The Velvet Fist:

Lesbian and Gay Liberation in 1981 Toronto

In addition to my visual work, I am currently researching and writing a novel of historic fiction. The novel is set in 1981 Toronto, and traces political events of that year, as well as the workaday lives of the gay men and lesbians who were involved.


On February 5, 1981, just past 11:00 p.m., 150 officers from the Toronto Metropolitan Police Force raided

four gay male bathhouses, arresting over 300 gay men, the second largest mass arrest in Canadian

history.  These bathhouses had operated almost undisturbed for decades. Despite being offered keys by bathhouse managers and patrons, the police used sledgehammers and crowbars to smash walls and

windows, and to break into lockers and rooms.  Gay men were shoved and herded outside, into sub-

freezing temperatures, where they were put into waiting paddy wagons, and taken in for booking, under

a little-used law, as “found-ins” of a bawdy house (i.e. prostitutes in a house of prostitution). In one of

the bathhouses, prior to being moved outside, the gay men were forced into the shower room. Numbers

were written on their backs, and one officer remarked, “Too bad these showers aren’t hooked up to gas.”


The following night at midnight, 3,000 gay men and lesbians, including me, rioted.  We were emboldened

not only by our youth and our anger toward the police and others who discriminated against us, but also

by the advances that had been made by American lesbians and gays living in New York City and

San Francisco.






































Following the mass arrest of gay men on the night of February 5, 1981, this flyer was typeset and printed the following day. Early in the evening of February 6 runners delivered 4,000 copies to the gay bars, where other runners were waiting to further distribute the flyers. 

Lesbians, gay men, drag queens, and allies gathered at Yonge and Wellesley at midnight on February 6, 1981.  The crowd would swell to 3,000 protestors.


























A report the following day in the Toronto Star newspaper. 


In the year that followed, a mostly united and newly visible gay and lesbian community defied the

expectations of the police, society, and, to some degree, ourselves, organizing and attending numerous unprecedented political activities. These included the first Toronto Pride Day Parade, the first Gay

Freedom Rally, and the first Dyke March, as well as a march against fully hooded Klansmen (KKK).

There was a defense fund established to aid the bathhouse found-ins and owners, and Revered Brent Hawkes went on a 25-day hunger strike to force an independent inquiry into the raids.  Members of the community continued the fight for the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected class in The Ontario Human Rights Code. As well, the community began low-cost self-defense classes and formed a gay

street patrol to protect community members from both gay bashers and the police. Meanwhile, as our community mobilized and responded, a suspicious fire shuttered a Lesbian bar, and a serial killer,

as well as a strange new cancer, was targeting gay men.

During the February 20th demonstration, marshals would catch police officers, who were undercover as gay men, using box cutters to slice the banner they were helping carry.

Demonstration at police headquarters on June 20, 1981.

Demonstration at police headquarters on June 20, 1981.

Demonstration at police headquarters on June 20, 1981.

Progress on this project has been made possible by the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, and generosity of interviewees Rosemary Barnes, Lawrence Bennet, Amy Gottlieb, Gerald Hannon, Mary Harvey, Brent Hawkes, Ed Jackson, Gary Kinsman, Elinor Mahoney, Tim McCaskell, Pearse Murray, Deb Parent, Ken Popert, Marie Robertson, Gillian Rodgerson, Mariana Valverde, and Tom Warner.

Funding has been provided by the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in the form of a  College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Dean's Research Fund award and a Special Research Assistantship/Initiative Support award.