The Body Takes Its Revenge

The Body Politic, Embodiment, and the Bathhouse Raids of 1981

Marisa Suarez, Student of the Global History Master, Free University Berlin.

Discourse on sexuality is often framed in terms of repression and liberation, resistance and legalization; abstract concepts that say little about the material realities of communities aligned by sexuality and instead imply an imagined, inflexible relationship between law and the self. Histories of lesbian and gay Canada are no exception. In 1969, an amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code legalized private consensual sexual acts between two adults over the age of twenty-one, popularly known at the time as the “homosexual bill,” which was the closest that Canada would come to legal protections based on sexuality until the 1990s.[1] And yet, police harassment and indifference toward the gay community continued unabated well into the 1980s, reaching its peak with the infamous bathhouse raids of February 1981. A history of Canadian magazine The Body Politic as it relates to these homophobic raids reveals a Foucauldian “history of bodies” within this narrative of repression and liberation.[2]

The name The Body Politic refers of course to the concept of a collective citizenry, but also the body as a necessarily political subject and object because of the relationship between sexuality and power. Foucault argues that disciplinary techniques and regulatory methods have governed the politics of sex as a means of “access to the life of the body,” and The Body Politic offered the Toronto gay and lesbian community a channel for subverting and criticizing this dynamic.[3] By its own description, the collective was a “bunch of people [who] got together to start a small gay tabloid” in 1971, and ran articles on topics ranging from cuddling to the social and legal mistreatment of Canadian gay youth.[4]

The Toronto bathhouse raids of February 1981, often noted as the Canadian equivalent to the 1969 Stonewall riots, are a prime example of the physicality of repression. Nearly 300 men were arrested as found in or keepers of a bawdy house and charged with “indecent acts,” a vague article in the Canadian Criminal Code that was often weaponized against the LGBT community.[5] Acting with and outside of the law, police stormed four bathhouses and gathered the accused in the shower rooms, where they were forced to keep their hands raised for a full hour. It was here that bodies were encoded and breached, in a fruitless exercise in control.   Plainclothes officers wore red dots on their clothing to distinguish themselves as heterosexual, while bathhouse patrons were forced to stand against the shower walls naked or in towels, their arms marked with their room numbers in indelible ink. Written accounts of the raid suggest that bathhouse visitors were never told the reason for their arrest, but were required to submit information on their employment and families, which was recorded on “plain paper” separate from the official record.[6] If homophobia can truly be boiled down to disgust object proximity, a concept described by Martha Nussbaum as the aversion to the body’s “fluids, its excreta, its smells, its bloodiness” that characterized twentieth century North American homophobic rhetoric, the raids served as disgust object confrontation.[7] Found ins were choked, photographed nude, subjected to invasive bodily examinations, forced to “spread their cheeks,” for no apparent purpose.[8] To its victims, it seemed that the only point of the raids was to show how, at will, the police could reduce gay men down to their more animalistic parts, to dehumanize them by treating them as bodies subject to derision and control.

In combining Foucault’s biopolitics with Henri Lefebvre’s spatial theory, we can conceive of a history of bodies in space, or a history of how bodies are simultaneously shaped by and produce the space around them. Foucault largely focuses on the forces that act on the body as a political subject, whereas Lefebvre imagines a more active role for the body as space and as a producer of space. Crackdowns on cruising and unchecked gay bashing in Toronto’s gay neighborhood turned the once vibrant intersection of Yonge and Wellesley streets into a sort of badlands, and the gay community at large chose to avoid the area rather than make a stand. This changed on February 6th, 1981 the day after the bathhouse raids, when Chris Bearchell of The Body Politic issued a call to action that was answered by a crowd of 3,000. Cries of “Stop the cops!” and “No more shit!” rang out, and writer Burke Campbell remarked in his account that “we’re in control of the city, the police can’t do anything.”[9] The demonstration was less concerned with rights and legalization than ending violence against the gay community, against gay bodies and bodily practices.

The February 1981 bathhouse raids are considered one of the most integral moments in the fight for gay rights in Canada, but framing the surrounding struggle as a fight for rights can exclude the lived experiences of the Toronto LGBT community. The magazine The Body Politic became an organ which brought together both perspectives. On the one hand, they reported of the policing of gay bodies, on the other hand, they transformed the experiences to a powerful movement. This is act is remarkable considering the fact, that  the raids were legally performed and they had no immediate bearing on legislation, and yet they are an important instance of resistance because they defined the relationship between the state and the gay body politic.

During the winter semester 18/19 we offered the seminar “Law and Sexuality in a global context in the 19th and 20th century”. Instead of seminar presentations the students had the opportunity to write an entry for this blog or to be part of a student conference. We are proud to present some of the entries here on the blog.


Diesen Artikel zitieren: Marisa Suarez, „The Body Takes Its Revenge“, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 10/06/2019, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/773, (abgerufen am: Datum).


[1] Kallen, Evelyn. “Gay and Lesbian Rights Issues: A Comparative Analysis of Sydney, Australia and Toronto, Canada.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 1, 1996, pp. 206–223.
[2] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert Hurley, I, London, Pantheon Books, 1978, pp. 152.
[3] Ibid 2, pp. 146.
[4] “The Farewell Issue of The Body Politic.” The Body Politic Feb. 1987.
[5] Report on Police Raids on Gay Steambaths, submitted to Toronto City Council for its meeting of February 26, 1981, pp. 10.
[6] Ibid 5, pp. 16.
[7] Nussbaum, Martha. From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law. Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 5.
[8] Ibid 5, pp. 14.
[9] Hannon, Gerald. “Taking It to the Streets.” The Body Politic Mar. 1981. pp. 9.


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