An angry crowd of about 400 people packed the 519 Community Centre on Church Street in Toronto last night for a public meeting sparked by a late-night, unannounced visit to a lesbian bathhouse by five male police officers a week ago.
As the meeting broke up, 300 or so marched to police headquarters on College Street near Yonge Street where they held a kiss-in and demanded the removal of Chief Julian Fantino.
"We will defend our right to be sexual as queers," Chanelle Gallant, a member of the Toronto women's bathhouse committee, said at the headquarters.
The message from the crowd was that police would not get away with what they called "targeted harassment."
Police have not yet laid charges in the bathhouse raid; they have said there will be no criminal charges for indecent acts, but liquor-licence charges are still pending, possibly for "disorderly conduct" in an area where liquor was being served or for drinking outside the designated areas.
The bathhouse gathering, the first such women's event held in a year, had a special-occasion liquor licence, which allowed police to enter without a warrant.
The event was held at Club Toronto, a gay men's bathhouse on Mutual Street near Carlton and Jarvis streets.
Police have called their visit a routine inspection of the licence for that event, an assertion that did not go over well at the meeting last night.
"The liquor licence was used as an excuse to come into [the club]. . . and to prosecute us, and this constitutes a clear form of police harassment," committee members Lauralee Gillis said.
Tim McCaskell, who campaigned against police raids of bathhouses in 1981, said the liquor laws are being used to target the gay community. Two gay men's bars, the Bijou and the Barn, were raided recently for liquor inspections.
"All establishments are not subject to this supervision," he said. "If the police can walk into bars and start taking names, what will that do to this community if people have to face that kind of intimidation every time they come down to Church Street?"
The fact that police sent male officers to the bathhouse was a particular source of rage. "The police knew this was a women-only event. I don't know why they felt the need to send five large, male officers to ensure we were complying with the liquor licence," Ms. Gallant said.
"This draws into question the sincerity of the police as they claim to be building bridges with this community."
Accusations of discrimination against the gay community have dogged Chief Fantino since his tenure as head of the police in London, Ont. Gays and lesbians in Toronto decried his appointment in March to lead the Toronto force.
City Councillor Olivia Chow, who represents the downtown ward with Kyle Rae, led a fevered fundraising appeal for the defence of anyone charged in connection with the raid. In 15 minutes, she coaxed almost $10,000 from the crowd.
The loudest cheers erupted when the committee announced that Club Toronto had, despite the raid, agreed to play host to another lesbian night.
The bathhouse committee plans to make a complaint to the Police Services Board next Thursday.
Women who were at the bathhouse last week were also encouraged to make complaints of sexual harassment against the five officers.