Key moments in Canadian LGBTQ+ history: the Pussy Palace Bathhouse raids of 2000

By Abigail Richards

Pride Month can be a vital opportunity to remember and share the key moments in Canadian LGBTQ+ history. This Pride, we look back on the Pussy Palace Bathhouse raids of 2000, the response of community organizers, and the larger impact on the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in Canada.

On September 14, 2000, Toronto police raided the Pussy Palace ​​ an exclusive bathhouse event for queer women, trans, and gender-expansive people. Unfortunately, bathhouse raids are not a rare occurrence in Canada. Historian Tom Hooper tracks at least 38 bathhouse raids between 1968 and 2004 in multiple Canadian cities, the largest and most notable of which being the “Operation Soap” bathhouse raids in 1981.

Following the Pussy Palace Raid, numerous events, protests, and fundraisers were organized to demand justice. One such fundraiser was largely organized and aided by ICL’s founder, Olivia Chow, and ICL Board Member, Bob Gallagher, two long-standing Toronto activists and advocates for the queer community.

In June 2021, the LGBTQ+ Digital Collaborative spoke with Olivia and Bob about their experiences following the raids for their Pussy Palace Oral History Project an initiative which collects the oral histories of patrons, event organizers, and those involved in related community activism. 

Olivia Chow first got involved in LGBTQ+ issues in 1985 when she was elected as a school trustee. She was spurred to action that summer after Ken Zeller, a gay librarian, was beaten and killed because of his sexual orientation. The event motivated Olivia to collect stories of discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ students, ultimately leading to the adoption of anti-homophobia curriculum in the Toronto District School Board. For many years she and her late husband Jack Layton have been a steadfast ally of the queer community. 

Bob Gallagher has a similarly long history of queer activism in Toronto. He has participated in and founded a number of queer organizations and campaigns, including the Collation for Equal Families, Canadians for Equal Marriage, and the Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Youth Line. He was also a director for the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. He and Olivia worked together frequently, and Bob was Olivia’s executive assistant at Toronto city council.

In the interview, Olivia and Bob recalled the immediate aftermath of the Pussy Palace raids. 

Olivia Chow & Bob Gallagher

“I had been involved with the organizing of the Pussy Palace… back in ‘98 when it first started,” Bob recalls. He was contacted by Pussy Palace organizers shortly after the raid because they knew of his history of organizing during the Bathhouse raids of ‘81. Immediately, Bob was willing to do whatever it took to help them. 

Olivia had heard about the raids in a similar fashion. A few days later, she was notified that a protest was happening outside the 52 division police station the division responsible for the raid. Olivia spent that night making calls to get the word out. “I was phoning every media outlet. It was very late,” Olivia says. “This was before emails and text messaging. It was an old fashioned phone call. Just calling them and saying, you know, get down there!” 

Everyone involved knew this would be a long, ongoing battle. In the aftermath, it was vital to focus on what needed to be done to achieve justice. Bob advised Pussy Palace patrons on legal council, financial aspects and volunteers. Eventually it became clear where Bob’s skills could be best used: fundraising. “I had been involved in politics with Olivia, where fundraising is a key component of every campaign,” Bob explains. They understood that money would be a valuable asset in this situation, and knew that they could work together to make it happen, especially with Olivia as one of the main organizers. 

“I’m known to be loud and demanding when the time comes to get money,” Olivia laughs. “So it came naturally that that was the role I would play.” 

They decided to hold a fundraising event at the iconic Rodney’s Oyster Bar, inviting everyone from prominent politicians to drag queens. 

And what was the atmosphere like that fateful night at Rodney’s Oyster Bar? Was it difficult to persuade people to give money? Amazingly Olivia recalls that people were actually eager to give.

“I’ve been to events where I call out and there would be silence,” she says. “This was the exact opposite.” 

Whether people were giving out of joy or out of rage, the atmosphere was extraordinarily generous. Even if some people didn’t have much money, they dug deep. The donation amount didn’t matter, Olivia explains. Giving was a form of power, an expression of protest.

What Bob remembers most about the Pussy Palace Defense Fund was the core team - the queer women who held the Pussy Palace closest to to their hearts - and how tight-knit and passionate they were. “They weren’t there just to get money,” Bob says. “They were there to keep alive what the whole purpose of the Pussy Palace was: a celebration of female sexuality. I have just unbelievable admiration for those women.”

The aftermath of the Pussy Palace was a long, collaborative fight for justice that spanned over a decade. Fortunately, thanks to the help of allies, activists, and the efforts of the Pussy Palace organizers, in 2002 all charges against patrons were dropped. In 2005, a settlement was reached between the Toronto Police Service and Women’s Bath House Committee, issuing that the TPS must make an effort to recruit more gay officers, adopt a “gender-sensitive” policy, and pay a sum of $350,000 to the complaintants. 

Image courtesy of the ArQuives.

Nearly twenty years later, during Pride Month, reflecting on our progress and persistent issues within the queer community can help us understand ourselves and what we hope to achieve. Since the pandemic started, the number of queer safe spaces in Toronto has been steadily declining; there are even fewer safe spaces available specifically for queer women; and nearly half of all students in post-secondary institution witness or experience discrimination based on gender or sexual-orientation

These are problems that are going to continue to exist unless we take action against them. This Pride Month, take some time to read up on queer history and understand how you can support the queer communities around you today. We can all see a better future - we just need to stand up and make the effort to grab it.

If you’re inspired by the work of people like the Pussy Palace Organizers, it’s easy to join them and be an ally yourself. Fundraising and donations have always been an imperative part of directly supporting the queer community. Consider donating today to help us continue uplifting and helping queer changeleaders and organizations. 

The ArQuives aspires to be a significant resource and catalyst for those who strive for a future world where LGBTQ2+ people are accepted, valued, and celebrated. Click here and learn more about their work. 

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