Opinion

The gay community has long been over-policed and under-protected. The Bruce McArthur case is the final straw

The community's frustration over the way that police have handled the investigation into alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur might have been the final straw, so to speak, but it's just part of a decades-long struggle for fair treatment from police.

Pride's request that police withdraw from the upcoming parade stems from decades of frustration

For casual observers, it might seem like the request from Pride that police withdraw their application to the parade came out of nowhere. But this was a long time coming. (David Donnelly/CBC)

There is a long history of over-policing and under-protecting Toronto's LGBTQ2 community. That's what's at the heart of the request that Toronto Police withdraw their application to participate in the upcoming Pride Parade.

The community's frustration over the way that police have handled the investigation into alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur might have been the final straw, so to speak, but it's exacerbated by a decades-long struggle for fair treatment from police.

1970s Cold cases

Back in November 1978, William Duncan Robinson was found stabbed to death in his apartment. He was the 14th gay man murdered in Toronto since 1975. Including Robinson, seven of these cases remain unsolved.

At the time of the investigations, potential witnesses were reluctant to speak to police because they were concerned about how they might be treated. They were also worried if they came forward with information, they themselves might be charged with some sort of offence, or that they might be publicly outed. And members of the community had good reason worry about that.

On December 9, 1978, less than two weeks after Robinson was found dead, police raided Toronto's Barracks bathhouse. Twenty-eight men were charged under the bawdy house law for acts of indecency. The membership list for the Barracks, with over 800 names, was also seized. In the weeks following the raid, a police staff sergeant notified the employers of six men charged.

Community activists rallied around the men and formed a new organization called the Right to Privacy Committee (RTPC). This group made various attempts to call out and correct police injustice.

They demanded action in response to police's apparent indifference to routine violence toward the community on Halloween. Throughout the 1970s, the annual Halloween drag parade outside the St. Charles Tavern on Yonge Street increasingly turned violent, with homophobic crowds gathering to hurl eggs and insults. The police were often seen turning their backs to the mob, refusing to protect the people going into the bar.

Police carding was another major issue raised during this time. In April 1979, the RTPC joined forces with black community groups and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to stand against police identification practices. As part of a briefing note presented to the Metropolitan Toronto Board of Commissioners of Police, the RTPC asked, "Are the people of Toronto having their tax dollars spent on collecting and disseminating lists of gay people?"

A man with blood streaming down his face scuffles with police outside the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Feb. 6, 1981 after about 1000 gay rights demonstrators marched there in protest of raids. (Gary Hershorn/Canadian Press)

The RTPC raised the issue of unsolved murders of gay men. They pleaded with the police commissioners to try to solve these murders as to prevent any more tragic deaths, but also pointed out the problem with asking the community for assistance. "How can homicide officers get full cooperation from the gay community when some other group of police are criminalizing and harassing gays by raiding gay steambaths?" they asked.

The police didn't listen. On the night of February 5, 1981, 200 police agents raided four gay bathhouses and arrested 306 men, all charged under the bawdy house law. The RTPC mobilized street protests and co-ordinated a legal strategy that resulted in successful defences for 87 per cent of those charged. Amid this fight against police repression, Toronto held its first official Pride Parade in June 1981. But it was not a celebration of inclusion: it was a demonstration against discrimination and police injustice.

Warning: offensive language. Raw footage of street demonstrations after the Toronto bathhouse raids in 1981. 2:02

After the bath raids, Mayor Art Eggleton asked law journalist Arnold Bruner to conduct an inquiry into the relationship between the gay community and the police. Bruner's 1981 study, however, was not to investigate the bathhouse raids because the matter was still before the courts. Nevertheless, he came back with 16 recommendations, which included things like police officially recognizing the gay community as a legitimate minority, prohibiting the use of offensive language by officers, ceasing the use of entrapment techniques and other measures regarding police training and hiring practices.

Few of these recommendations were actually adopted. The first request — to establish a gay-police dialogue committee — took 10 years to develop. Others were never implemented, including a moratorium on arrests for acts of consensual sex in washrooms and parks. As recently as 2016, police were going undercover in the bushes of Toronto's Marie Curtis Park to arrest men for these acts. 

'Nobody was coming to us'

The mysterious murders of gay men in the community continued. In November 1981, John Henry Martin was found stabbed to death in his Jarvis Street apartment. While his killer was later found, the investigation initially hit a wall. But instead of reflecting on their own practices, police blamed members of the community. One staff sergeant was quotedas saying, "We're running into a lot of problems with gay people who just won't come forward."

This sounds awfully similar to the remarks made by Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders, who said of the recent killings in the LGBTQ2 community: "We knew that people were missing and we knew we didn't have the right answers. But nobody was coming to us with anything."

The Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention has argued that there is a different standard of justice for racialized and LGBTQ2 people in Canada, and in doing so, has called for an independent review into the recent missing persons cases. Should that review be undertaken, it will have decades of fraught interactions between these communities and the police to sift through. 

For casual observers, it might seem like the request from Pride that police withdraw their application to the parade came out of nowhere. But for those who have been witness to decades of injustice, this was a long time coming.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Tom Hooper

Tom Hooper is a historian of the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids. He works as contract faculty in the history department at York University.

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