Reflections on Toronto's Pussy Palace Raid
Toronto was the birthplace of the first queer women’s sex bathhouse in North America – the Pussy Palace, later renamed the Pleasure Palace out of respect for the diversity of women’s bodies. Notoriously, in 2000, Toronto police raided the Pussy/Pleasure Palace (PP) and pressed liquor licence charges against two volunteers. Two years later, an Ontario judge tossed out all the charges and rebuked the police officers involved. And in 2004, the organizers won a $350,000 settlement in a human rights complaint against the Toronto Police Service, which was then forced to change its policies on the search and detention of trans people.
By Chanelle Gallant
I was one of the organizers of the PP. I saw what followed the raid as mostly a success: the charges against our friends were tossed, we won our human rights complaint, and great grassroots organizations received money from the human rights settlement. But I had doubts at the time, which have stayed with me and blossomed into larger questions. Were the successes of PP organizing part of a growing tolerance for police and law enforcement within LGBTQ politics? And did we unintentionally help bring ourselves to the place we’re at now – where many queers believe strongly that the police have a place in our community?
So much queer resistance begins with resistance to police abuseAt the time of the raid, Toronto police were ramping up their harassment of gay and lesbian businesses. In June and July 1999, the cops raided the Bijou, a men’s bar in Toronto. Eighteen charges of indecency were laid against patrons, the bar was charged with liquor licence offences, and an employee was charged with obstruction of justice. Eventually all of the criminal charges were dropped. The bar was forced to close down but then reopened without its liquor licence. In March and April 2000, the cops raided the men’s naked parties at the Barn and charged them with permitting disorderly conduct under the Liquor Licence Act. Then, at 12:45 a.m. on September 15, five hefty and intimidating male officers from 52 Division entered the Pussy Palace. When the woman at the door told them it was an all-women event, they told her that if she did not let them in she could be charged with obstructing justice. The officers split up and proceeded to search every nook and cranny of the space until 2:15 a.m. Although many women were naked or semi-naked, we were explicitly prevented from warning participants of the police presence. Many women were deeply angered and emotionally distressed by the police presence. During and immediately after the raid, many of the participants left. Going back to the Stonewall rebellion and before, so much queer resistance begins with resistance to police abuse.
A few details are important to understanding the meaning and impact of the PP raid on larger queer politics. The first is that the raid began with undercover women officers who surveilled the party extensively and took notes on the public queer sex they observed – notes that then became police property. (The Stonewall rebellion in June 1969 also began with women undercover officers collecting evidence on patrons at the Stonewall before they tipped off nearby uniformed male officers to begin arriving.) After the women officers had entered, the male officers barged past the security at the door. Both the undercover and uniformed police took evidence that suggested they intended to press sex-related charges against the patrons: the police confiscated signage for a ‘porn room’ and recorded surveillance notes on the BDSM sling room. Following the raid, police gave differing explanations for why they had conducted the inspection, none of which were credible to the LGBTQ community, the straight press, or the court.
The raid aroused anger among many LGBTQ folks, including those who’d been affected by the brutal 1981 raids on men’s bathhouses. The bullying presence of straight male officers seemed like a particularly sexist twist in the ongoing history of police attacks on LGBTQ communities. After PP organizers held a community meeting to talk about and formulate a response, hundreds of people spontaneously poured out onto the streets and marched to the police headquarters, shouting,
‘Pussies bite back.’
The DefenceThe defence strategy of the lead legal counsel rested on the argument that all of the evidence was inadmissible because the male officers (but only the male officers) had violated the defendants’ constitutional right to be protected from gender discrimination. Lawyers argued that the defendants – and all of those in attendance at the club that night – had been subjected to what was essentially a strip search by male officers. The defence spoke about the transgender people at the bathhouse in ways that obscured and invalidated their gender identities in order to uphold the defence’s narrative of men doing a sexist ‘panty raid.’ Though it was never explicitly discussed, all of the male officers were presumed to be heterosexual. Commentators in queer media echoed this argument. Typical headlines about the raid had sentiments like ‘Peeping Toms: Cops Disrupt Lesbian Bathhouse.’
Only a few observers raised the question of our right not to be policed at all. Instead, speaking from a popular perspective on the raid, Justice Peter Hryn characterized male officers as having committed ‘visual rape’ because men watched undressed women who had a reasonable expectation that (presumably straight) men were not going to be present.
The women officers, however, did more than just watch us while we were naked – the female cops watched and recorded us having sex, something the male officers did not. And because the female cops, unlike their male counterparts, were undercover, we had no way to protect ourselves from their gaze. A number of witnesses at the trial affirmed that the presence of women officers did not distress or concern them. The judge and the broader communities, both queer and straight, seemed to agree: the problem was one of predacious men, not that policing in and of itself is predatory.
As a member of the collective that organized the Pussy Palace from 2000 to 2003, I felt panic that night when I knew police officers were on-site.
The problem I have is that by focusing exclusively on the male officers’ gender, we naturalized and legitimized the right of police to be in our space, as long as the cops were women. Women officers also brought with them the massive power of the state that night.
What about their illicit pleasures? (Their sexual orientations were never discussed and were presumed irrelevant.) What about the ways those police violated us? What about how, as agents of the state, they, too, carried the power of police to define us, to press charges; to strip-search and abuse us; and to report any of us to immigration enforcement or to the Children’s Aid Society? What about their power to sexually abuse as police officers, who, for the most part, live above the law and are so rarely held accountable for sexual violence?
The 'good' gaysWhen I recently reread the human rights decision, I was shocked to see that in our complaint, we had demanded that the police actively recruit LGBTQ people into the service. At the time, I felt the police were a necessary evil, a terrible and mostly misapplied form of power that was necessary for the greater good. But a rainbow-coloured fist is still a fist. I didn’t know we had other options. Since then, I’ve learned about the activist movement led by Black and Indigenous people to abolish prisons and police, and replace them with more effective, just, and humane alternatives.
The legal defence did their best to protect the PP defendants from sexist and homophobic police harassment and intimidation. But we missed an opportunity in our activism around the case to push for an agenda that went beyond putting a rainbow on the police force and instead call into question the right of police to police our communities at all.
Pursuing a legal argument of gender discrimination by male officers required us to make transphobic arguments about who is part of the queer community and forced us to accept a presumption that any policing can be just or fair. This concession provides the historical context for today, when many privileged members of the LGBTQ community want to be seen as ‘the good gays’ by distancing themselves from the trans, racialized, and criminalized people who sparked our movement.
A revolution that began with a three-day pitched battle against police oppression by trans women of colour, drag queens, and homeless hustling youth at the Stonewall Inn morphed into a movement where many privileged members of the LGBTQ community insist that police officers belong in our communities and our Pride marches.
LGBTQ existence is increasingly being drained of its potential to challenge structural inequities and to demand radical institutional change. So I want this to go on the record: some of us queers don’t just want the cops out of our bedrooms, our Pride marches, and our bathhouses. Some us want to dismantle the cops entirely. I hope we keep fighting for that.
This essay is taken from Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer (Coach House Books, 2017). For more information about the essay collection: https://chbooks.com/Books/A/Any-Other-Way