The Toronto police’s relationship with the LGBTQ2+ community has always been complicated. Police have had a history of marginalizing, neglecting, and even assaulting queer people.
In relation to enforcing strict standards around gender expression and sexuality, Michelle DuBarry recalls back to the 1950s when queer performers would wear suits and ties with a rose in the lapel, miming songs during small shows. When these performers started to wear dresses, police would invasively check to see if the queens were wearing women’s underwear. If they were, the police officers used it as an opportunity to harass, embarrass, and even arrest these individuals (Wheeler, 2016).
According to a poster by the Gay Alliance Toward Equality (GATE), marginalization by police, queerbashing, and police passivity of such violence was still prominent well into the late ‘70s (and unfortunately continues to this day). The year before this poster went into circulation, in response to the regular homophobic Halloween mobs outside of the St. Charles, the police told GATE that the best way to stop Halloween violence was to stay off Yonge Street that night, which essentially meant “Give up the streets of the gay community to the queerbashers. (GATE, c. 1979)”
The year before this poster’s circulation was the first year police kept things orderly and made some arrests, but only after pressure from LGBTQ organizations (GATE, c. 1979). That Halloween, more than 50 policemen blocked the streets to prevent mobs, but apparently the policemen were unable to prevent a crowd from forming.
Aggressive onlookers could not be dismayed from their violent traditions and when the patrons and performers were escorted through a back alley by police for safety, leaving the front doors locked, crowd members did not have much to see, leaving them to make any excuse for throwing eggs. This led to anyone, drag queen or not, to be pelted with eggs when walking past the front of the tavern. (Jefferson, c. 1979).
The police chief, John Ackroyd stated, “I don’t think they’re really throwing things at gay people, they’re throwing them at each other. (Jefferson, c. 1979)” This came from the same police chief who in 1979 said that there was nothing they could do for crowd control, as the crowds were too large and the best they could do was to keep traffic moving (Hannon, 1981).
Around 20 people that night were arrested for disturbing the peace, although the police kept no record of whether they were all from outside the St. Charles. “We just let them go about 3 a.m. We don’t even write down where they were picked up,” says Ackroyd (Jefferson, c. 1979).
Hislop said that the police struggling to manage dangerous and rowdy crowds was their own doing. By blocking off the area in front of the St. Charles, the police would create a focal point where people would line up on the opposite side of the street. People would even rent out rooms in the Westbury Hotel (now the Courtyard Mariott) to view the parade and throw eggs out the windows (Bradburn, 2015). This focal point would make the bar’s patrons incredibly easy targets.
Hislop remembers arguing to the police to open up the sidewalks on both sides so that non-patrons could walk up and down the sidewalk in front of the tavern, making an end to the queer-straight polarity. Hislop felt that this would make queer people less of an easy target for homophobic attacks (Parkes, 2000, p. 37).
Eventually, local businesses started to pay attention. For example, the Westbury Hotel would close 120 rooms overlooking the street on Halloween night, and groceries restricted sales of eggs to regular customers (Bradburn, 2015).
People outside of the queer community began to show interest in the safety of queer people as well when demands for improved policing was brought up in municipal elections in 1980 by George Hislop, who ran for city councillor.
While action was taken to improve policing and prevent mobs, observers noted that the same number of officers were on duty as previous years even though in the past it was considered insufficient (Hannon, 1981).
The police’s proclaimed inability to protect queer people on Halloween led members of the LGBTQ community to take direct action themselves.