Police bathhouse raid apology prompts mixed feelings in Toronto LGBT community

For some gay men in Toronto, the announcement from Chief Mark Saunders Tuesday that the Toronto Police Service will apologize for the bathhouse raids is too little, too late. The announcement comes 35 years after the night 286 men were rounded up and arrested.

'If it weren't for the raids, Pride wouldn't have happened,' man who came out after raids says

Community health advocate Ron Rosenes was at the Roman Sauna Baths with his friends on the night it was raided. He said they all considered it a safe place to gather. (CBC)

When Ron Rosenes first heard about the fatal mass shooting at Orlando's gay nightclub Pulse, his mind flashed immediately back to 1981, when he and hundreds of other gay men in Toronto bathhouses found themselves rounded up and arrested by police.

"It was incredibly scary," Rosenes told CBC News. "We thought this was a safe place just like the LGBT people in Orlando thought that they were in safe place."

On Tuesday, 35 years after that frightening night, Chief Mark Saunders announced that the Toronto Police Service would apologize for the raids that saw 160 officers arrest 286 men and sparked a firestorm of protests, leaving a gaping wound between police and the LGBT community that has yet to fully heal.

But for those who were arrested that night and in the nights that followed, the raids left a difficult legacy and the prospect of an apology is bittersweet.

John Brodhagen is the general manager of Steamworks Baths and came out shortly after the mass arrests.

"If it weren't for the raids, Pride wouldn't have happened… It was a cry for what police had done," said John Brodhagen, general manager of Steamworks Baths. (CBC)

"Thirty-five years is a long time coming," Brodhagen told CBC News on hearing that an apology was on its way.

He and others say it was largely because of the raids that LGBT issues were catapulted onto the public stage.

"If it weren't for the raids, Pride wouldn't have happened… It was a cry for what police had done," he said.

Torontonian Jack Budd shares those mixed feelings.

"That's when people reacted and went out on the streets. It started the gay movement in Toronto," he said.

"It's significant in its own way but it's too little too late, I think," Budd said of the anticipated apology.

David Rodrigues doesn't remember the raids himself. At 34, he was born just one year after they took place.

David Rodrigues doesn't remember the raids himself. At 34, he was born just one year after they took place, but thinks an apology from police will be a major step in mending relations with the LGBT community. (CBC)

"I think it's a huge deal," he said of the apology. "I think it will strengthen ties with the community and police."

As for Rosenes, who once found himself in a courtroom on charges related to being in a bathhouse, he's now been invited to the police's Pride reception, which will follow Wednesday's apology.

He says an apology is an important first step, but much work remains in the battle for LGBT rights.

"I think the apology is a good start but we need to make sure in the law we are getting rid of a lot of leftover  homophobic legislation."

With files from Chris Glover