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September 19, 2000 10:26pm
Toronto Cops "Tour" Bathhouse
Source: PlanetOut

(TORONTO, CANADA) -- The city's new police chief had entered under a cloud of suspicion, but the "visit" several officers paid to a lesbian sauna soiree has turned it into a raging storm.

Toronto's lesbians were looking forward to their one big "women's night" of the year at a bathhouse, having snapped up all the advance tickets in just ten minutes and turning out more than three hundred strong on September 14 - 15 -- but five male police officers were unwelcome guests as they wandered through Club Toronto for more than an hour before taking the names of about ten women and leaving without making any arrests.

Police insist it was a routine inspection triggered by organizers' special event liquor license. However the women called it harassment, and the police visit angered the lesbian and gay community at a time when it's trying with some trepidation to develop a working relationship with the department under new Chief Julian Fantino. In fact a community meeting had already been scheduled for September 17 to discuss a police liaison committee. The Club Toronto police action is under review; a community response to it will be planned at a meeting September 19.

The five officers arrived at about 1 AM when the all-night event was at its height. Calling the visit a liquor inspection, one officer interrogated the event's volunteer organizers, the Toronto Women's Bathhouse Committee, which has held similar events for five years without incident. The other officers toured all four floors of the building, knocking on doors and talking with participants. Many of the women were nude or only partly clothed, since the sauna, hot tub and pool were the focus of the event.

There are competing versions of exactly what happened and how. The initial Globe & Mail report had police present for an hour and a quarter; Toronto Star reports had police present for three hours and saying they were responding to a complaint. Eye Magazine had the officers attempting to intimidate participants even before entering the building, and chatting with each other afterwards about the undressed women they'd seen. After organizers had specifically complained to the press that they didn't understand why the department could not have sent female officers for this routine inspection, 52 Division commander Superintendent Aidan Maher told the Star that women officers had been present at the bathhouse.

The department said the following day that some charges might be pending against some women as the investigation continued, although there were no reports of further action through September 18.

The usually all-male Club Toronto, a licensed bathhouse, is in the ward of gay City Councilmember Kyle Rae, who was quick to tell the Globe & Mail, "This is an outrage. An outrage to a community that has established itself as equal but different. The police have not been into a bathhouse investigating a complaint in almost twenty years. I'm shaking, I'm so angry." He later told the Star that some police officers had actually called him later in the day to find out what had happened at the bathhouse. Rae, who had opposed Fantino's selection, complained, "The police at headquarters had no idea what those goons at 52 Division undercover are doing. I think there are a bunch of renegades working out of 52 Division undercover. It's a morality squad. That is how the unit is operating."

At a press conference September 18 Rae said, "There's something fishy in this one. The police are on a trail, and it's a trail of harassment in our community. I am looking forward to that investigation [of the police action] being completed. I do not want this dangling in mid-air [while Fantino goes to the Olympics on September 21]. This needs to be easily resolved by the police baking off, by respecting our space, acknowledging what the community has done over twenty years."

None of this was a good lead-in for the September 17 community meeting with police to discuss the establishment of a liaison committee, like the five that now exist for racial/ethnic groups. As Women's Bathhouse Night participant Sue Goldstein told the Globe & Mail, "Raiding us three days before this meeting to talk about working together was a kick in the teeth." The June 13 Committee -- formed after a big police raid last year on a now-defunct private bar with notorious sex events, which resulted in arrests but not prosecutions of patrons -- called for shutting down the meeting altogether. As it was, less than fifty people attended, and they spent most of the four-hour meeting expressing their rage at the raid.

As proposed by police, the liaison committee would be a monthly meeting of four or five officers with eight to ten representatives from the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community. How to select those representatives is something the community must determine. Most of those at the community meeting believed there should be a liaison group, but there was little optimism as to what kind of difference it might make. On the upside, it would offer a forum for dialog, and as one participant suggested, it would help police to understand the context of the GLBT community. Yet as another participant noted, the liaison group would be an opportunity to make input, but the real need was for police accountability. One of the organizer remarked that the committee would not obviate the need for continued activism and political lobbying. One sticking point in the discussion was a police requirement that community liaisons have no criminal record, which it was noted would exclude ! se! x workers -- who needed representation at least as much as anyone else.

Chief Fantino has been trying to mend fences with the community since before his selection in March; he even held a reception at a gay bar for Pride Week. He has been viewed with great suspicion for his past leadership of a major police operation against an alleged pedophile pornography ring in London, Ontario -- an operation which appeared to target only gay men. But his call for calm on September 18 was not well designed to smooth community hackles. He told reporters that, "Much has been said and so much of it inflammatory. To expect the police to go running from our duty and responsibilities is unconscionable, so the people need to just relax and let's see what the facts say or tell us, then deal with it then. But so much of it is rhetoric right now." He also said that, "My understanding is that they were there to basically do what we do day in and day out all the time -- that is monitor and investigate issues pertaining to issuing of liquor licenses. It's a rou! ti! ne occurrence."

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