Remembering "Operation Soap"
By Victoria Meyer
Each year during Pride Month, citizens in the city of Toronto come together and connect in unison to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community, and reminisce all of the problems they have overcome, and triumphs they have made.
Now, in 2019, members of the LGBTQ+ community are protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and supposedly enjoy the same rights as heterosexual citizens. However, this was not always the case in Toronto.
This year marks the anniversary of a series of police raids at four bathhouses in Toronto, 38 years ago on February 5, 1981. At the time, this was the largest police raid to ever happen in the city, with over 200 police officers involved in what was called “Operation Soap”. The raids were a result of a six-month undercover procedure, to seize those involved in “indecent acts” and alleged prostitution.
Nearly 300 men were arrested during the raids, and now 38 years later it is still acknowledged as one of the most “destructive” acts of police arrests ever made in the city.
Toronto lawyer Doug Elliot, who is openly gay, wasn’t at the bathhouse but still vividly remembers the aftermath of the raids as it happened right before his eyes.
“We were treated in the most demeaning way. People were dragged out into the street naked. The Richmond Street baths were smashed to bits by sledgehammers,” he said.
Toronto newspapers published the names of men who were arrested in the raids, not for grief but instead to ridicule.
According to Elliott: “That was to make sure that they were outed to their families and friends, so that they would lose their jobs and they would be humiliated”.
It is sickening to think that this was not the only time the LGBTQ+ community was mistreated by police officers in Toronto. Starting in 1978, there were a number of small-scale police raids unto bathhouses in the city, which continued until after Operation Soap brought many protests.
The following night, over 3000 citizens marched together along the police station on Dundas Street, chanting “Gay Rights Count!” Eventually violence resulted between the protesters, police officers, and homophobic citizens – ending in 11 arrests, an injured police officer, and many smashed cars and street-windows.
The public’s reaction was an outcry against police brutality, that before went unnoticed in the city. Because of this, many of those arrested during the raids were later found innocent of the charges originally laid against them.
Though the city came together against the discrimination of the LGBTQ+ community, things did not stop there. More raids continued up until the late 1990’s within lesbian strip clubs and gay nightclubs. This only aided more support towards the LGBTQ+ community, which eventually allowed Pride Parade to become a significant event in Toronto.
In 2016, multiple police officers who were a part of Operation Soap came forward to express their sincere apologies.
This was “a good start”, according to Elliot, but he claims that the media, the government, and the churches “need to apologize” because they are all held accountable for the ways the LGBTQ+ community were treated.
Luckily today the LGBTQ+ community is treated with a lot more respect, not just from police officers but also from members of the city. Many police officers take part in Pride Parade, however, as of 2018, police officers in uniform are banned from entering the march. This is with due respect to the past cases of police brutality against LGBTQ+ individuals.
Everything that led to the bathhouse raids of 1981, continue to be a problematic and traumatic event in the history of Toronto and the LGBTQ+ community.
With the upcoming Pride Parade, it is recommended that everyone takes part to show their support towards the LGBTQ+ community.
*Victoria Meyer is currently an undergraduate student - Communication Studies (Honours) at the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, York University.
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