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‘Lives were ruined’: 40 years after Edmonton’s Pisces bathhouse raid

Click to play video: '40 years after Edmonton’s Pisces bathhouse raid' 40 years after Edmonton’s Pisces bathhouse raid
WATCH ABOVE: May 30 marks the anniversary of a dark day in Edmonton's history. In 1981, police raided an Edmonton bathhouse and arrested dozens of gay men. That day has since proven to be both a defining and damaging one for the city and its LGBTQ community. Fletcher Kent has more. – May 30, 2021

If the most important moments of life are burned into our memories, Michael Phair clearly demonstrates the importance of May 30, 1981.

The LGBTQ activist and former city councillor sits in a downtown park named after him recounting, in great detail, the day he and 55 other gay men were arrested in a bathhouse raid.

“I was there,” says Phair, who described the raid as “crazy, scary and frightening all at the same time.”

Phair remembers every tiny moment. He describes sitting in a TV room at ‘Pisces Spa’ with a few other men. He was watching the Spokane news.

“All of a sudden, there was a rush, lights went on. There was a rush of people running down the hallway,” he said.

“It took me a minute to realize it was police and they had video cameras and lights. One of them came into the TV room where there were three or four of us watching TV and yelled, ‘Don’t move. This is a raid. Stay right where you are.'”

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Phair says he was shocked and afraid.

“I didn’t know if this is a first step to going to prison or whatever.”

He remembers being “herded towards the front and photos were taken of each of us with our names.”

As this was all happening, Phair remembers wondering why there was so much attention paid to the men at Pisces.

“What was it about us that was so significant?”

The Pisces Spa was a bathhouse used by gay men. On May 30, 1981, 56 men were arrested after nearly 50 officers stormed the spa.

Police had been watching the building for months. Undercover officers infiltrated the club and gathered intelligence for police prior to the raid.

The men were charged with being found in a common bawdy house. The term refers to a place where prostitution or indecent acts occur. There was never any evidence of prostitution taking place in the spa.

All 56 were loaded into vans and taken to the courthouse for 5 a.m. court appearances.

Phair pleaded not guilty. The charge galvanized him. He fought back. He was eventually convicted but an appeal court overturned that conviction.

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Read more: Canadian police chiefs issue formal apology for 1968 stance on homosexuality

While Phair says he can still clearly remember every detail of that night, it’s critical others do as well.

“I think it’s significant to understand what oppression of a particular group can lead to.”

Click to play video: 'Book, play in the works 40 years after dozens of gay men arrested during Edmonton bathhouse raid' Book, play in the works 40 years after dozens of gay men arrested during Edmonton bathhouse raid
Book, play in the works 40 years after dozens of gay men arrested during Edmonton bathhouse raid – May 31, 2021

Writer Darrin Hagen is also trying to keep these difficult memories alive. He’s researching what happened and plans to write a play and a book about it.

“This anniversary is a brilliant opportunity to reflect on what happened 40 years ago and to wonder how we can treat each other better,” says Hagen.

Hagen was a 17-year-old gay man in 1981. He was living in Rocky Mountain House and preparing to move to Edmonton.

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The Pisces raid rattled him. He’s still trying to understand its true impact on Edmonton’s LGBTQ community.

“I had no real idea of the impact it had on the community because the community was trying to move past what they had experienced.”

Hagen notes Phair was talking about it. Others did not. They could not.

The raid became front-page news and the men who were arrested were demonized during their trials. The Crown prosecutor told court the spa allowed gay men “to rut like animals.”

That attention traumatized many of the men who were arrested. In his research, Hagen has no doubt what the attention brought many of them.

“Shame,” says Hagen. “The shame of what the city did to them. The shame of what they went through for no reason.”

Hagen says the raid was an important moment in Edmonton history that must be remembered.

“Lives were ruined. Reputations were shattered. Jobs were lost. Families were broken up. Edmonton needs to be able to reconcile its past.”

“I’m in mourning right now for the lives they could have led, the contributions they could’ve made to Edmonton society that they never got to make because their dignity was assaulted in such a demeaning and pointless way.”

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In 2019, Edmonton police chief Dale McFee issued an apology to Edmonton’s LGBTQ community for actions that included the 1981 raid.

Read more: ‘Our actions caused pain’: Edmonton police chief apologizes to LGBTQ2 community on behalf of EPS

“To the members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and two-spirit community — both across our public and within our service — on behalf of the Edmonton Police Service, I am sorry and we are sorry,” said McFee in the May 2019 apology.

“Our actions caused pain. They eroded trust. They created fear.”

Phair says a lot has changed in the last 40 years. For that, he is grateful. But he vows to keep talking about every detail of those painful moments that are forever etched into his memory.

He feels he has to.

“It reminds one of the authority and power of a police force,” says Phair.

“It’s important it not disappear. I don’t want anyone to have to live though it again. Once for a group is quite enough.”

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