Thirty-five years after the raids, we head back into Toronto's bathhouses—and get breakfast.
Asha urban baths
Follow the smell of chlorine down an alleyway in the Church-Wellesley Village, pass through a set of heavy metal doors and up a flight of stairs, and there is Steamworks. Go a few blocks south and there is Spa Xcess. There is the Oasis Aqualounge, which also markets itself to heterosexuals. But by and large, these are establishments by and for gay men, and they have always been so. Inthe year of the bathhouse raidsthey went by different names—the Barracks, the Richmond Street Health Emporium, the rather indiscreetly named Back Door Gym—but the concept was the same.
You pay to get in under the pretense of working out or going for a shvitzand spend a few hours pacing and mingling. In truth everyone is there for the explicit purpose of no-strings-attached sex. Up until the raids, baths were popular because, in those early days of the gay pride movement, the other options bars, public restrooms were riskier and seemed more liable to infiltration by the police.
Aire ancient baths
Its officers led a raid on The Parkside, a local gay bar, in A popular washroom for hooking up in Greenwin Square was similarly monitored and used to entrap men who came looking for sex. But the baths were considered safer.
The emphasis on cruising and on fucking was the ultimate queer shibboleth. Undercover officers who scoped out the t as part of the six-month undercover Operation Soap were probably serviced freely and willingly, but that did not stop then-police chief Jack Ackroyd from authorizing the raids on the basis of antiquated anti-prostitution laws. They came wielding crowbars and sledgehammers, smashed through walls and doors, and herded hundreds of men wearing only their towels into front lobbies. In total, men were arrested and charged that night, making it the largest mass arrest in Canadian history—a record that stood until the G20 protests in Almost immediately after the raids, the outcry was such that Chief Ackroyd was forced to issue a terse half-apology.
Aire ancient baths
The public saw through police attempts to pass off the raids as a mere anti-prostitution sting, and recognized it for what it really was: an assault on the nascent organized gay community. Undercover cops who were already in the baths when the raids transpired wore tiny red stickers to identify themselves to their fellow officers.
I thought of those little red dots when I visited Steamworks on a Thursday night, when the lights are dimmed even lower than usual and visitors are given keychain lasers whose pointillist rays can be aimed at prospective suitors. The locker room wraps around a glass-walled space that includes showers, a wet and dry sauna, a small pool, and a hot tub. Across the hall from the lockers is a very dark room that can only be described as a sex maze. The many private, rentable rooms take up the rest of the space, though there is a second set of showers and another dark area.
Asha urban baths
There is a full gym, brightly lit though unused except by the occasional gym bunny looking to get his pump on. The entire space is kept immaculately clean, a far cry from the stereotype of the sketchy or grungy bathhouse.
The baths have endured despite repeated predictions of their imminent demise, prompted first by the HIV-AIDS crisis in the s and 90s, and then by hook-up apps like Grindr in the s. In the early morning hours, after the bars let out, there is often a wait list for rooms. Ten thousand men passed through Spa Xcess inaccording to its owners.
Far from operating as havens for the closeted or ashamed, bathhouses seem to thrive in places where the gay community has by and large already been liberated. The appeal lies in the immediacy of the experience itself, of checking out other men in the flesh. Cruising online collapses the reality of another body into pixels and a series of statistics that allow for sorting by age, race, body type. There was the fellow from Niagara who worked in a chicken slaughterhouse; the personal-injury lawyer who was smoking meth; the hormonal year-old from rural Ontario who seemed astounded that such a place of casual sex could actually exist.
Up until the Supreme Court intervened ina place like Steamworks was, in the eyes of the law, a bawdy house. The scene inside a place like Steamworks—teeming masses of men, naked but for a towel and sometimes not even that, all there for the singular purpose of getting laid—is nothing if not bawdy. Group sex is par for the course, orgies arise in the sauna spontaneously. The scene is funny, it is bawdy, but it certainly does not feel as though it should be illegal.
Officers sat on the sunny patio and fielded questions from passersby. A large contingent of police march every year in the Pride Parade, celebrating the very community the force once persecuted.
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The staff had set out a table laden with breakfast food: yogurt cups, mini-croissants, bananas, and coffee. Towelled guests paused their hedonism and gathered around to eat and banter in the early-morning light. A new day was beginning.