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'There is this blemish': Man charged in bathhouse raid calls expungement move lacking

By The Canadian Press

Published 10:54 PST, Fri March 10, 2023

Ron Rosenes remembers Toronto police officers knocking on the door of his room at a downtown bathhouse on Feb. 5, 1981, during co-ordinated raids that targeted four gay clubs in the city that night.

Officers arrested and charged Rosenes and almost 300 other men with being in "a common bawdy house" as part of Operation Soap, which was among the largest mass police raids in Canadian history. 

"It was the first time in my life when the state or the police arm of the state confronted me and charged me with doing something in a space that I believed to have been a safe place for gay men to gather," Rosenes said in a phone interview.

"There is this blemish, if you will, on my life, and in police records, for a crime that for which I was unjustly charged."

The federal government announced this week that it would expunge the records of those arrested over several so-called "indecency" offences, particularly charges largely directed at the LGBTQ community and women.  But Rosenes said the move falls short and may not apply to him. 

Rosenes and a historian said in the past, gay men were systematically accused of accepting money in exchange for sex – even when there was no evidence to support the allegation – leaving them with charges related to commercial sex work that aren't covered by the government's recent announcement.

The night of his arrest, Rosenes, now 75, said he was in his room alone.

Police "knocked very loudly on the door and told me to get dressed and come to the front, and then they shoved us around a little bit, called us by nasty epithets," he said. 

He was later convicted at a Toronto court over being found in a bawdy house and was ordered to pay a small fine. 

While he was spared a permanent criminal record, files related to his arrest and conviction remain with Toronto police and courts.  

"There's a matter of principle here," said Rosenes, who is a 2014 recipient of the Order of Canada for his advocacy on behalf of people living with HIV.

In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to LGBTQ Canadians in a speech at the House of Commons and promised to pass a law to allow people and family members to apply to the Parole Board to have their criminal records cleared of offences that affected their community.

The Expungement of Historically Unjust Convictions Act was passed in 2018 to allow Canadians who were previously convicted of consensual sexual activity with same-sex partners to apply for their criminal records to be permanently destroyed.

A copy of Rosenes's arrest record shared with The Canadian Press alleges that undercover police observed the Romans bawdy house on Bay Street for six months before the raid and collected evidence of "indecency."

Police also allege in the document that male prostitutes offered undercover officers sex for a fee. 

"When they knocked on my door, I was alone in my room. Nor have I ever exchanged money for sex at a gay bathhouse," Rosenes said.

Tom Hooper, a professor in the department of equity studies at York University, said it was a standard practice among police officers to include allegations of prostitution in arrest documents after raids targeting bawdy houses. He said officers included such allegations without having any evidence. 

"If you look at Ron's arrest record, it talks about not only acts of indecency, but also acts of prostitution," Hooper said. "So Ron cannot establish (the expungement) criteria here." 

Hooper said Ottawa should have consulted with members of the community and people to create a more comprehensive list of "unjust offences."

"They didn't talk to me, and I'm pretty sure they didn't talk to Ron before they did this change," he said. "Had they actually done that consultation, we would have been able to tell them that this change actually doesn't mean anything."

Public Safety Canada didn't respond immediately to a request for comment.   

Hooper said he joined a group of historians and advocates after the expungement law was proposed in Parliament in 2017 to call for expanding the list of eligible people. 

"It was leaving so many people out. It didn't include all of the criminal offences that were used to criminalize our communities," Hooper, a member of the LGBTQ community, said. 

Rosenes said he applied for expungement of his records after the law was passed in Parliament in 2018 but his request was denied.  

"We spent months and months before we could get our hands on the actual records of conviction," he said. "It was very challenging."

Hooper said more than 38 bathhouse raids occurred across Canada between 1968 and 2004, resulting in charges for more than 1,300 men.

Bathhouse raids in Toronto in 1981 sparked a massive protest movement in the streets, and bathhouse raids in Montreal in 1977 caused similar protests. There were similar raids in Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Hamilton.

– Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press 

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