40 years later, Edmonton's queer community looks back on the Pisces bathhouse raid

·3 min read
In 1981, 50 police officers raided the Pisces Health Spa, a bathhouse in downtown Edmonton. (CBC - image credit)
In 1981, 50 police officers raided the Pisces Health Spa, a bathhouse in downtown Edmonton. (CBC - image credit)

Forty years ago, Edmonton police raided the Pisces bathhouse in an incident that has left enduring aftershocks to the city's queer community but also prompted it to wake up, says a former city councillor and LGBTQ2S+ advocate.

"[The raid] did two things: one, it made many people, including myself, realize that staying under the radar wasn't good enough ... and that probably was not a good thing to do in the first place," said Michael Phair, who was one of 56 men arrested in the early morning hours of May 30, 1981.

"The other, was that because it was such big news and widespread for a number of days and early weeks ... I think in the public mind, all of a sudden there was a realization that there were gay and lesbian people living in Edmonton."

That frightening night

Phair recalls the lights going up, the noise of more than 50 officers running through the halls and cameras.

"One of the officers stopped in the TV room, there were myself and a couple of other folks [there] and said, 'This is a raid, don't move, don't go anywhere,'" he said.

"Most of us were quite frightened, including myself."

Before the raids, police had been conducting surveillance on the entrance and exit of the Pisces Health Spa, which was located on the corner of 109th Street and 105th Avenue.

Police rounded up everyone in the building and photographed them while prosecutors wrote up charges, Phair said. Then people were loaded into police vans and transported to a courthouse.

After a long, exhausting night, Phair was eventually released with his court date.

Phair fought his charge and won. He said it was important because he knew the impact a criminal record could have on his future.

Michael Phair stands at the intersection where the Pisces once stood.
Michael Phair stands at the intersection where the Pisces once stood.(Radio-Canada)

He said that he and many others found it surprising that the police would spend five months conducting surveillance and then carry out a raid in which no evidence of alcohol, drug use, or sex work was found.

The only charge any of the detainees ever faced was that they were found in the establishment.

Media responsibility

Ron Byers, a queer historian in Edmonton, was working as a bartender at the gay bar Flashback on the night of the raid. He had planned to go over Pisces — where he also worked one night a week — with friends after his shift to celebrate a birthday.

One person in the party arrived at Pisces early, only to find it had been raided.

"They just did this raid in such a totally different manner from what they had done in previous raids in massage parlours, other common bawdy houses in the city, which were more straight-oriented," Byers said.

Byers said the media bears some responsibility for how the raids played out in the public's mind.

The stories that were published, which included details and names of those who were arrested that night, escalated the story into something it wasn't.

Ron Byers worked at the Pisces one night a week in 1981. He was not on the premises when the raid took place.
Ron Byers worked at the Pisces one night a week in 1981. He was not on the premises when the raid took place.(Radio-Canada)

"They may be allies now, or consider themselves allies now, but these definitely weren't the actions of an editorial decision who would have been allies at that time," he said.

"It caused a lot of trauma to people too. There was a lot of people that were in that raid that really kind of went back in their closet because their name was out there. It was printed in the Journal. Their job was at stake. Their friends were at stake. Their family was at stake."

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