THE BODY POLITIC October 1981, No. 77. Chris Bearchell p. 17.
Larry, a young gay man, was picked up by Vancouver police on the corner of Davie and Jervis one evening in late August. They handcuffed him, threw him into the back of an empty van and drove around the warehouse district with Larry bouncing around in the back until he was thoroughly bruised. He was locked up for the night, charged with indecent exposure.
Reports of police abuse and harassment of gay men have been drifting around North American urban gay ghettos for the last ten years. But Larry, and other young men and women like him gay and straight are members of another sexual minority. They survive by exchanging sex for money; they're hookers and hustlers.
Rob Joyce works as an employment counsellor at Senator House, a Vancouver social service project aimed at rehabilitating people like Larry and his friends on the streets. Joyce calls Larry's experience "commonplace." He speculates that police are frustrated in dealing with hookers and hustlers because, in most cases, they can't lay charges against them. So they resort to harassment instead. It's a story with a familiar ring to it in the gay community.
While there are many differences between gay people and prostitutes of whatever sexual orientation, they have a lot of common experiences with the law and its enforcers. An apparent increase in the practice of prosecuting victimless sex-related "crimes" invites a closer look at how and why gay people, prostitutes and related minorities are viewed and used by the police.
Such groups are certainly bolstering arrest statistics these days. And, it's easy to assume, police budgets. Prostitutes, homosexuals, swingers they don't enjoy a lot of public understanding or support. They're vulnerable targets for law-and-order clean-up campaigns that provide excellent public relations material for police forces and city governments.
Not only are the media marshalled to create a climate that favours increased police power to curb moral decay, but the arrest statistics can be used to lobby legislators.
And no doubt these things all have a good effect on force morale. The police have very practical reasons, in addition to any philosophical considerations they might offer, for constituting whole classes of people as criminals for who they are rather than what they do. It is not illegal, much as the police might like it to be, to be a homosexual, a swinger or a prostitute.
Until 1972, when it was repealed, the Vagrancy Act was used to prosecute hookers. Hustlers were subject to less control because the law specified that offenders were female. A woman was considered a vagrant "if she could not give a good account of herself."
Although it was not illegal to buy or sell sex, the police, in their war on prostitution, could still use anti-solicitation sections of the Criminal Code which prohibit offering to buy or sell sex.
In 1978, the anti-soliciation laws were refined by the Supreme Court of Canada so that soliciting had to be "pressing and persistent" to be illegal. This made it all the more difficult for police to prosecute prostitutes before 1978 in Montreal, for example, police laid upwards of 500 prostitution-related charges a year. In 1979, the Montreal police made only 66 such arrests.
With the bawdyhouse laws, police have hit upon a formula that works for gay men, hookers and swingers. And they're using it extensively, quite possibly to create the sense that the law is being enforced impartially. It is affecting hundreds of individuals in dozens of cities. In many of these cases, people were charged with acts of indecency as well as for prostitution-related offences. That's the same part of the bawdyhouse law that has been used in raids on gay baths in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Edmonton.
The fact that bawdyhouse laws forbid not only prostitution but (undefined) indecent acts creates confusion that the police and media have exploited. For example, the headline that appeared on the Toronto Sun's first story about Toronto's recent bath raids asked, "Gay raids sparked by boys-for-hire ring?" No prostitution charges have ever been laid in connection with the February raids, but the impression that there is a connection works to isolate gays and prostitutes both from each other and from the wider community.
The police try to use their statistics and sensationlized reports like the Sun's to help tailor legislation to their liking.
In July 1967 the Globe and Mail quoted the statement of a senior officer of the Toronto police force: "police don't agree with recent legislation in Britain making homosexual acts in private no longer an offence. Much crime in Metro can be traced to sexual deviation," the officer said, noting that "four deviates (three men and a woman) have been murdered here in the last year."
Later that year, in December, the Toronto Star quoted former Calgary Police Chief Ken McIver as criticizing the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code of Canada (legalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults in private) because it "would represent a decay in society." McIver described homosexual practice as "a horrible, vicious and terrible thing."
In September 1968, the annual convention of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) "took a firm stand against easing the law regarding homosexuality on the grounds that it leads to depravity, blackmail, robbery and murder.
The CACP met in June 1980, under the presidency of former Vancouver police chief Don Winterton. Winterton and Toronto's Jack Ackroyd, who was then Chairman of the CACP's Law Amendments Committee, told the Star "police chiefs want the federal government to introduce legislation that would empower police to charge women found soliciting men in public places." The same convention decided to fight to retain gross indecency laws.
Not content to operate politically at the federal level, police have prevailed upon local governments in at least two Canadian cities to enact bylaws designed to curb prostitution. A law was passed in Montreal in May 1980 which prohibits "remaining in a public place for the purposes of prostitution or to approach another person for the same purposes in such places." The Montreal Gazette editorialized, "It still leaves it to police officers to decide whether or not a person is 'in a public place for the purpose of prostitution.' The Supreme Court ruled that solicitation for prostitution must be 'pressing and persistent' to be an offence. The city should stop trying to circumvent that ruling by tinkering with its own anti-prostitution bylaw. It should simply enforce the law against harassment, whether by prostitutes or by men who bother women."
Calgary passed its bylaw in June 1981 prohibiting use of the public streets "by those approaching or being approached by others for the purpose of prostitution." The Vancouver Sun, also referring to the 1978 Supreme Court decision, described Calgary's action as passing "an ordinance denying to a class of people who have broken no laws the right to be in a public place, the right to freedom of assembly, and the right to equality before the law."
"It does not matter much," they went on to say, "what class of people they are, because if such a prohibition can be applied to prostitutes who are not actually breaking the law, it can be applied just as easily to any other law-abiding citizens whose habits and behaviour do not meet with the approval of the council of the day."
According to the Globe and Mail, since the Calgary bylaw was passed, 31 women and 10 men have been charged.
Harry Midgely, president of the Alberta Human Rights and Civil Liberties Association, described Montreal's and Calgary's bylaws as "a fairly easy, cheap way for city council to restore their standing with the public by coming down on morality." He added that "long experience suggests none of these remedies achieves anything. They only increase opportunities for officials and police to restrict the activities of private citizens. It is a regrettable trend."
It's clear why Toronto's Right to Privacy Committee (defenders of the accused in the bath raids) has decided to call for the repeal of the bawdyhouse law in its entirety, not just the section referring to "indecent acts."