Canada’s LGBTQ Movement Began in Toronto Gay Bars and Bathhouses

It has been 36 years since the Toronto bathhouse raids, Operation Soap, and the protests that followed. It was a watershed moment in local history, which galvanized the local community and started a movement. Since then, some LGBTQ communities have become more visible in the city, more mainstream, while others continue to live in the margins and face discrimination. From the beginning of the movement, gay and lesbian bars and bathhouses have acted as a sanctuary for queer and trans people, a place to organize, to cruise, and a place to connect with community.

Two events at Myseum of Toronto’s Intersections festival, which runs to the end of March, are highlighting queer history in Toronto and using it as a springboard for discussions about the past, present, and possible futures for LGBTQ Torontonians.

No More S#%&!: Operation Soap Revisited is a multi-part event that held its community conversation and World Cafe on March 12 at the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Organizers Marcus Peterson and Jeffrey Canton were inspired to host an in-depth discussion on the legacy of Operation Soap when they saw the play Raid at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. They said they realized that one performance couldn’t fully address all the issues raised by Operation Soap, so they decided to host the panel, World Cafe, and storytelling performances.

The panelists were Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees founder Arsham Parsi; author, playwright, and filmmaker Alec Butler; historian Tom Hooper, whose PhD dissertation was on the 1981 bathhouse raids; and Mark-Ché Devonish of the RUDE Collective. The panel was moderated by A.W. Lee.

Part of the goal, say Canton and Peterson, was to bring together people of different generations. “We want to highlight how short memory is,” Canton says. “We forget that the people who were participating in the politics of 1981 are still involved in politics today.”

But the conversation was not just about acknowledging the history of the raids. The panelists were guided by four discussion questions, which included: how do we address criminalization and targeted policing of members of our communities? What’s the most effective way of moving forward in addressing this relationship with the police while keeping all members of our community safe? The panelists spoke about their experiences with police and about how some relationships between the LGBTQ community and law enforcement have improved, but many queer and trans people of colour still experience violence. Before the discussion, Peterson said he “would love for people attending the forum to feel less confident about what they thought going in.”

Following the panel, a World Cafe discussion, where each table attempted to answer the same four questions posed to the panelists, brought up problems with the current model of policing and suggested some solutions. The floor was then opened for questions, and the afternoon ended with a discussion of privilege and intersectionality. Canton and Peterson plan to incorporate the stories and ideas brought up at the 519 into the No More S#%&! performances on March 22 from 7–9 p.m. at Glad Day Bookshop, March 25 from 2–4 p.m. at Glad Day, and March 26 at The Gladstone Hotel as part of the Toronto Storytelling Festival.

Another Intersections exhibit on Toronto’s LGBTQ history will also be at Glad Day Bookshop. Gay & Night, a film project by Lauren Hortie and Sonya Reynolds, incorporates archive materials from the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, the largest independent LGBTQ archive in the world, into a shadow puppet film. Each element is delicately hand cut on black paper and scrolled on an overhead projector to create the film.

Hortie and Reynolds have worked on two previous shadow puppet films about LGBTQ history in Toronto: Whatever Happened to Jackie Shane? (2014), about a Black, cross-dressing Nashville-born musician who had a hit song in 1963 that became an “underground gay anthem” before suddenly disappearing, and Midnight at the Continental (2015), about the lesbian bar that opened in The Ward in the 1950s and served lesbians and the many Chinese bachelors who lived in the area. Gay & Night,the third in the trilogy of queer history films, will focus on activism and nightlife in the 1970s.

Hortie is also a DJ and says that while the LGBTQ community is often known for politics, “there is so much more to any culture than its activism.”

“Bar culture is where queer people really connected,” Reynolds adds.

Queer bars were, for some, the only places to build community and feel safe. But, like bathhouses, they could also be targeted for police scrutiny or abuse. Reynolds also points out that there are problems to building a community around the consumption of alcohol, fun as the parties can be. They can also be outlets for creativity, as people dance, wear costumes, or perform in drag. Reynolds and Hortie say they want to help people connect to history through stories of “people living life.”

The two filmmakers also want to emphasize that gay nightlife is creating culture. Some of the things they found in the archives during their research were old promotional posters for dance parties and other ephemera. Because they’ve been preserved, they take on a new resonance and help tell the stories of queer parties from past generations.

Gay & Night is showing at Glad Day from March 20 to April 3 (see myseumoftoronto.com/event/gay-and-night for times). The opening reception is at Glad Day March 24 from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m.

 

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