Striking Back at the Bay in 1964

After World War II there was an ongoing domestic battle in Canada between gay men and the nation’s department stores that lasted for decades. The issue was public sex in department store washrooms. All across the country men seeking sexual contacts would meet up in little used washrooms while the nation’s shoppers went about their daily business.

Academics have written about the public washroom phenomenon extensively. Lavatories are a popular site among men seeking sex from each other: they are easy to get into and out of; their recognition as a site for sex is known and shared mainly by those who participate; and there is some assumption of privacy and concealment in regular washroom business, making other behaviour seem less noticeable.

Calgary was typical in this regard, and downtown department stores such as Eaton’s, Hudson’s Bay, and the store-linking Devonian Gardens all had men’s washrooms well known to frustrated facility operators and authorities. Police stings and/or entrapment were a definite threat and there was a societal culture of intimidation to try to prevent these acts. Men found in a washroom engaged in unsavoury business would be arrested on the charge of gross indecency. Often their name, occupation and home address would be published in the daily newspapers the next day. In the mid-20th Century this kind of public outing and ostracization was life altering, and in some cases ended in suicide.

In 1964, on Clarence John Young, a former Bay employee and washroom found-in, fought back, with his own lawsuit (see the attached article).

Calgary Herald March 7, 1964 p. 26

Calgary Herald, March 7, 1964, pg. 26.

We do not know how the lawsuit ended, but the article certainly gives us the tenor of the times. {Thanks to our colleague, historian Harry Saunders, who ran across this article and forwarded it to us}.

Intimidation as a tactic was not confined to the 50s and 60s. In 1980, one Calgary downtown department store operator, posted this notice on the men’s washroom, which viewed today is shocking.

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 2.23.52 PM

In today’s world, with both the internet and gay hook up phone apps like GrindR and Scruff, men who have sex with men have never had it easier to connect. However, we are fully confident that public washrooms, particularly in downtown Calgary, still get their fair share of all kinds of business.

{KA}

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