Squad, the group that organized and led the raids, is a similar relic of the past, founded by Mayor William Howland in the 1880s, over one hundred years before the bathhouse raids of 1981 (Strange). Police claimed that “the raids were the result of six months of undercover work into alleged prostitution” at each establishment. According to Jaimie Bradburn, who reviewed the event and the arrests in 2011, “no incidents of prostitution were uncovered.”
Bathhouses are, primarily, spaces in which people meet for sex and intimacy. The spaces themselves are quite ordinary, featuring games rooms, showers, saunas, hot tubs, cardio and weight rooms, cafes (or, at the very least, places to buy coffee and snacks), lockers for storage and rooms for short-term rent. For some individuals, particularly in the 1970s and ’80s, these spaces were among the few in which they could “safely” explore non-normative desires with other consenting adults and enjoy intimacy unattainable elsewhere. Written accounts of many who participated in bathhouse culture—and public sex cultures more broadly—outline long-lasting, caring relationships that developed therein. Many of these accounts indicate that bathhouses served as a public commons for many gay men, and spaces in which in which gay male culture and queer political organizing thrived.
Many men detained during the Toronto bathhouse raids of 1981 reported “excessive mistreatment by police,” including “verbal taunts about…sexuality” and physical violence (Bradburn). In most locations, detainees were corralled into larger spaces within the venues—the showers or change rooms—where they were forced to stand naked for hours (White and Sheppard). At The Barracks, police propped open the main doors and erected spotlights; men were stripped, marked with the number of the room in which they were found, and forced to “bend over and submit to a rectal search.” In their accounts of the raids, many detainees at The Barracks recalled one specific officer who expressed a desire to violently harm the men in the bathhouse; one man writers, “I remember particularly [the officer’s] use of the word, ‘annihilate’—‘I wish these pipes were hooked up to gas so I could annihilate you all’” (White and Sheppard).
For many detainees, the violence continued long after the initial raids. Toronto Sun editor Peter Worthington, for example, repeatedly threatened to publish the names of gay men found in bathhouse raids (Rinaldi & Subdhan) and police reportedly contacted employers and families of found-ins, in an attempt to shame them (Meiners et al.). This last point makes one account submitted by a detainee particularly notable: “When they interviewed me, I noted that they recorded the more basic information on official looking forms. But I noticed they had a separate piece of plain paper. They went through my wallet and noted things on the plain paper like my O.H.I.P. No., citizenship card, car registration, company dental plan number, my charge cards, and social insurance number. I asked why,” the detainee continues, “and I was told ‘Don’t you question the police!’ They then went on and demanded to know where I worked, my employer’s name, the name of my superior and his capacity in the company as well as his phone number” (White and Sheppard). According to a report on the raid tabled by Toronto City Councillors White and Sheppard, one officer reportedly stared at a bathhouse detainee for minutes before asking “What’s wrong faggot—lost for words?”
“No More Shit”: A Gut Reaction
On February 6, 1981, less than twenty-four hours after the violent raids, Torontonians witnessed a spectacular transformation of the city. In Track Two, a documentary film that captures much of the immediate response to the raids, lesbian activist and influential queer organizer Chris Bearchell recalls a collective shock that resonated through the gay liberation movement and broader “progressive” community following the raids. The shock, she argues, “gave way to fury; women and men in the community went from disbelief to just rage.… Rather than letting that anger weigh us down—debilitate and demobilize us—we were able to channel it into a collective statement” (qtd. in Sutherland). She argues that the response to the bathhouse raids “tapped a current of feeling in the community,” and created space for people to voice their frustration with pervasive heteronormativity and homophobia in the city (qtd. in Sutherland).
A handbill created and distributed the morning of February 6, 1981—mere hours after the raids—indicated plainly that “Enough is enough.” This to-the-point handbill briefly outlined significant information pertaining to the raids: that hundreds of police officers raided and damaged “every major Toronto gay bath,” “273 men were arrested on bawdy house charges,” and, publicizing the quote—cited above—that would become a major catalyst for the response, noted, “One cop raiding the Barracks said: ‘too bad these showers weren’t hooked up to gas.’” Importantly, the handbill invited readers to participate in a protest that night at the intersection of Yonge and Wellesley Streets.
Douglas Chambers, an activist and academic who was involved in organizing the rally on February 6, remembers his skepticism during the planning: “The biggest rally we’ve ever had before,” he recalls in Track Two, “was not big enough to block the sidewalk, and the notion of blocking the intersection was, to me, out of the question” (qtd. in Sutherland). Chambers was “absolutely amazed” when he arrived at the intersection long before the rally was set to begin, and found that it was already blocked. That night, three thousand protestors took to the streets. The police, Chambers recalls, were “totally unprepared for that kind of reaction” (qtd. in Sutherland). John Burt, a “found-in” assaulted and charged by police the previous night, was similarly surprised by the sheer number of bodies he saw when he arrived at the intersection. Referring to the police, but also to the State and figures of a broader, homophobic culture, Burt recalls: “That’s when I decided to myself—they’re not going to get away with it” (qtd. in Sutherland).
The riot of February 6, 1981 was a watershed moment in Canadian history. Angry and oppressed individuals amassed and recognized their collective power. Protestors overwhelmed police, forcibly took over space within the city—without a permit or set plan—and registered their rage. “No more shit!” they screamed as they marched down Yonge Street (one of Toronto’s main roadways), repeating a phrase Bearchell uttered as the group formed. “Fuck you, 52!” they chanted, as they met a line of police at 52 Division, located at 255 Dundas Street West. There, protestors hollered “Pigs are shit!” and “Ackroyd Out”—identifying the Chief of Police by name. The protestors continued moving through the city and set their sights on the provincial legislature, mere blocks away; they nearly broke down the doors to the legislature before police arrived and beat them back (Nicol). By the time the protestors disbanded, their understanding of the world in which they live was transformed: collective action revealed shared queer desires and massed bodies signalled a direct sense of political power. Hours prior, organizers worried that no one would attend; instead, many bloody, bruised, and exhausted protestors dispersed through a transformed Toronto.
“Now is the Time”: A Collective Response
A second rally, planned for February 20, 1981, was framed as a rally and demonstration to “stop police harassment” of minority communities. Through the posters and handbills created to promote this rally, we can see the development of a response that recognizes a vulnerability shared among oppressed groups, and embraces a coalitional-style response.
While materials advertising the February 20th rally retain the “enough is enough” trope, the theme of uniting with other minority communities is most prominent. The poster above balances the spark of the rally—“protest the police raids against the gay community”—while simultaneously calling for a more expansive response, contending that “now is the time to unite with minority communities to call for an end to police harassment!” The sentiment to unite minoritarian communities is one that runs through the planning of the rally and the event itself. This is significant, indicating a collective desire for connecting across identity markers—race, sexuality, gender—that are too often perceived as limiting rather than generative.
A handbill that follows a similarly stark aesthetic style of the poster advertising the February 20th rally builds on the need for a coalitional response to police violence. It indicates that “Over the years, it hasn’t just been gays who have felt the brunt of police violence. Blacks and other visible minorities face racist and sexist police and street harassment.” Later, the handbill links the violence faced by gay men with “women who daily face sexism and harassment on this city’s streets” (“Stop Police Harassment” poster). Particularly notable in this handbill is the explicit link of the bathhouse raids to racist violence in the city. This is partly framed as a progressive narrative—“right now gays are on the front line of attack, as Blacks have been in the past”—despite that “past” being referenced still being very much in the city’s present: the murder of thirty-five year old Torontonian Albert Johnson, for example, a black man of Jamaican descent, who was shot and killed by two white Toronto Police Service officers months prior.
The connection between Johnson’s murder (by representatives of an institution that sustains white supremacy) and the violent raids of gay bathhouses (by individuals acting on behalf of a State predicated on heteronormativity) was equally prominent at the rally on February 20th. A featured speaker at the rally, Lemona Johnson (Albert Johnson’s widow) forcefully argued that “the raids and arrest of the Toronto gay community is a further indication that the police force of this city is lacking in discipline and proper supervision. The police force in this city is being used as a political tool by politicians…who achieve their personal and political gain at the [price] of the people of Ontario” (qtd. in Sutherland). Lemona Johnson’s presence at the rally is both admirable and impactful, and encourages participants—both at the event and contemporarily, looking back—to recognize political collectivity based on a shared desire for survival in the face of extreme state oppression.
An article in the April 1981 edition of The Body Politic, an influential gay liberation periodical published in Toronto, entitled “Who is Next? Me?” captures this collective sentiment well. Gerald Hannon, Bill Loos, Elinor Mahoney, Craig Patterson, and Roger Spalding, co-writers of the article, contend that “the sense that Toronto’s gay community had passed through its tentative political adolescence came the night of February 20,” a night in which a “spirit was there, a spirit growing from a sense of unity and determination.” They specifically credit Lemona Johnson as enabling a “stunning display of strength, unity, and determination” among the crowd of 4,000 marchers (Hannon et al.).
This sentiment, so prominent in the ephemeral materials advertising the events, will strike some as particularly, and perhaps problematically, generous. That “now is the time” for minoritarian communities to unite—following a violent attack on gay men and spaces that enable a very specific type of gay male pleasure—seems both convenient for gay men and discourteous (to put it mildly) to other individuals and communities who have long faced violence from police. But there is incredible potential in this desire, and embracing this sentiment allows us to access a historical impulse that can prove generative in our contemporary moment. My thinking here is animated by feminist imperatives broadly and, in particular, Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s contention that solidarity is “a political as well as ethical goal.” Coalitional politics and politics of solidarity can potentially reaffirm violent hierarchies—we see this often—but the potential disappointment of political plurality across difference does not mean we should reject the desire as a productive ideal. This work will often require a de-centering of whiteness in the present and a re-affirmation of difference in the past.
“Black Lives Matter?”
My interest in this call for political collectivity across limiting identity markers stems from the severe lack of this impulse in contemporary mainstream LGBTQ organizing and the resulting detriment to queer critique. In an era in which mainstream LGBTQ organizing embraces the reproduction of normative modes of relation and the erasure of race and racism, the potential of collectivity across difference (sparked by non-normative modes of intimacy and sex, no less) seems crucially important. In The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy, David L. Eng suggests that ours is a moment in which defiance and resistance is far lower on the mainstream LGBTQ agenda than a “desire for state legitimacy” and recognition. This is perhaps not surprising. Sarah Schulman calls our moment one in which “homosexuality loses its own transformative potential and strives instead to be banal.” Ours is a moment in which gayness, particularly when it collides with whiteness, “proper” gender performance, wealth, and normative behaviours, has developed contemporary cultural and political capital. Relatedly, assimilation into normative modes of behaviour and relationships has been embraced by many as the ideal.
Significantly, Eng argues, the assimilationist politics that have gripped the mainstream LGBTQ movement rely on a “logic of colourblindness” and work to oppose a politics of intersectionality, ignoring the ways that “sexuality and race are constituted in relation to one another,” and the cultural discourses that surround both are so tightly bound that talking about one without the other is often futile (4). So perhaps the overwhelming silence of mainstream LGBTQ representatives and organizations on the ongoing violence faced by black individuals in contemporary culture is unsurprising. But it is certainly troubling—and when we recognize the importance of political collectivity across identity markers in the development and ideals of gay liberation politics, this contemporary disconnect is particularly heinous. The Human Rights Commission’s (HRC) statement on Ferguson, for example, following the grand jury’s failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson, is ineffectual and muted, encouraging “peaceful protests and reflection” (“HRC”).
A number of writers have critiqued the vapid response to racist violence offered by mainstream LGBTQ organizations and LGBTQ individuals more broadly. In his article “Gays Condemning Riots: The Greatest of Hypocrisies,” for example, Matt Comer critiques gay men who “condemn the rioting in the aftermath of extreme miscarriages of justice for black people, all the while ignoring the fact they gather once a year to openly celebrate and commemorate a riot—a violent outburst that served as the so-called birth of their movement” (Comer). Gabe Gonzalez, in his article “Do Black Lives Matter to Gays?” similarly claims that the pervasive silence among mainstream LGBTQ organizations and members suggests a complacency in a racist culture that excuses extraordinary violence against people of colour.
While the desire for political collectivity in the face of police violence is missing from dominant, mainstream LGBTQ organizations, the impulse remains perceptible in some contemporary political organizing. Importantly, a number of groups are actively working against the cleaving of race and sexuality, especially around queer, trans*, and feminist issues, including, but certainly not limited to, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the Audre Lorde Project. This impulse is shared by many smaller groups of activists: the increasingly used #blacklivesmatter hashtag was started by three queer women of colour—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and to “affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.” While mainstream LGBTQ organizations seemingly claim that “gay is the new black,” thereby situating racism squarely in the past, smaller-scale organizing around race and sexuality is showing this claim to be increasingly illogical and untenable. Let’s not be misled by the financial and cultural power of mainstream LGBTQ organizations—the groups identifying and fighting at the intersection of violences against oppressed individuals are the ones building on the radical politics perceptible in the response to the Toronto bathhouse raids of 1981 and broader gay liberation politics of the era.
What we see, when we look back to the Toronto bathhouse raids of 1981 and the political response that followed, is a sense of publicness: a desire for collectivity that embraces difference and intimacy among strangers who are similarly vulnerable. We see this desire in the baths, to be sure, through first-hand accounts of sex therein, but can similarly perceive this impulse in the political response to the raids. Political collectivity, gained through intimacy, broadly conceived, is transformative. This rings especially true in a cultural moment animated by a dwindling sense of agency in public discourse and an increasingly “progressive” homonormative LGBTQ political movement.
The ephemera that animate this article all speak to a moment that is behind us, but the impulse that they archive remains crucially important to the present. The desire for collectivity that these texts evidence must be recalled and insisted on in the present in order to regain a queer politics inspired by political collectivity based on difference rather than assimilation. These texts offer a compelling critique of the present by evidencing a sensibility of what was once deemed possible and worth fighting for. They simultaneously gesture toward a political maneuver in which the ideals are not the simple incorporation into a mainstream but rather an embracing of negation. Accordingly, they capture a utopian impulse that—attainable or not—enacts a vision of a world unconstrained from white supremacy, violent homophobia, and the erasure of collectivity through difference.
A current and pervasive desire for normative political respectability is presented as a productive strategy for LGBTQ individuals. And it certainly is—for some. But let’s be clear: assimilationist gay politics claim a collectivity that is, according to José Esteban Muñoz, a specific set of “queers with enough access to capital to imagine a life integrated within North American capitalist culture.” These pragmatic politics do not just erase the existence of certain LGBTQ individuals who do not fit a specific archetype of mainstream, respectable gayness, but simultaneously sanitize history and the ideals for political plurality that we can perceive therein. We must work against this normalization process, return to previous moments, and mine this history for politics that were too quickly abandoned for an easier route for some into the realm of respectability.
Revisiting the raids and the response, both of which exist in a moment before sex was eradicated from the public performance of gayness and political difference was deemed insignificant to the broader LGBTQ movement, allows us access to desires that can once again animate our politics. Contemporary queer politics must call on this evidence and these impulses—once in the present but now in the past—as possibilities once again for the future. ♦
Special thanks to Nisha Eswaran, Meredith Evans, Susan Fast, and Mary O’Connor, each of whom offered thoughtful advice and valuable critique throughout the writing process.
All images are courtesy of Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
“No More Shit!” is from our Sex Issue (winter 2014/2015)