Activist looks back 40 years to Toronto’s bathhouse raids — the flashpoint moment in fight for LGBTQ rights in Canada

Olivia Chow with Bob Gallagher

Published in the Toronto Star on February 5, 2020

You probably don’t know his name, but for decades Bob Gallagher has worked tirelessly as an activist and organizer behind the scenes in the fight for LGBTQ rights in Toronto and Canada. Libby Davies, Canada’s first out lesbian MP, was a member of Parliament for 18 years, many of them working with Gallagher, who was chief of staff to Jack Layton.

You probably don’t know his name, but for decades Bob Gallagher has worked tirelessly as an activist and organizer behind the scenes in the fight for LGBTQ rights in Toronto and Canada. Libby Davies, Canada’s first out lesbian MP, was a member of Parliament for 18 years, many of them working with Gallagher, who was chief of staff to Jack Layton.

Below, Davies pays tribute to a man she calls a friend and colleague, talking to Gallagher recently about the moment 40 years ago when everything changed for Toronto’s LGBTQ community and his years of “getting things done.”

Bob Gallagher remembers where he was Feb. 6, 1981, almost exactly 40 years ago today. It was a day that would change his life and the lives of Toronto’s LGBTQ community forever.

“We ended up on the corner of Yonge and Wellesley at 11 o’clock at night and saw all these people there on all four corners … taking over the street, closing down the traffic,” Gallagher recalls. It was just 24 hours after more than 100 police armed with crowbars and sledgehammers stormed four Toronto bathhouses, arresting nearly 300 men.

“I knew something very big and different was happening. I knew I was now within a historic moment.”

It’s been called Toronto’s “Stonewall” moment after the New York City riots in response to a police raid on Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn — a flashpoint in the gay liberation movement in the U.S. and the fight for LGBTQ rights.

“The fear the raids instilled in people” was “terrifying,” said Gallagher. “The trauma of police rushing in, with billy clubs and guns, flashing lights, cop cars and sirens.”

Gallagher, a student and activist at the time, was with a handful of people the morning after the raids meeting at the office of The Body Politic on Duncan Street, home to the city’s gay rights publication.

There were two camps of heated discussion. One urged speed in organizing an immediate public response. The second wanted to wait and plan a later protest. Gallagher was part of the first camp, which won out. They jumped into action.

“I would dare say that every one of us was uncertain” as to whether an immediate response would work, he said. But it did. 

The historic demonstration with people pouring onto the streets propelled a community into subsequent actions, with Gallagher playing a key role marshalling the troops, using his anti-Vietnam War rally experience.

“It was a galvanizing moment that brought us out of a previous generation and now solidly into the new generation,” Gallagher recalls. “We went to the bars and clubs to get people involved in rallies and activities in response to the police raids You would go to one table and they would see themselves as homosexuals and would want nothing to do with it. Then you’d go to a different table and they’d say ‘right on, I’ll be there.’ ”

Gallagher says there were numerous fronts in the battle for gay liberation. It wasn’t simply a matter of hitting the streets and yelling loudly enough against punitive police discrimination, nor was it enough to convince politicians to respond differently.

“It was a societal change that needed to take place.” It was also, he says, about defending a community under attack, on the street and in the courthouses. Gay street patrols with civil disobedience and self-defence training were set up. The patrols used walkie-talkies around the bars and baths to watch out for queer bashing. 

A right-to-privacy committee became a lead group, following up on the charges of the nearly 300 individuals who had been arrested.

“We had to be in the courtrooms all the time,” Gallagher says, “so we had dozens of people walking through, just looking to see who was up on charges, and telling them: ‘don’t plead guilty’ ” — a natural reaction, he says, when you’re charged with deviant behaviour and you just want it to go away. 

Looking back, he says he can clearly see the profound changes taking place.

“You saw young people angry at the police and not trying to hide themselves, not being afraid to call themselves gay.” 

That may seem surprising 40 years later, but Gallagher points to the political and media environment where homosexuals were seen at best as an “exotic subculture, and at worst as a deviant kind of subculture.”

There were lesbians not yet fully organized and out in the broader public eye. There was also a growing emergence of younger people who saw themselves as part of a community of gay people with an “ability to be who we are (which) is not a matter of hiding it — it is a matter of resisting.”

Gallagher describes the bathhouse raids as “an utterly pivotal moment, in the sexual liberation for queer rights in Canada. I had a number of friends who were of the old school, who did not want to call themselves gay. I had other friends who saw their gayness as political activism.”

Gallagher’s trajectory at the time of the raids was studying for a PhD in political economy examining “theories of power,” but he’d always had a grassroots edge to his political engagement, beginning in high school and then moving on to anti-war activism at college in Philadelphia.

He laughs when he recalls his realization that “I couldn’t spend all my time studying structuralism versus Marxism. These things were all great, but politics is happening right underneath me.” He started spending more of his time organizing political actions and mobilizing. 

Along the way, he met influential French philosopher and academic Michel Foucault first in San Francisco, and again studying in London. It was here that Gallagher sought out the “Gay Left,” a publication he describes as akin to Toronto’s “The Body Politic”: the most “intellectually influential Queer Theory publications of their time.”

He describes Foucault, born in 1926, as a “philosopher of power,” very much in keeping with the topic of his own PhD thesis on theories of power. He invited Foucault to Toronto and nearly got him hired in the political economy department at the University of Toronto. To Gallagher’s chagrin they turned down Foucault as too much of a troublemaker. Nevertheless, he introduced Foucault to the gay scene in Toronto. 

“He just thought Toronto was like the cat’s meow. It had this vibrant queer community, which of course was all post-bathhouse raid.”

Gallagher wasn’t then — and isn’t now — famous or even the front person for the transformational change he’s been involved with over his 40 years of activism in Canada. 

But he has always been there, the behind-the-scenes-guy who makes things happen, who carefully lays the groundwork. The role started the night of the bathhouse raids protest with a chance meeting that altered the course of his life for the next 30 years.

Community activist and professor Jack Layton, an up-and-coming Toronto councillor, heard Gallagher that night before he ever saw him, later introducing himself to the bearded, long-haired man on the megaphone.

“After the demo, he handed me his business card and we met up a few days later,” Gallagher says.

A decade later, Gallagher convinced Layton to hire him as his first campaign employee in his bid for the Toronto mayor’s office. For the next 30 years, he became the go-to person for Layton and his wife, city councillor Olivia Chow, working at city hall and later in Ottawa as Layton’s chief of staff when he was federal NDP leader. 

“It was a match made in heaven,” says Gallagher. “He wanted leaders who could articulate change to the world, to the community, with the political backbone. I’ve always had a propensity of wanting to make change, and to seize power in a morally, ethically and sound way.”

But the core of his politicization, he says, was the right to have sex.

“It was just that simple. I was deemed a sex pervert and I was fighting to be able to express myself sexually. It wasn’t about lifestyle. It wasn’t about relationships or lovers, it was about me and my sexuality and the sexuality of people like me, who had the full force of the law including the Toronto police department coming down on us.”

In later years Gallagher advocated for the rights of sex workers. He saw it as the same issue: sexual rights. 

“The underpinnings of our relationships is our own desires, and our desires are sexual. The ability to have sex is a liberating component of your life, not a limiting component of your life. The state tries to repress that … resistance is a central part of being able to establish those identities and keep them free.”

Gallagher didn’t always stay behind the scenes. In 1994 in Ontario, the Bob Rae NDP government introduced the Equality Rights Statute Amendment, Bill 167, for recognition of same-sex relationship benefits. Gallagher headed up the campaign for equal rights, taking an unpaid leave from working for Chow at city hall. He co-founded and worked with the Campaign for Equal Families, for relationship recognition, including visiting rights in hospitals. 

Rae made the fateful decision that Bill 167 would be a free vote in the legislature. It created a “crisis of confidence” for Gallagher and many like him who were loyal New Democrats. The bill was defeated and Rae “allowed some of the most vicious anti-gay things to come out of his own caucus. I will never forgive Rae for the fact during the months of that campaign he would never appear publicly on a stage with any of us.”

Gallagher resigned from the NDP. He didn’t rejoin until Layton came calling in his run for leader of the federal party a decade later.

“It was never a crisis of the confidence of my belief in the left, it was a crisis in my own affiliation with the party and the leader who let us down.”

These days, Gallagher is head of communications for United Steelworkers, retiring in a few weeks — a behind-the-scenes guy, making things happen. He’s been inside the halls of power trying to make it work, and on the outside fighting to let people in. He also works with the Rainbow Railroad, aiding LGBTQ refugees who seek shelter and safety in Canada.

Looking back, 40 years later, Gallagher knows that cold February night in 1981 changed him. It propelled him into a lifetime of activism — often without fanfare, but always with purpose.

“It is seared into my memory, those events of 1981. We owe a lot to people who were there, who spoke up and acted against police violence and homophobia. We learned we can stand up as a community.” 

Correction — Feb. 8, 2021: This column was edited to correct the name of the Rainbow Railroad.

Libby Davies was a member of Parliament for eighteen years (1997-2015) and became House Leader for the federal NDP party (2003-2011) and Deputy Leader (2007-2015). In 2016 Davies received the Order of Canada and in 2019 published “Outside In: A Political Memoir.”