With the unprecedented building boom in Toronto the human scale intimacy of a downtown street such as Widmer, a narrow street lined with old Victorian row houses on one side, is becoming rare. It’s hard to imagine the unassuming house at 56 Widmer as a key historic queer space linked to one of the most important events of Canada’s gay liberation movement, the 1981 Toronto Bathhouse Riots. One of the first businesses to open on Widmer Street in 1931, then known as ‘a street of Finnish tailors’, was the Finnish Steam Bath, a business that catered to garment workers in the district. The building was purchased and renovated by several men, including well know gay community leader George Hislop, and re-opened in the mid-70’s as a gay bathhouse, The Barracks.
December 9th Raid
We interviewed artist/educator Andy Fabo in front of 56 Widmer, where he recalled details of the Barracks police raid of December 9th, 1978. He was working in the front reception area called ‘the cage’ when plainclothes cops pushed their way through and arrested 23 men as found-ins and 5 as keepers. Andy described the cops as aggressive and abusive – their actions resembling that of frat boys in a hazing ritual to intimidate and humiliate. The raid surprised him since owner George Hislop had developed a good relationship with the morality squad and was transparent about the private activities that took place at The Barracks.
The Right to Privacy Committee
The Barracks raid resulted in the formation of the December 9th Defense Fund, which later became the Right to Privacy Committee. The RTPC assisted and defended the men convicted in the Barracks raid and within several years grew to be the largest gay organisation in Canada. The court proceedings dragged on for several years and in June 1981 Provincial Court Judge Harold Rice found Andy Fabo and Paul Gaudet guilty as charged but acquitted Barracks owners George Hislop, Rick Stenhouse and Jerry Levy. The evening of the verdict the RTPC organised a protest on Yonge Street that drew a crowd of 2000 people.
1981 Bathhouse Raids
The Barracks raid of 78 was said to set a precedent for future raids of Toronto’s bathhouses and deteriorating relations between the gay community and the police . On the evening of February 5th 1981 The Barracks was raided again when over 150 police simultaneously raided the Club Baths, the Romans II Health and Recreation Spa and the Richmond Street Health Emporium. More than 300 men were arrested, the largest mass arrest in Canada since the October Crisis in Montreal. The next evening more that 3000 protesters staged a mass demonstration against the raid. It wasn’t all anger and strife that evening, Andy was working at a very quiet Barracks during the riots and fondly recalled hooking up with Tim Jocelyn who soon became his partner and creative collaborator with the ChromaZone artist collective.
The row of Victorian houses on Widmer Street will soon be demolished to make way for a 40 floor condo development.
The site interview with Andy Fabo is included in the Queerstory app launched June 20th at World Pride in Toronto.