The Velvet Fist

Lesbian and Gay Liberation in 1981 Toronto

On February 6, just after midnight, 3000 gay men and lesbians rioted down the main street of Toronto. That night, later known as Canada’s version of the Stonewall Riots, is considered the birth of the LGBT movement in Canada.

Demonstration at police headquarters on June 20, 1981.






























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. 


That night followed the brutal mass arrest the previous night of 286 gay men by 150 Metropolitan Toronto Police Officers. The arrests occurred at four gay bathhouses. Despite being offered keys by managers and patrons, the police used sledgehammers and crowbars to smash walls, windows, and lockers. In one bathhouse, the men were shoved into the shower room, where numbers were written on the backs of their hands. One officer said, “Too bad these showers aren’t hooked up to gas.” Another officer pointed to a man’s wedding ring and said, “You’re going to wish you stayed at home with your wife, faggot.” An arrestee was later quoted as saying that he really understood his parents, Holocaust survivors, for the first time.

            In the year that followed, Toronto’s newly visible and united gay and lesbian community defied the expectations of the police, society, and its own members, organizing and attending numerous unprecedented political actions and demonstrations.  

The community also began to offer self-defense classes, and formed a gay street patrol to protect its own members from gay bashers and police. In June, the first Toronto Gay Pride Parade was held.  Following an afternoon of festivities in Grange Park, 1500 stepped out in the light of day for the first time, in front of the media, carrying banners, nosily blowing whistles, and chanting.  

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.

Progress on this project has been made possible by the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, and generosity of interviewees Rosemary Barnes, John Burt, Lawrence Bennet, Bob Gallagher, 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, Ron Rosenes, Mariana Valverde, and Tom Warner.


Funding for the research for this book has been provided by the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in the form of a Dresher Center For The Humanities Residential Faculty Research Fellowship, as well as a College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Dean's Research Fund award and a Special Research Assistantship /Initiative Support award.