Why the Toronto police chief’s apology for 1981 bathhouse raids will be a historic one
Karolyn Coorsh, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, June 21, 2016 12:22PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, June 21, 2016 3:46PM EDT
Toronto’s police chief is set to make a formal public apology this week for the bathhouse raids in 1981, one of the most significant turning points in the fight for LGBT rights in Canadian history.
Last February marked the 35th anniversary of the raids, in which hundreds of officers stormed four downtown bathhouses and arrested more than 200 gay men on charges of indecency and prostitution.
Toronto police confirmed to CTV News that Chief Mark Saunders will apologize for the police raids at his annual Pride reception on Wednesday.
The raids targeted establishments where gay men went to feel safe and socialize at a time when homosexuals were not accepted by society.
No one within the Toronto Police Service has ever taken responsibility for the raids, which took place the evening of Feb. 5, 1981.
More than 100 officers, armed with crowbars and sledgehammers, stormed the Club Baths, the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa, The Barracks and the Richmond Street Emporium. The police officers caused thousands of dollars in property damage, and in the end, more than 200 people were arrested and charged under “bawdy house” laws.
“This is a very shocking thing for our community and for the city as a whole, actually, because there had never been such a large arrest of so many people at the same time,” activist and CEO of Pink Triangle Press Ken Popert told CTV’s Marci Ien in 2014.
It was just the beginning in the fight for sexual freedom in Canada. On Feb. 6, 1981, a day after the raids, hundreds of gay activists and supporters rallied in the streets, calling for equal rights and accusing police of harassment and persecution.
Chanting “gay rights now!” and carrying signs that read “Equal rights for all,” hundreds of demonstrators marched the streets, shutting roads down to traffic. The demonstration was the first of many that year, Popert pointed out.
“You have to understand that up until that point, those of us who were gay activists, we weren’t very successful, most people who were more or less happy with the status quo, as wretched as it was, and so we never had a very big following until that night, and that changed everything,” Popert said, adding it was the beginning of a “long period of disturbance” and clashes with the police and anti-gay protesters.
Community health advocate Ron Rosenes was among the hundreds of men arrested during the raids. The then-33-year-old and his boyfriend went to the bathhouse on occasion.
“We thought we were in a safe place, engaging in legal activities,” Rosenes said in an interview on CTV News Channel on Tuesday.
The night of the raids, he was in a room alone wearing a towel when police officers broke down the door, and “roughly escorted me to the front of the Roman bathhouse, where I was gathered with everyone else and we were held,” Rosenes said.
He said he was given a summons to appear in court and went home. Others he said, were handled “more roughly” and taken down to the police station “if they really objected to the arrest” or were found in possession of small amounts of marijuana.
He added the next night, the community said, “We’re not going to take this crap anymore.”
More than 3,000 demonstrators assembled at the corner of Church and Wellesley, now known as the heart of Toronto’s gay community, to demonstrate, Rosenes said.
“In a way, it was our Stonewall moment in Canada, and really, the beginning of the major push for equality of LGBT rights in Canada.”
Rosenes said he’s waiting to hear what Saunders says on Wednesday, but believes an apology will be the beginning of a dialogue around police relations. He said he is also hoping it will lead to the “repeal of some remaining elements of what I would call homophobic laws that are unfortunately, still with us.”
He also hopes an apology is the “first step” toward the possibility of pardons and expunging the records of people whose lives, jobs and relationships were “really turned upside down” by the raids.
Saunders plans to march Toronto’s Pride parade, taking place on July 3.